Angel on Earth (by Kenda)

Summary:  A troubled Heath finds the answers he is seeking in an unlikely place.
Category:  The Big Valley, Touched by an Angel
Genre:  Crossover
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  119,320


Part 1

Prologue

The two women sat atop their horses on a distant hill that rose high above the surrounding ground. Using the tip of one finger Monica nudged the brim of her cowboy hat further back on her forehead. Even here, on California’s range, her Irish brogue came through loud and clear.

“I feel just like John Wayne, Tess.”

The plump black woman eyed her friend. “John Wayne?”

“Oh yes.” The young angel swung her right arm in a circle high above her head as though she was getting ready to toss a rope. “I can see the doggies right in front of me.”

“Doggies?”

“Calves, Tess. Little cows. Wee ones that need to be returned to the herd.”

“I know what doggies are, Angel Girl. And would you put your arm down. You look like Phil Jackson signaling Michael Jordan to make a basket.”

“Now that was a fun assignment.”

“By virtue of the fact that it didn’t involve me sittin’ my big old butt on a horse, I’d have to agree.”

“Aw, Tess, what’s wrong? Don’t you like Noah?”

“I like Noah just fine. It’s this horse I’m not too fond of.”

“Tess, that’s your horse’s name. Noah.”

“Oh. Well,…I suppose that makes sense since the Noah I’m acquainted with does have a soft spot for animals. But I’d sure like to get a hold of the man who first decided these creatures made for good transportation, ‘cause to tell you the truth, Angel Girl, this here horse ain’t near as comfortable as those plush leather seats in my red convertible.”

“Then why aren’t we using it?”

“Because we’ve gone back in time, child. Mr. Ford hasn’t invented the automobile yet, which explains our current means of travel.”

“How exciting. Am I going to ride the range? Be a rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl? Maybe tour with a Wild West show?”

“None of the above. Your role is to guide another angel through his first assignment.”

“Really? Who?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been told all the details yet. But there,” Tess pointed to a flat piece of ground far below them, “there goes the young man who will become the focus of our work.”

“He’s a cowboy.”

“He surely is.”

“And a handsome one at that; riding a fine horse and wearing a beautiful coat. The sign of a man who spares no expense.”

“Don’t let looks deceive you, Angel Girl. This one had a humble beginning and he’s never forgotten where he came from. He has no doubts that if all he now possesses was taken from him tomorrow, he wouldn’t suffer for a moment provided he still has his family by his side.”

“He sounds like a man who knows what really matters in this world. Why does he need us?”

“Although Heath Barkley,….”

“Is that his name?”

“Yes.”

“Heath Barkley. Ah, a strong name of the Scottish highlands it is. And because of that I’d venture to say he’s a strong man.”

“If by a strong man you mean Mr. Barkley has lived through his fair share of trials and come out a victor, you’re correct, Angel Girl. But this time,…well this time,..”

Seemingly from nowhere another rider joined the pair. Monica turned in the saddle to greet her blond colleague.

“Andrew, what are you doing here?”

The Angel Of Death shrugged his shoulders. “God will reveal that to all of us in due time, Monica, including me. However; I’ve been told I’ll be assisting many people in making the final journey into their Father’s loving arms.”

“Including Heath Barkley?”

The handsome angel nodded as he looked at the lone rider below. “Yes. Including Heath Barkley.”

*****

Chapter 1

Heath’s horse trotted underneath him. According to the calendar it was early spring, but patches of snow still clung to the ground. The cowboy used the reins to guide the animal around the slick spots that remained from the icy rain that had fallen a week ago. The slate gray sky was flat and lifeless, belaying any signs of green grass and tree buds. A chilly wind blew across the desolate hillside making it feel more like January than April.

Heath used one gloved hand to pull his fur-lined collar closer around his neck. The expensive sheepskin coat had been a Christmas present from the woman he now called mother. Three years had passed since he’d first come to live with his father’s family. He thought back to the bitter, angry man he’d been when he’d arrived. and how a tiny, regal lady had changed him.

Victoria Barkley didn’t have to accept him. After all, Heath was the product of her husband’s extramarital affair. Granted, by virtue of that Victoria’s sons and daughter were Heath’s half-siblings, but when he’d come to the Barkley ranch that day in January of 1876 it hadn’t been with the intention of forming a bond with this family he didn’t know. Heath was ashamed now, to acknowledge he’d come to claim what was his. He’d grown up poor, the illegitimate child of a young woman who had worked hard all her short life to provide for him and raise him right. His mother, Leah Thomson, had been beautiful woman. A woman who could have gone far in this world had she not given birth out of wedlock and then been forced to make a living for herself and her child in a small town that offered few prospects to a person of her position. Ironically enough, Leah and Victoria shared an identical build and similar features.

It was Victoria who stopped Heath from leaving three years earlier. After all the uproar with the railroad was over Nick handed him a bank draft for more money than he’d ever seen in his life. Heath would have ridden away that day with that draft in his pocket and never seen his siblings again had it not been for Victoria’s challenge. He was headed for the door when she appeared seemingly out of nowhere and spoke in a quiet tone of steel.

“You’re angry with your father, young man, and I don’t blame you. I’m angry with him, too. But it will do neither of us any good to harbor ill-will against a man who is incapable of defending himself. If Tom were alive, perhaps he’d have an explanation for us, but he’s dead and it’s quite possible we’ll never have any answers. We both have to learn to live with that fact, Heath.”

Heath turned around and stared at the woman across the wide foyer.

When he’d arrived at the ranch five days earlier he’d never given Tom Barkley’s widow a thought. Never considered what his appearance would do to a woman who had assumed her husband had been faithful to her throughout twenty-eight years of marriage. Ever since Heath had come to discover who his father was he’d felt only hate for the wealthy rancher. He’d never thought further as to what the news of his existence would do to the wife and children Tom Barkley had left behind.

The blond man saw the hurt in Victoria’s eyes that day. But he also saw an inner strength not unlike the strength he’d seen in his own mother’s eyes when he was a child.

“The only way you can really get to know your father now is by getting to know Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Eugene. By getting to know your brothers and sister.”

Heath didn’t reply, not certain what it was the woman was proposing.

She saw his confusion and gave him a soft smile. “You can stay here, Heath. For as long as you’d like. Whether it be a day, a week, a year,.. or for much longer than that, you owe this to yourself. I sense the hatred that’s inside you slices deep into your heart. Let the boys and Audra help you see another side of the man who is father to all of you.”

Heath stood in that foyer unable to move. Staying at the Barkley ranch had been the last thing on his mind. He hadn’t been in residence a week, yet he and Nick already had a strong dislike for one another. Nick made it no secret he was anxious to see Heath go. The blond man wasn’t sure how the rest of his siblings felt, but if nothing else Heath knew they were shocked and hurt, and blamed him for the desecration of their father’s memory no matter how true his story might be.

Victoria seemed able to read his thoughts. Or maybe he was more like his half-brothers than he knew, meaning she could discern the fleeting emotions on his face.

“It won’t be easy, I can promise you that. Tom was a well-respected man in this valley. There will be many people who doubt your word. Doubt that you are who you say you are. But myself, I’ve never worried about what other people say, and after the hard life you’ve been forced to live I’m willing to bet you don’t put much stock in the gossip of others either. As far as your brothers and sister go,” Victoria shrugged her shoulders, “it will take time for them to accept you. Maybe they never will. Or maybe you’ll never come to accept them.”

After a long pause Heath spoke for the first time. “Jarrod, Audra, and Eugene,…I guess I could give it a try with them. But Nick,…well Nick and I haven’t exactly hit it off.”

Heath thought he saw a twinkle in Victoria’s eyes as a slight smile danced around her lips. “You hate each other.”

Heath nodded, hiding his own smile. “That’s pretty much the size of it.”

Victoria raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps the two of you are more alike than you know.”
“Ma’am?”

“You both have the Barkley temper.”

Heath had no answer for the woman, but then he got the impression she didn’t expect one.

“So what will it be?”

Heath thought a long moment before replying. He hadn’t admitted fear to anyone, not even himself, since he was a child. Not when he was eight and worked far beneath the earth in Strawberry’s mines, not when he was sixteen and left home for places unknown, not when he was seventeen and fighting Reb soldiers, nor when he spent eight months in atrocious conditions in a POW camp, nor when he was scouting Apaches for a wagon train, or was the deputy sheriff in the town of Jubilee. But in truth what Victoria Barkley was proposing to him was scarier than all those other things combined. He already felt so out of place. How would he ever fit in with the brothers and sister who had grown up with everything he’d grown up without? Would they go on resenting him for hurting their mother and soiling their father’s name, or would they slowly get to know him? And even if they did get to know each other, would they come to like him, and him them? Maybe it would be easier to just leave. After all, he did get what he came for, the portion of Tom Barkley’s wealth that was his birthright.

And that’s when his mother’s face came to mind. Leah Thomson had always been so brave and strong no matter how difficult things became. She’d never run from anything. Not even the narrow-minded attitudes of a small town, nor the malicious gossip she was the focal point of because she’d birthed an illegitimate child and then kept him, as opposed to sending him off to an orphanage when he was no more than hours old. Heath knew his mother would be ashamed of him if she saw how he’d conducted himself the last five days. She’d remind him that she’d raised him better than that. That she hadn’t raised him to hurt good people. To hurt people who had nothing to do with his pain. And she’d remind him that above all else, she’d always taught him to be an honorable man and to never feel sorry for himself. Because his mother taught him all those lessons, Heath was well aware of what she’d want him to do now.

“I,…I guess I’ll stay on a while. If that’s okay with you.”

“I wouldn’t have asked you to if it wasn’t.”

Heath nodded and turned toward the door. He was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. All he wanted to do was lie down on his bunk in the ten-man bunk house where he’d been put up the first day he’d ridden onto the property under the guise of ranch hand.

“Where are you going?” Victoria asked.

“To the bunkhouse.”
“Good idea. Get your things together, then come back here. I’ll be waiting.”

“Ma’am?”

“And please quit calling me ma’am. It makes me feel like an old woman. You may call me Victoria if you’d like.”

“Ummm,…thank you. But why do you want me to come back in here with my stuff?”
“Because I need to show you to your room. And you look tired. Nicholas has been working you like a dog ever since you arrived. Perhaps you’d like to take a nap before dinner.”

If Heath was understanding the woman correctly she was proposing that he sleep in her home and share dinner with her family. The thought of it unnerved him.

“No,…I’ll,…I’ll just stay with the other men. I,…”

Victoria’s voice held no room for argument. “Heath, your Tom’s son just like Jarrod, Nick, and Eugene are his sons. For as long as you choose to stay on the ranch then this house is just as much yours as it is theirs. Now please get your things so you have a chance to rest before dinner.”

Heath hesitated, then finally nodded his consent. If he was going to become a part of his new family perhaps plunging right in was the only way. He didn’t say a word when he took the bank draft out of his pocket and handed it to Victoria, nor did he see the smile on her face when he walked away from her that afternoon, but he felt it.

That same smile had been bestowed on Heath many times during the intervening years. It held the same amount of warmth and love when given to him as it did when it was given to his half-siblings. Heath still found it remarkable that this woman, who had every reason to hate him, had grown to love him as much as she did her own children and never hesitated to call him son.

Heath coaxed his horse up the steep hill. At the top he would come to a road. From there the forty additional miles he needed to travel to reach home could be covered at a faster pace. The tools in his saddlebags clanged together. He’d been gone from the ranch house for three weeks. With spring came the opportunity to pasture the cattle farther from the main buildings. They needed new grass and alfalfa to grow fat for the fall market. Since November they’d been kept in the pastures close to home so they could seek shelter from the snows and rains of winter in the many lean-to buildings the Barkleys had scattered about. Plus the closer the animals were to the ranch the easier it was to feed and water them should the winter be so harsh that the ground was covered with snow and the running streams covered with ice.

Each spring, before the cattle were turned out to roam as far from the main ranch as they desired, someone had to check the fence lines on all the boundaries to make certain they were in good condition. It was a lonely job, and often a cold one if the warm winds of March were slow in coming as they were this year. Nick and Heath had drawn straws for the job, and for the second year in a row Heath lost. He wasn’t so certain Nick hadn’t rigged the game somehow, but after some good-natured teasing thrown his older brother’s way Heath packed his bedroll, accepted the food Silas readied for him, and loaded his saddle bags with the necessary equipment. Heath Barkley had never been afraid of work, and while sleeping outside for three weeks during the fussy month of April might be considered a hardship by some, Heath considered it a Sunday picnic when compared to the time he’d spent in Carterson Prison during the war.

Heath thought of his family and how much he missed them as he softly plunked the heels of his boots into his horse’s sides. It was amusing, in an ironic sort of way, that he was lonely for the very people he had been so belligerent to when he first arrived. But Jarrod had grown to be a trusted advisor and respected friend. At eight years older than Heath, Jarrod was the kind of big brother Heath had dreamed of having as a little boy.

Audra, well once Audra had forgiven Heath for the upset he’d caused they’d quickly formed a bond that wasn’t easily penetrated. Heath wasn’t really sure why that was so. In large part he attributed it to Audra’s kind heart. The young woman couldn’t stand to see another person treated like an outcast, and Lord knows Heath had spent much of his life playing that role. With five years separating them he and Audra were closer in age than she was to either Jarrod or Nick, who were thirteen and nine years her senior, so maybe that had something to do with their bond as well. All Heath knew for certain was that somewhere along the line he and Audra had become companions who enjoyed a nightly game of cards or checkers, or a long horseback ride on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Eugene he wasn’t as close to as he was the rest of his siblings, but not because of any discord that existed between them. Gene had been a college student back when Heath first arrived, so other than summer break and two weeks at Christmas time Heath rarely saw him. After Gene graduated from Berkeley with a degree in animal husbandry, he’d accepted a position at a university in England where he’d brought his knowledge of veterinary medicine and American ranching techniques to the British. He had a great love for the British Isles and last August he’d married the daughter of one of his English colleagues. In truth the family doubted the young man would ever live in the States again, which was why Victoria and Audra were making plans for an annual voyage abroad.

Heath had to shake his head and smile when he thought of Nick. Victoria Barkley had been right about the temper the two men shared, though Nick was quicker to anger than Heath, and was the one who more often than not went off ‘half-cocked’ as Jarrod liked to say. God knows the two of them, Nick and Heath, had butted heads like a couple of stubborn rams throughout the first year Heath was with the family. But on the other hand, within a few days of Victoria having extended her invitation to Heath, it became apparent Nick was not going to allow anyone to speak ill of him. How many fist fights Nick got into on his behalf Heath didn’t know, but by the end of that first year they’d grown to be best friends. They still butted heads occasionally, and every so often got into a good old-fashioned shouting match, but despite all that they worked side by side each day to run the ranch. Because of that work, and through it their constant contact, their friendship had come to be so strong that an outsider would have assumed they’d grown up together just like most brothers do. If Heath had ever told any of those outside observers how young his relationship with Nick really was, or told about its rocky start, they never would have believed him.

Heath felt the ground level out beneath him as Charger crested the hill. The dirt road now lay before them. He looked up at the sky, but without the sun it was hard to tell what time it was. He pulled his watch out of his coat pocket and flicked the button that would allow the cover to pop up. Three-thirty. With the cloud cover as it was he would roughly have two more hours of light by which to travel by. He’d go a little farther, then rest his horse for a few minutes. Now that he was on the final leg of his journey he was anxious to make it home. If the weather held and he wasn’t pelted by any rain or snow he should arrive at the ranch within forty-eight hours.

The blond man looked up the road. A wagon was pulled over to the side, a man crouched beside its back wheel.

“So much for gettin’ home within the next couple of days,” Heath muttered. He urged Charger forward causing the animal to break into a cross between a trot and a run. When they came alongside the wagon Heath pulled back on the reins.

“Howdy. Need some help?”
The man looked up, the brim of his hat shading a weathered face.

“Only if you got a miracle in them saddlebags, mister.”

Heath swung off his horse and looped the reins around one of the wagon’s wooden slats. He smiled at the little girl sitting in the back of the wagon amidst boxes of groceries and supplies, then tipped his hat to the woman perched on the wagon’s seat cradling a well-wrapped infant in her arms.

“A miracle?” Heath questioned, crouching beside the man.

“The axle broke. Slipped right outta the wheel there, see. I got some wood amongst the supplies I bought in town today, but my tools are at home and that’s four miles away. I can’t hardly leave my wife and children here by themselves, it’ll be dark fore I get back. But my Caroline’s sick with a bad cold. I hate to make her walk that far.”

The little girl with the blond braids, whom Heath estimated to be seven years old, coughed into her hands. “I’m okay, Papa. Really I am. I can walk if I have to.”

Heath smiled at the child with the bright blue eyes. He reached out a hand and tweaked her nose. “Well, Miss Caroline, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. I do believe this is your lucky day.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Heath undid the leather strap on one of his saddlebags while talking to Caroline’s father. “I’ve been riding the range fixing fence line. I’ve got about every tool in these two saddle bags a man can think of. If you’ll grab the wood you said you have we can get to work.”

“Well, thank you, Sir,” the man said. “That’s mighty kind of you.”

“No need to thank me. Nor to call me sir. The name’s Heath Barkley.”

The man held out a hand to Heath. “Will. Will Atkins.”

While Mr. Atkins got the wood he needed Heath pulled his gloves off and tucked them underneath his saddle. He reached in the saddlebags and pulled out a hammer, chisel, and nails. He then dipped deep in a coat pocket and came up with two squares of chocolate wrapped in gold paper. He held the candy out to Caroline.

“Here, Miss Caroline. I told you it was your lucky day.”

“For me?” The little girl scooted across the wagon floor on her knees.

“Yep, for you. My little sister, who’s almost as pretty as you, slipped those in my pocket when I left home three weeks ago. She knows how much I love chocolate.”

“It’s chocolate?” The youngster marveled. “Real chocolate?”

Heath knew just how the child felt. When he was a boy real chocolate was a treat he rarely experienced. His mother couldn’t afford such luxuries. The penny candies he occasionally received were of the hard variety like peppermints or butter rums. When Audra had found that out, and found out what a passion he had for chocolate, she never ceased to take the opportunity to surprise him with a pocketful of Godiva’s imported all the way from New York City.

“Oh, Mr. Barkley, please take those back,” Mrs. Atkins said. “Caroline doesn’t need them. Chocolate is so expensive. They’re yours.”

“No, no. I’ve had my fill. If I eat any more of it my sister will have to sew me a new pair of pants.” Heath winked at Caroline. “And if you’ve ever seen the result of Audra’s sewing you’d know I’d end up with a pair of pants that has three legs.”

The child giggled, then coughed until she was red in the face. When the tight, unproductive spasm passed she turned to her mother. “Please, Ma, can I eat one piece now?”

“Well, if Mr. Barkley insists that you have it then yes, you may eat one piece now. But give me the other one and we’ll save it for your after supper treat.” The child handed her mother one piece of candy then carefully unwrapped the other. She folded the gold paper and tucked it in her coat pocket. It was so pretty. Maybe she’d find something to wrap with it someday. A present of some sort for her baby brother, Clint William. Caroline took small licks of the solid square of milk chocolate, making it last as long as she could.

Within thirty minutes Heath and Will had the wagon fixed. Heath turned to put his tools away.

“That should do you, Mr. Atkins. I wouldn’t take this wagon too far from home until you’ve had a chance to put a new axle in there, but I think it’ll hold for now.”

“Thank you, Mr. Barkley. I appreciate your help. And I’m sorry about delaying you.”

“No problem there. My horse needed the rest anyway. I’ll ride along with you until you turn off for home.”

“Would you come for supper, Mr. Barkley?” Mrs. Atkins called down from her perch. “It won’t be anything fancy, but I left some stew simmering over the coals before we set out for Laton this morning.”

Heath knew Laton was a town of about four hundred people three miles behind them and over the next ridge. It had been years since he’d been there, and though he could have rented a room at the Laton Hotel and ridden out each morning to do the necessary work on the fences, he’d chosen not to simply because it added extra miles to each day’s journey.

“No, thank you, Ma’am. I’d like to press on. I’m hoping to be home within the next couple days.”

“I understand.” The woman turned, careful not to jostle the sleeping baby boy she was still holding. “Caroline, thank Mr. Barkley for his help and for the chocolate.”

The little girl got on her knees and scooted to the wagon’s side once again. She wrapped her arms around Heath’s neck and gave him a cold kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, Mr. Barkley.” She turned her head away and coughed into her bare hands. When she could speak again she added, “The candy was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever tasted.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Miss Caroline.”
The child ran her hands over the warm fur of Heath’s coat collar and then down the soft tan hide of the sleeves. “Oooh, it’s so beautiful and soft. Where’d you get it?”
“My mother gave it to me for Christmas.”

“Wow! Both the chocolates and this pretty coat. Your family must love you a lot, Mr. Barkley.”

Heath laughed. “Well now, Miss Caroline, I guess they do at that.”

Heath gently tugged on one braid, then untied Charger from the wagon. He swung himself up in the saddle and rode alongside the family until they parted ways with him two and a half miles down the road.

“We’ll be fine from here, Mr. Barkley,” Will assured. “Even if I do have trouble now we’re within a quarter mile of home. Caroline can ride on my back if need be.”

Heath nodded and said a final goodbye. With a wave and wink to Caroline he kicked his horse in the sides and headed off at a trot.

The little girl watched until Heath was out of sight. She curled up in the straw her papa had put in the wagon’s bed that morning for her comfort, and wrapped her coat closer to her body.

“Ma, I don’t feel good.”

Mrs. Atkins glanced over her shoulder. “The chocolate Mr. Barkley gave you must be churning in your tummy.”

“No, my tummy’s fine. I’m hot and cold both at the same time and my chest hurts.”

Ellen Atkins twisted in her seat and laid a hand on her daughter’s forehead. She turned to her husband. “Will, she’s hot. Really hot.”
Will swatted the horses with the reins. “I’ll hurry us on home so you can get some stew in her and get her to bed.” He glanced at his wife’s pinched features. “Now don’t be frettin’ so. She just has a cold.”

Ellen smiled down at her little girl. The child’s face was suddenly flushed and her eyes overly bright. She hoped to God her husband was right. She hoped all Caroline had was a cold. Just a good old-fashioned cold.

*****

No one was around when Heath stalled his horse at ten o’clock on Monday night. That didn’t surprise him, by this time most of the ranch hands were done for the day. About the only people you found in the big barn this late was either him or Nick.

The blond man stretched, putting a hand to the small of his back. It had been a long time since he’d spent three weeks in the saddle. He relieved his horse of the burdens of saddle, blanket, saddlebags, and rifle sheath, then led the gelding to his stall. He brushed the animal down before filling his feed pan and water trough.

“There you go, Charger,” Heath rubbed the bay’s nose. “You look like you’re comfortable for the night meaning I can now get comfortable for the night.”

The house was dark when Heath approached with his rifle clutched loosely in his right hand, and his saddlebags slung over his left shoulder. He swore he’d seen lights on when he’d ridden up the lane a half hour earlier, but maybe everyone had gone to bed since then. They knew to expect him home sometime this week, but of course, they wouldn’t have been able to predict the exact day and time of his return.

Heath shut the big front door as quietly as he could. He knew the house well enough to make his way to the round table that sat to his left. He laid his rifle and saddlebags down, being careful not to knock over the vase of flowers residing in the center of the table.

The man wondered if there was any leftovers from dinner hiding somewhere in the kitchen. Hot food, a hot bath, and a warm bed all sounded so appealing he didn’t know which he wanted to seek out first.

Heath fished around in his coat pocket for a matchstick. Oil lamps were mounted on various spots of the walls, all he had to do was find one and then he’d have some light. He glanced toward the stairs that led to the bedrooms, but no lights came from above. Everyone must be asleep like he’d suspected.

The blond man was just about to strike his match when he felt two soft hands cover his eyes.

“Welcome home, sweetheart!”

Before Heath could turn around lamps were lit all around him. Jarrod stood in one corner of the parlor, Nick in another. Silas was in the foyer, having lit that lamp for the family.

The black man bustled off toward the kitchen. “I’ll get Mr. Heath’s dinner, Mrs. Barkley. And cake and coffee for everyone.”

Heath felt his brothers clap him on the back as his mother hugged him.

“Welcome home, Heath,” came Jarrod’s quiet voice from his left shoulder.

“Welcome home, little brother!” Nick boomed from his right. “And I’d better not find out you hightailed it to San Francisco instead of riding the range like you were supposed to be doing.”

Heath half turned from within the confines of Victoria’s arms. “Don’t you worry none along those lines. I was riding the range even though I’ve got a sneakin’’ suspicion it was you who was supposed to be doin’ that job.”

Me? Hey now, you lost fair and square.”

“Oh yeah,” Heath nodded. “I know first hand just how fair and square Nick Barkley can be.”

The teasing went on as Heath tried to disengage himself from Victoria’s grasp. “Mother, you don’t wanna do that. I’m in bad need of a bath. Your clothes are gonna smell like three weeks worth of trail dust.”

Heath felt the petite woman’s lips brush his cheek. “Oh, I don’t care what my clothes end up smelling like. I’m just so happy to see you. We’ve missed you so.”

Heath returned the kiss with one of his own. “I’ve missed all of you, too.”

From the dining room Silas called, “Mr. Heath’s supper is on the table!”

Nick looked at Jarrod and winked. “Come on, Jarrod. If we beat Heath there we can eat again.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Oh, you two, stop teasing your brother,” Victoria scolded the departing men. “Besides, after Heath’s eaten we’ll all have a slice of celebration cake.”
“Celebration cake?” Heath questioned. “What are we celebratin’?”

Audra slipped up behind Heath to give him a backward hug. “Your return. And it’s chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Your favorite. As a big welcome home from all of us.”

Heath moved so he could wrap his arms around both women. “Well I sure wasn’t expectin’ this. As a matter of fact I thought all of you had gone to bed.”

“That’s what we wanted you to think,” Audra smiled. “We’ve been watching for you since Sunday night. When Nick saw you ride up we waited until you went in the barn then blew out all the lamps.” The young woman put a hand in Heath’s coat pocket. “And speaking of chocolate did you find the surprises I sent along with you?”

“Every single one of them.” Heath kissed his sister’s temple in appreciation. “And I ate ’em all but the last two. Those I gave to a pretty little gal I ran across on the trail.”
Audra raised an eyebrow and looked across Heath’s body at her mother. “A pretty little gal, huh? And you had to give her my chocolates to convince her of your charm?”
Heath laughed. “No, not exactly. Miss Caroline Atkins was a little young for courtin’, Sis. She couldn’t have been more than six years old. Seven tops. Her family’s wagon had broken down. I stopped and helped her father repair it. Your chocolates made her day.”

“Then I’ll have to surprise you with more sometime soon. But for now we’d better get you in the dining room before Nick eats your supper, and polishes off that cake to boot.”

“Yes,” Victoria agreed. “We’d better do that. And while we’re eating I’ll have Silas draw you a hot bath and turn down your bed.”

Heath kissed the woman’s cheek. “You spoil me too much.”

Victoria squeezed the man’s arm. “None of my children can ever possibly be too spoiled by their mother.”

A warm feeling coursed through Heath’s insides at Victoria’s words and at the thought of this little party that had been put together in honor of his homecoming.

Caroline had been right. His family loved him a lot.

*****

Chapter 2

The weekend following Heath’s return spring was finally toying with the valley. The sun shone brightly and the temperatures warmed to a comfortable seventy degrees. The Barkley family attended services at the Congregational Church in Stockton just like they did every Sunday. Their Sunday family meal would be in the evening, a habit that had started long ago when the Jarrod and Nick had reached courting age and didn’t always want to return to the ranch with their parents after the service let out at noon.

Victoria said goodbye to her offspring on the church steps. Jarrod was going to put in a few hours at his office that afternoon while Audra was being squired to lunch by a handsome suitor. Exactly what Nick and Heath were doing Victoria didn’t know, but she imagined it involved the two young women with the big picnic basket she’d seen them walk off the church grounds with.

Garland Manner and his wife Opal stopped to talk to Victoria as the three of them awaited their turn to shake hands with the minister.

“I see you’re alone today, Victoria,” Garland said. “Perhaps you’d like to join Opal and me for dinner at our place.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I think I’ll go home and read a book I started the other day. It’s not often I have the house to myself. Besides, the children will start reappearing about five this afternoon. They know I expect all of them to be gathered around the table for Sunday supper promptly at six-thirty.”

The Manners’ nodded their understanding. They’d been among the group of young couples who’d come west from Philadelphia with Tom and Victoria. None of them had been over twenty-two back then, and none of them had children though several, like Victoria and Opal, had been in the early stages of pregnancy. Now those that were still alive were all pushing sixty or beyond, and as hard as it was for Victoria to believe all the offspring they’d beget were grown and many had offspring of their own.

“Did you hear about the outbreak of diphtheria over at Laton?” Opal asked.

“My goodness no. Diphtheria? Are you certain?”
“That’s what Doctor Sheridan was wired yesterday from the health department in San Francisco. The whole town’s been quarantined. No one’s allowed to enter or leave.”

Victoria moved ahead as the line progressed. “When did all this take place?”
“Just in the last few days I’m told.”

“Oh those poor people,” Victoria sympathized. She couldn’t help but say a silent prayer of thanks for the health of her own children. The last time a diphtheria epidemic went through Stockton the older boys were teenagers, Audra a little girl of four years old, and Eugene a toddler. She and Tom knew how fortunate they’d been. Their teenagers had been old enough and strong enough to withstand the hardships of the disease. It was only by the grace of God, and a plentiful supply of quinine, that Audra and Eugene survived. Others hadn’t been so lucky, many children had died that spring.

Victoria thought of Tommy, the son who had been her first born. He was so happy and healthy one day, then a cold and runny nose turned into the measles. He’d passed away just a year after they’d arrived in the valley, at the tender age of eight months. Victoria, a young mother of only nineteen years old and so far from her family, had never thought she’d get over the heartache. But ten months later Jarrod arrived and slowly but surely the pain of Tommy’s death receded, only to return at times like this when she was told of an epidemic that claimed the young or feeble.

Opal clutched her Bible to her chest and fiddled with the black lace gloves on her hands. “The information Doctor Sheridan received said this is a particularly strong strain. Brought on by all these cold rains we’ve been having some say. Anyway, even adults are being hit hard. Grown men are dying from it if you can believe that. They say no one is safe except for those who have had it before.”

Victoria nodded, thankful that she and her children would fall into the category of those who were immune to the disease. She’d had it as a child, as had most people she knew of.

“Well Laton’s fifty miles away,” Garland stated. “And if they’ve got the town under quarantine already then spread of the disease is unlikely. Now, ladies, let’s not mar our day of rest any further with unpleasant talk.”

Victoria didn’t bother to remind Garland that all it took was one traveler coming into contact with an infected person for the disease to spread far beyond Laton’s borders before anyone knew what was happening. Because of that knowledge she offered up a prayer for the people of Stockton. As she watched children frolic in the churchyard she hoped with all her heart the deadly disease didn’t work its way here.

*****

Two weeks later May was in full swing and so was the Barkley ranch. Heath and Nick worked fourteen hour days moving cattle to greener pastures. Victoria and Audra looked after the mares that were foaling while taking over chores such as cleaning stalls and keeping the tack room in order. Victoria Barkley might be a wealthy woman, but that wealth was born from years of sweat and toil. Even at this stage in her life it wasn’t beneath her to roll up her sleeves and pitch in when all the men were busy elsewhere.

The family didn’t see much of Jarrod during those weeks either. He was involved in a case that had him working long hours in his Stockton office. When the weekends came he shed his suit in favor of ranching attire and joined his younger brothers on the range.

Victoria feigned shock when she entered the dining room on a Friday morning.

“My goodness, are all these children mine?” She teased as she took in the two dark heads of Jarrod and Nick, and the two blond heads of Heath and Audra. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen all of you in one place at the same time that I’d forgotten how many of you there are.”

Jarrod smiled as he took a drink of hot coffee. His mother was right. They’d been coming and going at such odd hours lately that a meal together, regardless of what time of the day it was, had become a thing of the past. But this time of year that phenomenon wasn’t unusual. It would last well into the June branding season, then things would slow down a bit until roundup came in mid-August.

As soon as Victoria took her seat Silas appeared carrying a plate heaped high with scrambled eggs. He handed it to the family matriarch.

“Be careful with that, Mrs. Barkley. It’s hot. I’ll be back with the bacon and toast in a minute.”

“Thank you, Silas.”

Victoria scooped some eggs on her plate, then passed it to Audra who sat on her right. She looked to her left at Heath and Nick.

“What gives us the pleasure of having you two at the breakfast table this morning? The last few weeks you’ve both been up and gone before the rooster’s had a chance to crow.”

Nick answered his mother while Heath turned away to sneeze.

“We drove the last of the cattle out of the upper pastures yesterday afternoon. We’re ahead of schedule so we’ll start doing some branding today, but I figured the men needed to rest a bit considering the hours we’ve been keeping. I told everyone we’d meet at the east gate at eight-thirty.”

Nick took the platter of eggs Jarrod passed him and filled his plate. He held it out to his blond brother, but had to wait while Heath turned, covered his mouth and nose, and sneezed two more times.

“Heath,” Victoria questioned, “are you catching a cold?”

“No,” the man shook his head. He took the eggs from his brother and put some on his plate before setting the platter down in the middle of the table. “I think those wild flowers that are bloomin’ right now are botherin’ me. I must be allergic to them.”

Nick reached over, clapping his brother on the back. “That’s right, it’s just an allergy. No one gets to be sick this time of year. Not even the boss’s assistant.”

Heath’s tone was layered in heavy sarcasm. “Boss’s assistant, huh?” He covered his mouth and gave a harsh cough before he could continue. “I’ll keep that comment in mind the next time you try to sweet talk me into brushing Coco down so you can come in and eat supper while it’s still hot.”

“Nick,” Audra scolded, “you shouldn’t do that to Heath after you’ve both put in a long day.”

“Why do you always stick up for him? Why don’t you stick up for me

every so often?”

“Because you pull the same mean tricks on Heath that you used to pull on me when I was a little girl.”

Heath started to chuckle, but the sound ended in a coughing spasm. When he could talk again he said, “Don’t worry, Sis. I think I can handle mean old Nick here.”

“Why does everyone think I’m mean? People are always accusing me of that and I just don’t get it.”
“Well now, from a lawyer’s point of view let me explain a few things to you, Nicholas, old buddy. Perhaps if you didn’t rig games of chance, like drawing for straws for instance, you wouldn’t find yourself with fore said reputation.

“See,” Heath used his fork as a pointer, “I knew it. I knew it all along.”

“You knew what all along, smart guy? You didn’t know anything. If Mr. Big Mouth Lawyer at the end of the table there would have kept his trap shut you’d have never been the wiser.”

Silas came back with the toast and bacon while Victoria’s children were still engaged in their playful teasing. She didn’t attempt to put an end to their fun, as a matter of fact, it had been so long since they’d eaten a meal together she actually enjoyed listening to their bickering.

*****

When Saturday night came so did the weekly dance in Stockton. Jarrod and Nick stood at the bottom of the stairs waiting for Audra and Heath. Victoria looked on from the parlor.

“Well, well, well, but don’t my sons look handsome.”

Nick fiddled with the string tie at his neck. “We might look handsome, Mother,” he turned and yelled up the stairs, “but if Audra doesn’t get a move on no one else is likely to notice!”

“I’m coming! I’m coming!”

The young woman swept down the stairs in a sea of billowing pink taffeta. Her golden hair was off her shoulders, held against the back of her head by a large pearl clasp.

Jarrod kissed his sister’s cheek. “And you were worth the wait, sweetheart. No doubt Nick and I will have to police your every move tonight for fear of unwanted suitors throwing themselves at your feet.”

“You say that as if you don’t already police my every move each time we go to one of these dances.”

Nick gave his sister a kiss as well. “That’s the prerogative of being a big brother. And speaking of brothers, where’s Heath?” Nick looked up the stairway again and thundered, Heath! Heath, come on! We’re ready to go!”

“Nick, shush,” Audra placed a silencing hand against Nick’s mouth. “Heath’s asleep.”

“Asleep?” Nick glanced at the foyer’s Grandfather clock. “It’s only quarter after seven.”

“I know it, but he must be tired. I knocked on his door and when he didn’t answer I peeked my head in. He’s sprawled out on his bed sound asleep still wearing his boots and gun belt.”

Nick’s brows scrunched together in what his family recognized as a sign of concern. “Those allergies of his are really giving him a hard time. All he did today was sneeze and cough.”

Victoria looked up from her open book. “Has he complained about not feeling well?”

“No. Not to me he hasn’t.”

“No,” Jarrod echoed, “he hasn’t said a word to me either.”

Audra shook her head in reply to her mother’s question, then added, “But you know Heath, he never complains.”

Victoria silently acknowledged her daughter’s words. Even now, three years into Heath’s stay with them, Victoria wasn’t sure if Heath simply wasn’t a complainer by nature, or if he still felt the need not to inconvenience any of them. If he still felt he was indebted to Victoria and her children for taking him in. That thought often bothered the woman, but the few times she’d tried to discuss it with Heath he’d assured her it wasn’t so.

“Yes,” Victoria muttered, “you’re right, dear. Heath never complains, does he?” She shook herself out of her revere and smiled. “Well, you three go on without him. If he’s so tired he’s already sleeping then he has no business being at a dance tonight anyway.”

“Don’t wait up,” Nick called as he gathered his sister under one arm. “We’ll probably stop for supper afterward.”

“I won’t wait up,” Victoria assured with a smile, knowing it would be one in the morning or after before her three party goers returned.

The door shut behind the trio and Victoria heard the carriage pull away from the house. She read another ten minutes, then marked her page and set her book on a table top. She stood and made her way to the kitchen. Saturday evening was Silas and Jessybell’s night off unless the Barkleys were hosting a party. Victoria enjoyed cooking for her family this one evening of the week, or like tonight when her children had other plans, simply making a small meal for herself.

Victoria stirred the potato chowder she had simmering on the cast iron stove. She added squares of cheese she’d sliced earlier to the hot soup. While she waited for the cheese to melt she headed for the back stairs that led from the kitchen to the bedrooms above.

The white-headed woman softly walked down the long hallway, her skirts swishing around her legs. Like Audra had done, she lightly knocked on Heath’s closed bedroom door. When he didn’t answer she knocked again and called softly, “Heath? Heath, are you awake?”, to no avail.

Feeling confident she wasn’t going to walk in on Heath undressing, Victoria entered the room. He was still lying fully clothed on his bed, and like Audra had described, his leather gun belt was hooked around his waist minus its Colt .45 which sat on the dresser.

Victoria kept her steps light as she walked around her son’s bed. The window was open, the evening breeze raising goosebumps on her flesh. She reached through the billowing curtains and slid the window shut, then moved to the closet to pull an extra blanket off the shelf. When she turned around Heath was propped up on his elbows, looking at her through heavily lidded eyes.

“I hope I didn’t wake you,” the woman apologized. “I was trying to be quiet, but the window was open and I didn’t think you should have the breeze blowing on you.”

“No, you didn’t wake me,” Heath rasped around a raw, inflamed throat. “I need to get up anyway. I have to get ready for the dance.”

“I hate to break the news to you, but your ride left without you.”

“What time is it?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“Quarter to eight? And here I was only gonna lie down for a couple minutes.”
“Well, I’d say you’ve been lying down for closer to a couple hours. But that’s all right, you evidently needed the rest.” Victoria put the blanket back where she’d found it, then turned to face her son. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You sound like you have a sore throat.”

Heath lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “It doesn’t really bother me.”

The woman walked over and perched on the edge of Heath’s bed. She reached a hand out and laid it on his forehead. “You feel a little warm. I think those allergies you’ve been claiming you have are actually a cold.”

“Could be.”

“We’d better get some food into you, then you can come back up here and get a good night’s sleep. How’s that sound?”
Heath smiled. “You sure you want to spend your Saturday night with me? No doubt you’ve had better offers.”

“I can’t think of a one. And yes, kind sir, I’d love to spend my Saturday night with you.” Victoria patted Heath’s knee. “Go wash up then come down to the kitchen. I made a pot of potato chowder and Silas left a warm loaf of bread in the oven. We can slice it and spread it with the butter Jessybell churned this morning.”

“That sounds like an offer I can’t refuse.”

Victoria stood and placed a kiss on the top of Heath’s head. If he noticed her hand lingered on his cheek as though she was trying to gauge his temperature he didn’t comment on it.

“Good,” the tiny woman said as she moved to exit the room. “Because I don’t invite just any man to grace my table on a Saturday night.”

Heath heard Victoria descending the back stairs. He stood to remove his gun belt, grabbing onto the edge of the bedpost when he found himself swaying back and forth. He waited until the room stopped spinning, then completed the task at hand and headed for the bathroom down the hall. He put the plug in the sink’s drain then turned on the cold water faucet. When the deep basin was three-quarters full the blond man dunked his hot face all the way in. He hadn’t told Victoria how rotten he was really feeling. His throat burned liked he’d gulped a gallon of whiskey in one swallow, and every time he coughed it felt like he was breaking a rib. In addition to that his head was so congested he was forced to breathe through his mouth, and every joint in his body ached. But what was the point in voicing his misery? He’d lived through worse in his life.

Heath released the drain then reached for his towel. He dried his face and hands before hanging the damp towel back on the rack. A coughing spasm caused him to clutch his chest, but when it passed he stood up straight and walked out of the room.

After all, there was nothing wrong with him a bowl of potato chowder, a quiet conversation with Victoria, and a night’s sleep wouldn’t cure.

*****

Chapter 3

Victoria could hear conversation coming from the dining room as she descended the stairs the next morning. She laid her Bible and hat on the foyer table as she passed through.

Jarrod and Audra were dressed for church as well. They sat at the table talking and laughing about their evening out while waiting for the rest of the family to join them for breakfast.

Audra looked up when a kiss brushed her cheek.

“Good morning, Mother.”

“Good morning, dear.”

The woman moved to the end of the table and repeated her actions with Jarrod.

“Morning, Mother.”

“Good morning, son.”

As Victoria rounded the table Nick entered from the kitchen. His dusty work clothes indicated he’d been in the barn preparing the buggy and horses for the trip to church. He gave his mother a quick peck on the cheek while making a bee-line for his chair.

“Morning.”
“Good morning, Nick. And put that piece of toast down. Silas is still carrying food to the table and we haven’t said grace yet.”

Nick dropped the toast to his plate. “Yes, Ma’am.”

Victoria unfolded the linen napkin that lay on her plate and spread it over her lap. “The three of you must have been dancing till dawn. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Not until dawn,” Audra said, while Silas carried in a platter of pancakes and another of sausage links. “Though we were out later than we planned to be thanks to Nick.”

Victoria raised an eyebrow. “Nick?”
Jarrod’s eyes twinkled. “Yes, Brother Nick was bent on getting a date with Rebekah Warner. Said he wasn’t going to leave the dance until he accomplished that feat.”

“Well bravo for you, Nick,” Victoria smiled. “You always have possessed your father’s perseverance.”
“For all the good it did me.”

Victoria caught sight of the smiles dancing on Jarrod’s and Audra’s faces. She looked at her middle son. “What do you mean?”

“As it turns out the only member of the Barkley family Rebekah is interested in is Heath,” Nick grumbled. “She kept wanting to know where he was and if I thought he’d be at next Saturday’s dance.”

Victoria was forced to hide her own smile. There was no doubt Heath was a handsome man and quite popular with the local ladies. His soft-spoken nature and that shy, vulnerable demeanor he often displayed made him even more endearing to the female sex. Something Victoria knew Nick, by virtue of being a man, would never understand.

Nick’s unsuccessful bid for Rebekah Warner’s attention was forgotten in the face of breakfast. “Speaking of Heath, where is he? I’m not going to wait all morning for him. I’m starving.”

“You don’t have to wait. He’s sleeping yet.”

“Sleeping? For chriss….”

“Nicholas!”

“Sorry, Mother. As I was about to say, for goodness sake he was sleeping when we left last night.”

“Yes, he was. But he woke up shortly before eight and joined me for supper. Nonetheless he seems to have a bad cold. He’s running a fever so I told him I wanted him to rest today.”

“Do you think we should have Doc Sheridan come out and take a look at him?”
Victoria couldn’t help but smile. Not a minute earlier Nick was grumbling about Rebekah Warner choosing Heath over him, but now that he knew his brother was sick the concern in his voice was plain to hear. In so many ways she regretted that the two men hadn’t grown up together. She had no doubt they would have been inseparable had they known one another as children. But the past was the past, and not something she had the power to change. Not even for the one who would have benefited most from those changes, – Heath.

“No, I don’t think Jake needs to pay Heath a visit. It’s just a spring cold. I’m sure he’ll be better in a day or two.” Victoria held out her right hand to Audra and her left to Nick. “Now let’s say grace so we can eat our breakfast while it’s still warm.”

*****

At one o’clock that afternoon the buggy traveled down the long lane that led to the main house. Nick’s horse was tied behind the buggy, content to trot along at a leisurely pace befitting a Sunday when the apple blossoms were just beginning to bud. Jarrod had been invited to dine at the home of a local judge while Audra had gone to lunch with a group of friends.

Nick sat beside his mother in the buggy. He steered the horse through the big front gates and toward the barn. Just as he pulled back on the reins Heath stepped out into the sunshine with a curry brush in his right hand.

“Well, now,” Nick boomed, “there he is! Finally decided to get your lazy carcass out of bed, huh?”
Heath was used to Nick’s teasing and in a nasal tone drawled, “Yep, somethin’ like that.”

The blond man held out his left hand to Victoria. She grasped it and allowed Heath to guide her out of the unsteady buggy.

Victoria studied this man whom she thought of as a son. As far as she was concerned he still looked tired and feverish. When he turned away to cough she could hear the congestion in his lungs.

“Are you sure you should be out here? I told you to rest today.”

“I’m fine. Besides, I’m not workin’ too hard. I’d hate to take that pleasure away from Nick.”

Nick jammed Heath’s hat down on his head. “I’m sure you would.”

Heath walked around and untied Coco from the back of the buggy. When the animal was free Nick led the horse pulling the buggy toward the carriage house.

“Where’s everyone else?”

Victoria worked her white gloves off her hands. “Jarrod was invited to Judge Faber’s home, and Audra went to The Stockton House for lunch. Nick tried his best to get Rebekah Warner to go on a picnic with him, but she wouldn’t take him up on the offer.”

“Oh, she wouldn’t, would she?”

“No, she wouldn’t!” Nick shouted from the nearby building. “As a matter of fact she was more concerned with you than me! Wanted to know if she could bring you some of her chicken noodle soup! She thought that might make you feel better!” Nick walked out of the carriage house leading the untethered horse toward the barn. “I told her you were fine. That you have the constitution of an ox.”

“That’s true.”

“See. So what do you need her chicken soup for?”

“I don’t,” Heath shrugged, while tugging on Coco’s reins and falling into step beside his brohter. “But maybe if you’d been smart enough to tell her I do need her soup, then Miss Rebekah Warner would have been payin’ the Barkley ranch a visit this afternoon. You know, Nick, for your sake I woulda’ pretended I was too sick to see Miss Warner. Then you coulda’ had her all to yourself on this lovely spring Sunday.”

Victoria heard Heath’s laugh drift out of the barn. She laughed with him when Nick stopped and turned. The indignation on his face was plain to see.

“Mother! How come he always does that to me?”

“Does what, dear?”

“Bests me like that?”

“Perhaps if you didn’t tease him so much, and set him up to lose when the two of you draw straws, he wouldn’t have reason to.”

Nick smiled and gave his mother a kiss. “You know all my secrets don’t you?”

“Most of them, Nicholas. Most of them.”

Victoria turned toward the house while Nick followed Heath into the barn. When Heath was stricken by a coughing spasm so fierce it took his breath away the woman heard Nick order, “Get yourself into that house and climb back in bed. You’ve got no business being out here.”

If someone didn’t know Nick as well as Victoria did they would have thought he was angry with his sibling. But Victoria could hear right through the gruffness in his tone.

Nick wasn’t angry. Far from it. He was worried.

There’s no need to be so upset, Nick, the woman thought as she entered the house. We’re just not used to Heath being sick, that’s all. In the three years he’s been with us he’s never been ill before. Like you said, he’s got the constitution of an ox. Just like Tom did. The children and I could be flat on our backs with colds or the flu and Tom never got sick. Heath’s exactly like his father in that respect. Given another day or two of rest and pampering he’ll be fine.

*****

The family gathered around the supper table at six-thirty that evening. By seven-thirty the meal was over and everyone had scattered. Jarrod was in the study doing paperwork, Heath and Audra were playing checkers in the parlor, and Nick was in the tack room mending a saddle.

While Jessybell wiped off the table and straightened the chairs Victoria carried the last of the dishes to the kitchen.

“Mrs. Barkley, you shouldn’t be doing that,” Silas scolded. “It’s my job. You go on and relax now. Go to the parlor and play the winner of that checker game.”

“Oh, Silas, I’ve been relaxing all afternoon. I can certainly carry the last of the dishes in for you.”

Victoria looked around the black man’s shoulder. “Whose plate is that? The one that looks like it hasn’t been touched.”

Silas didn’t have to turn to know which dinner plate Victoria was talking about.

“That’s Mr. Heath’s plate, Ma’am. He’s hardly touched a morsel of food all day. I couldn’t get him to eat any breakfast even though I kept pancakes and sausages warming on the stove for him like you asked me to. And he didn’t eat any lunch neither. I offered to heat him up some of your soup but he said he wasn’t hungry. It’s not like Mr. Heath not to eat, Ma’am. He and Mr. Nick work hard. They always have big appetites.”

“Yes, Silas, they do.” The woman stared at the full plate a moment longer. “Please keep me informed of Heath’s eating habits over the next couple of days.”

“Is Mr. Heath sick?”

“He has a bad cold.” Victoria smiled at the black man who’d been a runaway slave. He’d come to the Barkley ranch begging for work when Nick was five years old. He’d been a loyal and beloved employee ever since that time. “It’s nothing to worry about. He’ll be fine in a few days. I just want to make sure he’s eating properly, that’s all.”
Silas smiled back at the woman. Nothing occurred in this household he didn’t know about.

“You love that boy a lot, don’t you, Mrs. Barkley? Just like he was one of your own. I respect you for that, Ma’am. If you don’t mind me saying so, there’s not many women who would have done for Mr. Heath what you have. Probably nary a one.”

“The circumstances surrounding Heath’s birth aren’t his fault, Silas. They never have been. Maybe you’re right. Maybe a lot of women in my same position wouldn’t have done for Heath what I have. But the love I give him is returned to me tenfold, don’t you think?”

“Oh yes, Mrs. Barkley. It’s apparent to anyone who watches like I do. Mr. Heath loves you, Ma’am. He loves you with all his heart he does. Just like you were his own mother.”

“Then it only makes sense that I love him like he was one of my own children.”

“Mr. Barkley would be proud of you, Ma’am. He always said you were his strength and inspiration. I know he looks down from heaven and smiles ’cause of all you’ve done for Mr. Heath.”

Victoria didn’t know why she felt a sudden urge to cry. “I just wish he could have known his son, Silas. Tom missed out on so much by not knowing Heath, and Heath missed out on so much by not knowing Tom.”

“That’s for sure, Ma’am. Mr. Barkley, he was an angel on earth.”

“Yes, he was, Silas.”

The woman headed for the parlor, thinking of the one and only love of her life. Certainly he’d made one very large mistake in judgment he’d silently taken to his grave, but Victoria had no doubt that mistake had weighed heavily on his heart from the day he left Strawberry until the day he died. His regrets had come through clearly in the letter he’d written Leah Thomson so many years ago now. Therefore it was the other things, the good things about Tom, that Victoria chose to keep close to her heart. Those good things were why she was able to respond so positively to Silas’s words.

Tom, you’d be so proud of the three grown men you held in your arms just minutes after they were born. Who would have ever thought our three baby boys would go so far in life? Our oldest Jarrod, a successful lawyer whose opinion and services are greatly valued. Our middle son Nick, the man who makes the Barkley ranch more profitable as each year goes by. And baby Eugene, as we still used to call him long after he had grown into a boy, a professor now at a prestigious college in England of all places. And of course, I didn’t forget your little girl. Our beloved Audra, – your princess. She’s young, and full of vinegar, too beautiful for her own good, and has her whole life ahead of her. Then there’s Heath, the son you never knew. Ironically enough the only one of your boys who takes after your side of the family in both features and coloring. The son who reminds me so much of you when we came to this valley. Everyone back home said you were crazy. Your father scoffed and declared you a fool for packing up your young pregnant wife and taking her clear across the country to homestead a ranch of all things. “What do you know about ranching, Thomas?” your father shouted at the top of his lungs when you broke the news to him. “This is the damnedest idea I’ve ever heard of!” But like your Heath, you were too headstrong and stubborn for your own good But capable, oh so very capable of fulfilling any dream you set your mind on. You didn’t know the meaning of the word can’t, and though Heath may not realize it, neither does he.

Victoria watched from afar as Audra laughed over some teasing barb Heath tossed her way while he wiped the checkerboard clean. As the woman walked into the parlor to join her daughter and stepson, she couldn’t help but think;

The Lord surely does work in mysterious ways.

*****

Chapter 4

Nick and Heath were up before dawn on Monday morning. By the time the rest of the Barkleys gathered around the breakfast table the two men were gone.

Victoria looked up when Silas walked in bearing a basket of muffins.

“Did Heath eat before he left this morning?”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Barkley. Mr. Heath and Mr. Nick were gone even before I got up. There’s food missing from the kitchen though, so I expect they packed themselves a bag.”

Jarrod reached for a blueberry muffin and the butter. “What’s the matter? Isn’t Heath eating?”

“No. Or at least he wasn’t yesterday. But if he rode out with Nick this morning then he must be feeling better.”

“I heard him coughing a lot during the night.” Audra took the basket of muffins Jarrod passed to her. “He sounded terrible. Like he was choking.”

Victoria nodded. “I heard him as well. I got up at two o’clock and looked to see if we had any more of that cough syrup Doctor Sheridan left with us last winter when we were all passing around that chest cold. All of us except Heath that is. But I didn’t find any, so we must have finished it off. I went to the kitchen and brewed him some tea with honey, but when I took it into his room he was sound asleep. I hated to wake him so I just left him be.”

“He was sleeping through that?” Audra asked. “I can’t believe he wasn’t coughing himself awake. He sounded horrible. Almost croupy.”

“I know. But evidently, it didn’t disturb him. Which was probably just as well. He needs the rest.”

“In that case, I hope Heath has the sense to tell Nick when he’s had enough today,” Jarrod commented while taking a sip of coffee. “You know how Nick is when there’s work to be done. He tends to be rather short-sighted.”

“Yes, he does. But then so does Heath.”

“That’s true,” Jarrod agreed with his mother. “Neither one of them is afraid of hard work.”

“No they’re not. And neither are the rest of us. As your father was fond of saying, this ranch was built with Barkley sweat. So while you go off and run the Barkley Law Office, Audra and I will be occupied with the mares that are foaling.”

“Sounds like you ladies will be just as busy as my brothers.”

Victoria smiled as she reached for a muffin. “That we will, Jarrod. That we will.”

*****

The warm spring air shifted that afternoon. Currents coming down from Canada turned the day dark and dreary. A light mist fell causing bone-chilling moisture to soak into everyone’s clothes, though that didn’t prompt Nick Barkley to call a halt to the working day. Because the temperature was pushing seventy degrees when he and Heath had left home that morning both Nick and his brother were underdressed for the present conditions. Nick ignored the discomfort, there was no time to send someone back to the ranch house for warmer clothing. Besides, when they returned Silas would have a hot supper and a warm fire waiting. That thought alone was enough to sustain Nick.

The men were rounding up young cattle that hadn’t been branded last summer. Nick didn’t want to wait until June to mark these animals, another few weeks of growing just meant they’d be that much harder to handle.

Nick and Heath cut their horses in and out of the herd. If they spotted a cow or steer without a brand they threw out their ropes, lassoing it around the neck.

Heath wiped a shaking hand over his brow. The cold rain felt good and made him miserable both at the same time. He was so hot that the drops pelting his face brought relief from the fire burning inside him. Yet he felt so sick with this annoying head cold that his wet clothing only made him more uncomfortable.

“Heath!” Nick bellowed. “Heath! What the hell is your problem? Another one just ran by you! You missed it dammit! Now go on! Get that rope around its neck!”

Heath kicked his horse in the sides. Charger ran after the fleeing cow, Heath half standing in the stirrups. When he was alongside the little heifer Heath twirled his rope a few times and tossed it. The rope hit the ground limp and empty.

“Oh for God’s sake!” Nick yelled. “You’re not good for a damn thing today! I should have left you home with Mother and Audra!”

Heath had long ago learned to ignore Nick’s temper, and along with it Nick’s impetuous mouth. He knew his brother was just as tired and cold as he was. Nick’s words were nothing but a reflection of that. Nonetheless, Heath had pride just like any other man. He didn’t appreciate being talked to like a twelve-year-old city boy who was getting in the way. Especially when he knew he was the equal of Nick Barkley when it came to handling a herd of cattle.

The blond man ignored the dizzy spell that threatened to spill him from his horse. He reeled in his rope, got it ready, and took off after the next cow he saw. The rope flew through the air and slipped cleanly around the cow’s neck. Heath jumped off Charger and wrestled the animal to the ground. In-between his coughs he heard, “That’s more like it,” as Nick rode on by.

*****

It was eleven o’clock that night before an exhausted Nick and Heath rode into the Barkley barn. The men’s wet clothing clung to their bodies while rainwater dripped from the brim of rainwater Nick climbed off Coco with a groan.

“I’ll be so damn glad to get out of these wet clothes, soak in the tub, eat a hot meal, and hit the sheets that it’s not even funny. How about you?”

Heath slid from his horse because he didn’t have the strength to dismount any other way. He rested his head against Charger’s neck and tried in vain to draw in a deep breath of air.

Nick turned when he didn’t get an answer from his brother. “Heath? I said how about you?”

The man coughed, then pushed himself away from the gelding. “How about me what?”

“I said it’s going to feel good to get out of these wet clothes and eat a hot meal. Don’t you think so?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure.”

Nick looked at his brother with concern. The gas lanterns in the barn revealed dark circles under Heath’s eyes and features pinched by the exertion of coughing. Nick walked over and took Charger’s reins.

“I’ll take care of your horse. You go in and take first dibs on the bathtub. I won’t even make you draw straws for it tonight.”

Heath shot Nick a small smile. “Thanks.”

Nick had no doubt his sibling was sick. He’d never known Heath to leave Charger’s care to anyone else. A cowboy always fed, watered and bedded his horse before seeing to his own needs. It wasn’t like Heath to allow anyone to do those duties for him.

“Hey.”

Heath turned.

“I’m sorry about today.”

“Sorry about what?”

“For losing my temper and jumping all over you. You should have told me you felt lousy. I would have sent you back here.”

“I know.”

“So why didn’t you say something?”

“Because we had work to do. And because I’m not that sick. It’s just a cold. I’ve lived through worse.”

Nick silently acknowledged that his half-brother had lived through worse. Despite Nick’s rough and tumble ways, his life experiences nowhere near matched the struggles and trials Heath had been through prior to coming to the Barkley ranch.

“Well go on inside and get out of those wet clothes. It’s not often I let someone else have first chance at the bathtub. You better take advantage of my sweet nature.”

“Sweet nature,” Heath scoffed, despite his inflamed throat. “That’ll be the day.”

“You keep talkin’ to your big brother with such a smart tongue and you just might convince me to change my mind.”

“Then I guess I’d better get goin’ and make use of that hot water.”

“Yeah, boy, you’d better.”

Nick watched Heath shuffle out of the barn, his shoulders slumped with exhaustion. The dark headed man crossed to the doorway and kept an eye on his sibling until he saw Heath pass under the gas lamp standing by the kitchen door. He saw light spill out of the kitchen when the door was opened, then just as quickly saw it recede when the door was closed. Satisfied his brother had made it to the house Nick turned to curry the horses.

*****

Heath barely glanced at the kettle of chicken and dumplings Silas had left warming on top of the stove. He stifled his coughs as he climbed the back stairs. The house was quiet, indicating to the blond man Victoria, Audra, and Jarrod had retired for the night.

Heath grabbed the wooden railing, steadying himself. He watched the hallway spin around him before he regained his bearings. A wave of heat assaulted his body, taking away the appeal of the hot bath Nick had promised.

The blond man headed to his room. He hung his hat and gun belt on the rack behind the door. He crossed to his nightstand and lit the lamp, then moved to his dresser. He pulled out a pair of the white muslin pajama pants Jessybell kept all the Barkley men supplied with. Another dizzy spell forced Heath to sit on the edge of his bed while he peeled off his wet clothing. He was so tired, and his hands were shaking so badly, and his chest ached so much, that for just a moment Heath wondered if he could get the job done by himself. If it wasn’t for the fact that his clothes were soaked clear through he would have been tempted to climb in bed wearing them. His numb fingers kept slipping off the his shirt buttons, and they didn’t have much more success at unbuckling his belt.

Heath tried to breathe a sigh of relief when he was finally undressed, but only ended up coughing until black spots danced in front of his eyes. When the spell passed he tied the loose-fitting pajama pants at his waist, then scooped up the dirty clothes he’d dropped to the floor. He padded barefoot down the hall to the bathroom. Without making a sound he closed the door to the luxurious room. He crossed to the tub and turned the gold faucet marked Hot. He slid to his knees and took as deep of a breath as he could. The feverish man didn’t welcome the heat from the steam, but the hot moisture did make it easier to breathe. He allowed his lungs to drink in whatever relief they could. He stayed like that, his upper body hanging over the lip of the sparkling tub, until another wave of dizziness sent him reeling sideways. He caught himself before he hit the marble floor. Fire burned from his toes to his face. For a brief moment he pondered soaking in cool water, but knew he didn’t have the energy to climb in the deep tub, let alone to get back out of it.

Heath shut the water off and pushed himself to his feet. He deposited his dirty clothes in the woven hamper Jessybell would empty the next day. He ran cold water in the sink and washed his face, neck, and upper body. After being out in the chilly rain all afternoon and evening he knew the frigid water shouldn’t feel so good, but the thought of getting near anything warm only made him feel sicker.

Heath glanced at the tub while turning to exit the room. The hot water that could now flow so freely through the pipes was kept that way by use of a holding tank attached to the side of the kitchen stove. This latest invention in the way of indoor plumbing was a wondrous luxury, the only drawback being that the availability of a warm bath was limited to what was in the tank until Silas refilled it in the morning. Since Heath had made use of very little water, he knew that meant his brother could refill the tub several times over if he chose to do so.

Oh well, tonight it’s Nick who will appreciate my good nature.

Nick Barkley never gave the empty bathroom a second thought when he entered the silent house thirty minutes later. He assumed Heath had been too tired to linger in the tub.

Nick ate supper alone in the kitchen at midnight, not wondering why Heath didn’t join him. Again, Nick surmised his brother had been too tired to wait for him so had eaten after his bath, then turned in for the night.

Nick toured the downstairs before going up to bed. He blew out the lamps in the parlor and foyer his mother had left on for him and Heath, and shut the damper on the fireplace. By feel alone he climbed up the wide staircase. When he passed Heath’s room he heard his brother coughing, but since there was no light shining from beneath the door decided not to disturb the man.

Regardless of how much work we have to do he’s going to stay right here in bed tomorrow even if Mother and Audra have to sit on him to accomplish that. This cold of his has hung on long enough. He’s not going to get better unless he spends a couple days in bed. I wish he didn’t think he always has to prove himself to me.

As Nick moved on down the hall to his own room his final thought was, And I wish I knew how to tell him that.

*****

Heath’s eyes popped open. The room was pitch black, and he was so hot it felt like he was lying in the dessert in the middle of July. The rats were crawling on him, chewing on his feet and getting tangled in his hair. He knew this place. He knew it! He didn’t know how, but he was in Carterson Prison again. He was in Carterson Prison and he had to get out! He had to escape! They weren’t going to treat him like that again. They weren’t going to torture him, or deprive him of food and water. Water! He was so thirsty. All he wanted was a drink of water and they knew it. They knew it and they were keeping it from him.

Heath rolled off sweat-soaked sheets. He swayed back and forth, then staggered for the door. In his mind he saw iron bars. He grasped the knob and pulled.

They forgot! They forgot to lock it! I’ve got to get out while they’re not watching.

Heath lurched into the hallway. His delirious brain didn’t see the brocaded love seat or tall vase of flowers that sat beside it. Instead he saw a dirt floor covered with rodent droppings and heard the groans and cries of a thousand sick and dying soldiers.

Gotta get out! Gotta help them. Help my friends. Gotta get someone to help me save them!

The dark hall blurred in front of Heath. He lurched sideways, thrusting his palm to the wall for support. He was so dizzy. His legs would hardly hold him up and the muscles in his arms were twitching. He knew they weren’t feeding him. They wanted him weak. They wanted him weak so they could keep him captive here with the rest of his comrades.

The blond man staggered forward. In his current state he didn’t realize the stairway was in front of him. He swayed, took a step, grabbed for the railing, lost his balance, and tumbled head over heels to the foyer far below.

*****

Victoria Barkley shot up in bed. She couldn’t identify the noise that woke her from a sound sleep and set her heart racing, but whatever the series of thumps were she realized they woke the rest of the house, too. She could hear Nick jump out of bed from his room across the hall, and if she wasn’t mistaken Jarrod’s door was already opening.

The white-haired woman threw on her robe and rushed from her room. She was met by Audra who was still belting her own robe.

“Mother, what was that noise? It sounded like someone was breaking into the house.”

Before Victoria could reply Jarrod came around the corner. At the same time Nick ran from his room. Both men held guns in their right hands and lamps in their left. Neither one of them had taken the time to dress in anything other than they’d put on when going to bed, the same type of pajama pants Heath was wearing.

“You two stay here,” Nick ordered in a whisper. “Jarrod and I’ll check things out.”

Victoria nodded, her eyes unconsciously traveling to the room that was closest to the stairway. Heath’s room. His door was open meaning he must already be downstairs. Before Victoria could point that out to her sons Jarrod took note of it. He tapped Nick on the shoulder as they passed their brother’s room and indicated to the dark interior. The woman saw Nick nod. She took this silent communication to mean he understood Heath was already on the main floor and very likely armed with a loaded revolver. Obviously the Barkley men didn’t want to end up shooting each other by accident.

Victoria placed her body in front of Audra’s. She had no idea what the men would find when they got downstairs, but if she needed to push Audra back in the master bedroom and lock the door she would. She kept a rifle in there. She’d use it to protect her daughter if forced.

But no band of marauders had invaded Victoria Barkley’s home that night. She heard Nick’s cry of “Heath!” then, “Mother! Audra! Get down here!”

Jarrod was setting the lamps on the foyer table as the two women raced for the stairs. Victoria was momentarily startled by the sight of the bare-chested man crumpled on the floor below.

“Heath!” She flew down the stairs, Audra at her heels. “Oh my Lord, Heath!”

Victoria crouched by her son. Without even touching him she knew he was burning with fever. His cheeks were stained ruby red and sweat ran freely from his hairline down his temples. She barely noticed Silas rush into the room.

Jarrod looked up from his crouched position on the right side of Heath’s body. “Silas, wake Phillip! Tell him Heath’s sick and we need Doctor Sheridan as fast as he can get him here!”

“Yes, Mr. Jarrod. I’ll tell him!”

Silas ran out the door and headed for the foreman’s house next to the barn. Jessybell arrived with a cloth that had been soaked with ice cold water from the pump in the kitchen.

“Here, Mizz. Barkley. Sponge him off with this. I’ll run upstairs and git his bed ready. With the fever he’s got ain’t no doubt his sheets is soaked clean through.”

Victoria ran the cold cloth over Heath’s face. Nick was on his knees beside Jarrod. He flicked three fingers against a fiery cheek and urged, “Heath! Heath, come on! Wake up! Heath, come on! Wake up now! Heath!”

Nick gingerly moved his brother’s head from side to side. His hand encountered a bump at the crown, but came away free of blood. He looked from Jarrod to their mother and Audra.

“He’s got a bump on his head, but it’s not bad enough to knock him unconscious like this. I think the fever’s causing that.”

“Mother, this can’t just be a cold, can it?” Audra rubbed a hand over her brother’s bare arm. Even this minimal contact scorched her skin. “He’s so hot.”

Victoria watched with sickening certainty when Heath’s body was wracked by a coughing spasm that left him gasping for air. She remembered the time long ago when this same frightening cough dominated her household. Then she remembered the recent words of Opal Manner.

Did you hear about the outbreak of diphtheria over at Laton? Even grown men are dying from it.

“Nick, Jarrod, get behind him! Prop him up against your chests! He can’t get enough air like this.”

“Mother?” Audra spoke her fear in that one question.

The woman glanced at her daughter while helping her sons get Heath in a sitting position. “No, Audra, he doesn’t have a cold.”

“Then what is it?”

“I think…,” Victoria faltered.

“Mother?” Nick questioned. Now that he had Heath resting against him Nick could feel the heat radiating from the man’s body. He didn’t know how high Heath’s temperature was, but he knew it had to be well over one hundred degrees. He watched the blond man’s body buck and twist as Heath struggled to take in air.

Victoria looked from the frightened eyes of her daughter to those of Nick and Jarrod. She swallowed hard and spoke in a voice so quiet her children almost couldn’t hear her.

“I think your brother has diphtheria.”

Before her clan could react, Victoria stood and took charge.

“Jarrod, Nick, carry Heath up to bed. Audra, fill two pitchers with cold water. I’ll get some towels from the linen closet. We’ve got to get his fever down.”

“But, Mother, if he’s got diphtheria,….”

“Audra, he’s young and he’s strong. He’ll be fine.”

Victoria watched as Jarrod grasped Heath under his arms and Nick took the lower portion of his legs. Together they rose and started up the stairs. Victoria turned, offering a hand to her daughter. She pulled Audra to her feet and gave her a brave smile.

“He’ll be fine. I promise. Now you hurry and get that water.”

Despite Victoria’s confident words Audra could see the distress on her mother’s face. On impulse she reached out and pulled the woman to her.

“You’re right. He’ll be fine. After all, Heath never gets sick.”

Victoria blinked back her tears. “No, sweetie, Heath never gets sick, does he.”

*****

Chapter 5

Jarrod stood with a foot propped on the fireplace hearth while Nick paced the parlor floor. The women sat on the sofa casting anxious glances up the stairway.

“What’s going on?” Nick grumbled. “What’s taking Jake so long? He’s been with Heath for close to an hour. When are we going to know something?”

This was the fourth time Nick had asked these questions. His family had long ago quit answering him and instead watched as his pacing increased with each turn he made. Both Nick and Jarrod had exchanged their pajama bottoms for a pair of trousers. In all the mayhem Jarrod had managed to fasten three buttons on the shirt he’d thrown on, while Nick simply left his shirt hanging open. The women had yet to dress in more than they’d been wearing when they’d first entered the hallway after hearing Heath fall.

Victoria and Audra jumped to their feet when they heard a bedroom door open. Nick’s pacing came to an abrupt halt and Jarrod’s foot dropped to the floor.

Nick rushed to the dark headed doctor, meeting him at the bottom stair.

“How is he, Jake?”

“Nick, let’s go in the parlor and sit down.” The young physician placed his bag on the foyer table as he passed. “All of you sit down, please. We have several things to discuss.”

Jarrod joined his mother and sister on the sofa while Nick perched on the edge of a chair. Doctor Sheridan stood in front of the worried family.

“As you suspected, Mrs. Barkley, Heath definitely has diphtheria.”

“But how,……?”

The young doctor held up a hand. “In a minute, Nick.” He turned his attention back to the family matriarch. “Mrs. Barkley, what about you and the rest of your family? Have all of you had the disease?”

Everyone knew why the doctor asked that question. Diphtheria was highly contagious and more often than not fatal.

“Yes. An epidemic went through Stockton when Jarrod and Nick were seventeen and thirteen. They contracted it, as did Audra who was four years old at the time, and Eugene who was two and a half. As for me, I had it when I was eight.”

“Mmmm, that’s highly unusual.”

“What’s highly unusual?” Jarrod asked.

“That you, Jarrod, as well as Nick, Gene, and Audra, would have gotten sick during that epidemic, but Heath didn’t. That’s almost unheard of in a family. Usually, if one child gets it he or she ends up spreading it to all the siblings.”

Doctor Sheridan had come from the East coast to set up practice in Stockton just one year earlier. He’d taken over for the cherished Doctor Merar who had passed away. Therefore it was possible Jake didn’t know Heath wasn’t Victoria’s biological son, nor that he’d joined his father’s family long after he’d reached adulthood.

Jarrod caught the stricken look on his mother’s face, as though she was blaming herself for something she had no control over. He quickly stepped in and answered the doctor for her.

“No, Jake, Heath didn’t get sick at that time.” A small smile touched Jarrod’s lips. “He’s like our father was in that respect. When the rest of us take to our beds ill, whatever germ is in the household seems to pass Heath by.”

The physician merely nodded. “Some people are lucky that way. Unfortunately Heath’s luck has run out.” The man’s eyes traveled from one family member to the other. “He’s very sick. As you probably know, it’s unusual for diphtheria to present much danger to strong, healthy men in the prime of their life like Heath is. However; this strain of the disease seems to be particularly virulent.”

“What are you saying here?” Nick came to his feet, shock making his movement slow and laborious. “That Heath’s going to die?”

The doctor was evasive when he answered. “I’m saying he’s ill, Nick. Gravely ill. Has he been working hard lately?”

“Has he been working hard? Jake, this is a ten thousand acre ranch! Of course he’s been working hard!”

“Nicholas,” Victoria ordered, “calm down.”

The woman was well aware Nick’s anger was a direct result of the blame he was placing on himself for Heath’s condition. She could almost hear the words that were churning in his head.

If only I’d insisted he stay in bed. If only I hadn’t let him ride out with me. If only he hadn’t been in the rain all afternoon and evening. If only I’d check on him before I turned in for the night.

The doctor realized the source of Nick’s outburst as well. “Nick, I didn’t ask that question in an attempt to blame anyone for anything. I know this is a working ranch. I’m simply trying to get a feel for why your brother is so weak he barely has the strength to cough. I have to report all of this to the state medical board as soon as I get back to town. By answering my questions you’ll give me a better idea what to tell them. In other words, is this strain of diphtheria stronger than was first reported, or is Heath’s condition aggravated by long working days combined with little rest.”

Victoria took over the conversation. “Heath did work a full day with Nick and the other men today. But I made him rest on Sunday. I thought he was coming down with a bad cold.”

“And he didn’t complain of his chest feeling tight, or any difficulty when attempting to draw in a deep breath, nor mention the high temperature he had to have been running today?”

“No,” Nick shook his head. “No, he didn’t say a word about any of that. I just knew when we got home tonight he was bone tired. Like Mother, I thought he simply had a bad cold.”

“Well, it’s more than a cold. Though how he picked it up I don’t know. Right now the only town in the area that I’m aware is under quarantine for diphtheria is Laton. Has Heath been there in recent weeks?”

“No,” Nick said. “He was out riding the range a few weeks ago fixing fence lines and was probably within five miles of there, but he never actually visited the town.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes, I’m certain. I asked him if he’d stayed in the Laton Hotel a few nights instead of sleeping outside. He told me he never went near Laton the whole while he was gone. Nor any town for that matter.”

“Then it’s beyond me how he came in contact with it,” Jake stated. “From what I’ve been told the disease started with a family by the name of Atkins. They’d been visiting relatives in Oregon in early April. Diphtheria ran rampant through some settlements up there this spring. Evidently the family was unwittingly exposed to it. Both their children, an infant boy named Clint, and a little girl named Caroline, died from it.”

Audra looked at her mother in shock. The young woman could hear Heath’s words almost as plain as if he was standing in front of her saying them again.

Miss Caroline Atkins was a little young for datin’, Sis. She couldn’t have been more than six years old. Seven tops. Her family’s wagon had broken down. I stopped and helped her father repair it. Your chocolates made her day.

“Mother, those are,….”

Victoria silenced her daughter with a subtle shake of her head. She turned to the doctor. “What about other people in Stockton? Is anyone else sick?”

“Up until an hour ago I would have told you no, that there only seems to be the start of a spring cold going around. But now I’ve had a change of mind.” The man gave a heavy sigh, knowing how difficult this would be for the family to hear. “I’ve seen four children and two adults in the past three days with a chesty cough not unlike Heath’s. They aren’t as sick as he is yet, but no doubt they will be soon.” The man looked from Nick, to Jarrod, to Audra, and finally to Victoria. “I’m sorry. You know what this means.”

“Yes.” Jarrod gave a slow nod of his head. “It means that Heath was the one who brought the disease to Stockton.”

“That’s what it means. However; no one will hear that from me. In the first place there’s no point in anyone knowing. What’s done is done. Heath certainly wasn’t aware he’d come into contact with someone who was infected. And in the second place he’s got enough of an uphill road to travel. If he recovers,…well I won’t lie to you. No town experiences a diphtheria epidemic without people losing their lives. If Heath survives he doesn’t need to be burdened with guilt that’s not his to bear.”

“Thank you, Jacob,” Victoria said. “Your discretion means a lot to all of us.”

“You’re welcome. And speaking of recovery, if,…when Heath gets to that point two weeks of bed rest is a must. Other than short walks to the bathroom, or up and down the hallway, he’ll need complete quiet and no shocks, worries about the ranch, or bad news of any kind. There’s a high risk of permanent heart damage associated with diphtheria if those necessities are ignored.”

Victoria nodded. “I’ll see to it your orders are followed to the letter.”

The doctor flicked his head toward the upper story. “Silas and Jessybell are with him now. They’ve both assured me they’ve had the disease. You’ll need to check with your ranch hands, of course, to determine who might be in danger of contracting it. I hope all of you realize I have no choice but to put the entire ranch under quarantine.”

“Yes,” Victoria agreed, “we realize that.”

“In the meantime what can we do for Heath?” Nick asked.

“Nothing much but keep him as cool and comfortable as possible. At the times when he’s lucid it’s important to get food and water in him. Chicken or beef broth with some noodles or finely diced potatoes will do the job, maybe a slice of bread if he’ll eat it. I’ve already told Silas that. The way you’ve got him propped up against those three pillows is good. It might not hurt to add a fourth one directly between his shoulder blades. He’ll be able to breathe easier and cough more productively if he’s not flat on his back.”

The doctor motioned for Nick to stand.

“If he’s struggling to breathe and sounds like he’s choking, Nick and Jarrod can do this to help him out.” The man turned Nick so his back was to his family. With an the doctor took the heel of his right palm and with an upward motion smacked it against the middle Nick’s back. “Striking him like this, between his shoulder blades, will help force the mucus up. If he gets really bad the two of you, Jarrod and Nick, will have to work together. Get Heath positioned so he’s seated on the edge of his bed, then one of you lean his upper body over your forearms while the other one hits his back.”

Victoria nodded her understanding. “My husband and I did that with Audra when she had the disease. Of course, she was so small Tom was able to balance her on his arm with her head hanging toward the floor while at the same time hitting her back.”

“It’s the same concept with Heath,” the doctor stated. “You want to get him positioned so his body can more easily bring up the phlegm. And since you’ve been through this before with your other children, Mrs. Barkley, you know pots of steam in the room are of benefit, too. The steam helps to clear the bronchial passages and lungs of the thick mucus the disease causes to form. But the downfall to that is it makes the room warm which can drive up the patient’s fever. You’ll have to use your own judgment in that regard.”

“What about quinine?” Victoria asked. The precious drug didn’t cure diphtheria, but it worked wonders at reducing a high fever. Victoria was well aware of how important that factor could be. If Heath’s body didn’t have to war with his rising temperature he’d have more strength to use for combating the deadly disease that would quickly take its toll on him.

“I’m going to wire San Francisco tonight and see if I can get a supply in on the next train.”

“You mean you don’t have any at your office?” Nick’s voice rose. “What kind of a doctor are you?”

“Nick,” Jarrod scolded. “That’s enough.”

Jake graciously ignored Nick’s tone. “No, Nick, I don’t have any quinine. Two weeks ago I was instructed by the medical board to ship what I had to Laton.”

The cowboy crossed to the fireplace and raked a frustrated hand through his hair. “Well, that’s great! Just great. My brother, my brother who never gets sick, is in need of some medicine one of the few times in his life and it’s not available to him.”

“Nick, I’ll do the best I can to get quinine here as soon as possible. You know that.”

The man sighed and laid his forehead against the fireplace mantel. “Yeah, Jake, I know that. And I’m sorry for blowing up at you. I’m just,…I’m worried about Heath.”

“I realize that. Apology accepted.”

The doctor turned for his medical bag. The Barkley family followed him to the foyer.

“If the disease runs its normal course it will peak in three to four days. Until then the best thing you can do is try to keep Heath’s fever down and try to get him to cough as often and as much as possible. Eventually, that will become more and more difficult for him. His chest will get tighter, his breathing more restricted, and it’ll be harder for him to expel the phlegm. If the quinine arrives there will at least be a good measure of hope.”

“But will you get it soon enough to do Heath any good?” Jarrod asked.

“Only time will tell, Jarrod.” The man felt so inadequate as he looked at the faces before him. He focused on Nick, by far the most emotionally upset of the group. Or at least the one who was openly showing his distress. “Nick, Heath was mumbling your name when I was up there. Why don’t you take the first shift with your brother. Send Silas and Jessybell to bed. The rest of you go back to bed as well. You’ll have to take turns sitting with Heath from now until his condition turns for,…for the good or the bad. As things worsen you might find it will take two or three of you to work with him. For the time being those of you who are not pressed into service need to get some sleep and need to make certain you’re eating.”

The doctor picked up his bag. “I’ll see myself out. I’ve got a lot of work to do before the epidemic hits in full force. I’ll try to stop here again in the next twenty-four hours. Sooner if I get my hands on some quinine.”

Jarrod reached in his pants pocket and pulled out five twenty dollar bills. “Jake, thanks for coming. We appreciate everything you’ve done so far.”

“I haven’t done much, Jarrod. Certainly not enough to warrant this kind of payment.”

“Take it, Jake,” Victoria insisted. “It will help offset the fact that a lot of people you treat in the coming weeks won’t be able to pay you anything. If nothing else put it toward medicine for some sick little boy or girl. That’s,…” Victoria swallowed hard, “that’s what Heath would want you to do with it.”

The man nodded his head. One hundred dollars would buy a lot of quinine provided the medicine was available to purchase. “It will certainly come in handy for that.”

A long silence prevailed in the house after the front door closed behind the doctor. Jarrod waited until he heard the carriage drive away before confronting his mother and sister.

“Okay, you two. What’s going on? What do you know about Heath and this disease that Nick and I don’t?”

Victoria looked at her daughter before turning to face her sons. “I didn’t want Audra to say anything in front of Jake, but when he mentioned the Atkins family,…..the little girl named Caroline?”

“Yes?” Nick prompted.

“The night Heath returned from the range, after you and Jarrod had gone into the dining room, he told Audra and me that he’d stopped to help a family with a broken wagon axle. The family,…the family’s name was Atkins. He spoke of,…” the woman turned away to hide her tears, “he spoke of a little girl named Caroline whom he’d given the last of the chocolates Audra had put in his pocket.”

“Mother, don’t.” Nick stepped forward and took his mother in his arms. “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. He’ll be all right. I know he’ll be all right.”

Victoria leaned into her son’s chest a long moment, then gathered her emotions and pushed herself away from him.

“He can’t ever know,” Victoria told her children. “About little Caroline Atkins, about the fact that he contracted the disease from her, and most of all that he carried it back here to Stockton. You know what that will do to him. You know what a big heart he has. He’ll never forgive himself if he finds out. And like Jake said, no one else needs to know either. The people of this valley,…so many of them gave Heath a hard time when he first arrived here. So many of them were quick to judge him before getting to know him. Some still do. I won’t see him subjected to that type of pain again.”

Victoria’s children nodded their understanding. Everything she’d said was true. The words she’d just shared with them would never be spoken of to anyone, and most of all not to Heath.

Silas interrupted the family moment. “Mr. Nick, Mr. Heath is calling for you again like he was before when the doctor was with him. But this time he seems awfully upset, like he’s got something important he wants to tell you. Me and Jessy can’t calm him down.”

Without a word Nick turned and took the stairs two at a time, Silas at his heels.

Jarrod did his best to give his mother and sister a confident smile. “If Heath’s upset Nick might need my help. Why don’t the two of you try to get some sleep like Jake suggested.”

“No, Jarrod, I need to be with him.”

“Mother, we all need to be with him. But Jake was correct when he said we have to rest and eat. None of us will do Heath any good if we wear ourselves out. You know as well as I do that we’ve got several long days ahead of us. Right now Heath needs Nick. And if he’s upset to the point that he tries to get out of bed then he needs me as well.” The lawyer placed a kiss on his mother’s forehead, then did the same to his sister. “Before this is all over Heath will need both of you, too. You know that. So, please, get what sleep you can tonight. If Heath calms down and Nick can handle things by himself then I’m going to catch a few hours of sleep myself.”

Victoria gave a reluctant nod. Despite the wisdom behind Jarrod’s words her mother’s heart still ached to comfort the sick child in her household.

Jarrod dashed up the stairs. Victoria took Audra by the hand and followed in his footsteps. They met Silas and Jessybell coming down.

“Mr. Nick says me and Jessy should go on to bed, Mrs. Barkley. Is that all right with you?”

“Yes, Silas. Both of you go back to bed. And thank you for staying with Heath while Doctor Sheridan talked to us.”

“Was no problem, Ma’am. No problem at all.”

“That boy is bad sick, Mizz Barkley,” Jessybell’s brown eyes filled with tears. “So bad sick. Me and Silas, we’ll say a special prayer for him.”

“Thank you, Jessy.” Victoria looked toward Heath’s open door. “I’m sure we’ll all be saying a special prayer for Heath tonight.”

When the women reached the upper story Victoria shooed Audra toward her bedroom. “You do as Jarrod says and get some sleep.”

“What about you, Mother?”

“I’ll be doing the same in just a few minutes.”

“If anything….if anything changes with Heath during the night you’ll have one of the boys wake me, won’t you?”

Victoria squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Yes, sweetheart, if anything changes someone will come get you.”

Audra kissed her mother’s cheek. She walked down the long hallway, pausing a moment in front of Heath’s open door before continuing the journey to her room.

Victoria paused in front of Heath’s door as well. The room was bathed in dim light from the lamp that sat on the table to the right of his bed. Nick was sitting on the edge of the mattress sponging his brother’s face with a cold damp cloth. Jarrod had pulled the only chair in the room over to the left side of Heath’s bed and was perched on the end of it, pinning the blond’s shoulders against the pillows.

“It’s okay, Heath,” Nick said. “It’s okay. We got it all taken care of, remember? We caught the last of the young heifers that needed to be branded.”

“No, no,” Heath mumbled. His eyes were barely open yet he struggled against Jarrod’s hands. “Work to do. Lots work.”

“Heath, there’s no more work to do tonight.” Jarrod forced his brother’s upper body back against the pillows. “It’s late, Heath. It’s late and you need to rest. You need to sleep. We’ll talk about work in the morning.”

For a few brief seconds Victoria saw Heath’s eyes open wide. But even in that short time period she could tell his mind wasn’t in the room with his brothers.

“No. Work. Gotta lotta work needs doin’. Nick,…….Nick doesn’t like,…..slackers. Can’t,….slack.”

Nick had to swallow hard before he could form an answer. “Heath, there’s no more work that needs doing. We’re done for the day. You’re not,….you’re not slacking. It’s Nick, Heath. It’s Nick and I’m telling you I want you to rest. Do you hear me? I want you to calm down and get some sleep.” Nick dipped his cloth in the basin of cold water Jessybell had left on the nightstand. He wrung it out, then wiped it over Heath’s face and neck. “Just calm down now. Everything’s okay. You and I got all the work done. You go to sleep now. Go to sleep.”

If Victoria hadn’t been standing in the doorway she wouldn’t have recognized the calm, soothing tone of voice as belonging to her volatile, hot-tempered Nick. Though she knew a tender soul resided deep within her second born, it was only on rare occasions that he allowed it to surface.

Whether Nick’s words penetrated Heath’s fever-addled brain, or whether he was simply too exhausted to fight his brothers any longer Victoria didn’t know. She watched as his body relaxed and he sank back against his pillows. For a moment she could almost make herself believe he’d passed through the worst of the crisis and had now fallen into a healing sleep. That hope was quickly dashed when a series of harsh coughs lifted his upper body from the bed. Nick grasped Heath’s shoulders and turned him sideways until the blond man’s head hung over the edge of the mattress. The positioning seemed to help, within seconds Heath’s cough became productive as the phlegm moved more freely through his system.

Jarrod scooted around the bed and grabbed a clean towel from the stack Jessybell had left setting on Heath’s dresser. He crouched in-between his brothers, holding the towel to Heath’s mouth.

“Go ahead, Heath, cough. Cough it up. No, don’t swallow it, cough it up. I’ve got a towel in my hands. It’s right here by your mouth. Go ahead and spit everything out, I’ll take care of the rest.”

Victoria watched as one of Nick’s hands rubbed up and down Heath’s bare back. and one of Jarrod’s came to rest on the top of his head. Both of them spoke softly, each encouraging their brother to continue coughing.

The woman couldn’t help but feel so proud of these two men she had raised. By observing the actions in this room one would never guess Heath hadn’t been born into this family and brought up on the Barkley ranch his entire life. Once the initial upset of his arrival had passed Victoria’s children accepted Heath with open arms, and from that moment forward never hesitated to call him brother or share with him all that was theirs by virtue of their last name being Barkley.

But then to Heath’s credit he was an easy man to love. Victoria was sure he’d deny it if she told him it was so, nonetheless it was true. Yes, to a large extent he’d lived on the wild side of life from the time he was sixteen until he came to them three years earlier at the age of twenty-four, but he wasn’t nearly as rough around the edges or uncultured as he perceived himself to be. He cared deeply about others and possessed an endearing vulnerability borne from the cruel words and teasing inflicted upon him since he was little boy. He was the child of an unwed mother and grew up in a small town. Victoria could only imagine how many times he’d been called a bastard, or humiliated by some schoolmate who jeered and asked him where his daddy was. As Victoria watched her sons settle Heath back into bed she recalled the words of the black woman, Hannah, who had been Leah Thomson’s friend and who’d helped Leah raise Heath.

Miss Leah was a good woman. A kind-hearted woman with a gentle soul. Lord knows she had more than her fair share of trials in this life. But Heath,…….Heath was her joy. He was her joy and she loved that sweet boy so. Oh, how she loved him.

Victoria forced herself to head for her room. Her sons had everything under control and Jarrod was right, she needed to get some rest before it was her turn to sit with Heath.

As she entered her bedroom the woman said a silent prayer.

Dear Lord, watch over Heath tonight. Please, Lord, watch over him. You know I love him like he was one of my own. I don’t understand why You allowed him to suffer like he did when he was a child, or why You never allowed Tom to know of Heath’s existence, but I believe You had a purpose. Maybe things wouldn’t have worked out had Heath come to us when he was still a boy, or as a teenager shortly before Tom died. I quit questioning Your wisdom in this matter a long time ago, Lord. But I do know that You brought a troubled, angry young man into this home for a reason. Not only did he need us, but as it turns out we needed him. When he laughs it’s like having Tom in the house again. When he talks it’s like hearing Tom talk. And when his smiles it’s like seeing Tom smile. Please don’t take that joy away from me again.

Please.

*****

Chapter 6

Victoria Barkley woke at dawn. She’d dozed on and off since she’d gone to bed at two-thirty. Sometime around three-thirty, she heard Jarrod pass her room on the way to his own. She took that to mean Heath was sleeping and found it a little easier to do the same.

At a quarter to six the woman exited her room, dressed for the day in pair of goucho pants and a plaid blouse. Rays of sunshine softly crept through the curtains hanging on the windows in Heath’s bedroom. The lamp had been blown out, Victoria assumed Nick extinguished its light when the sky began to brighten.

Heath appeared to be in a deep sleep. He didn’t look as feverish as he had the last time Victoria had seen him, but she could hear the heavy congestion rattle in his chest each time he drew in a breath. Nick sat in the chair sleeping as well. His head was tilted forward causing his dark hair to tumble over his eyes.

The woman moved to the window farthest from the bed. The room was warm and stuffy. She opened the window just enough to allow a gentle breeze to circulate. With it came the smell of lilacs and pine trees and livestock.

Victoria kept her footsteps light as she walked to Nick’s side. She smiled at the sight he presented. When he was a little boy his bangs were constantly in his eyes. That problem had been cured when he’d reached adulthood and started using pomade. Sometime during the trying night the gel must have reached the end of its staying power.

Victoria ran a hand over her son’s bangs, pushing them back from his eyes. She placed a kiss on the top of his head just as he woke.

“Huh,…..what?”

“Sssssh,” the woman cautioned in a hushed tone. “Heath’s sleeping.”

The man looked at his brother then stood. He placed a hand at the small of his back and stretched.

“What time did you and Jarrod finally get him calmed down?”

“Around three or so. I think we got his temperature low enough that he could sleep. I sent Jarrod to bed shortly after that.”

“I heard him pass by my room. I assumed things were going okay in here when he didn’t stop to rouse me.”

“Things have been all right. Heath’s been sleeping ever since Jarrod left.”

“And that’s just what I want you to do. I heard Silas moving around the kitchen. Why don’t you get some breakfast then go to bed.”

Nick’s eyes traveled to his brother again. “I can hold off a few more hours. I’d like to sit here with him a little longer.”

“Honey, he’s sleeping, and that’s what you should be doing, too. If his fever goes up again and he grows delirious I’m going to need your help with him. You’ve been up all night, Nick. You need to eat and get some rest. I’ll stay with him now.”

Nick was reluctant to leave, but had to admit food and a few hours of sleep sounded appealing. And his mother was correct, she would need him more when and if Heath’s condition worsened. Like Jarrod, Nick needed to take advantage of this calm before the potential storm.

“Okay, I’ll have some breakfast then go to bed. But if you need me, if he,…if he gets worse, you wake me up immediately.”

“I will.”

Nick’s hands came to rest on his mother’s shoulders. He placed a kiss in her hair, then headed for the door. He squeezed Heath’s blanket covered right foot as he passed.

Victoria crossed to the door and shut it three-quarters of the way. She didn’t want Heath’s sleep disturbed by those who would be moving about the house over the next few hours.

The woman turned for the bed. She refilled the basin on the nightstand with cold water and picked up the towels the boys had used. She made a neat stack out of the dirty linens and placed them outside the door. She knew Jessybell would be up shortly to empty the laundry hamper in the bathroom. The black woman could gather the towels as she passed if Victoria didn’t get them to the hamper first.

The white-headed lady went back to her son’s side. She straightened the blankets on the bed and pulled them up to Heath’s shoulders. She laid a light hand on the side of his face. Though he was still running a temperature he was nowhere near as hot as he had been just a few hours earlier.

Victoria claimed the chair Nick had been sitting in. As the sun rose Heath’s cough increased in its intensity, though for the time being he went on sleeping. She heard Nick come up the back stairs and enter his room. Fifteen minutes after that Audra appeared. She walked over and stood at the end of Heath’s bed.

“How is he?”

“According to Nick things were pretty rough until about three this morning when his temperature finally dropped somewhat. He’s been sleeping ever since that time.”

“Do you think the worst has passed?”

“I wish I could say yes, Audra,…but no. No, the worst hasn’t passed. As Doctor Sheridan said, Heath’s condition will peak in three to four days.”

“Would you like me to relieve you?”

“Not right now. You go down and eat breakfast, then check on the mares. If Heath stays stable like this you can sit with him after lunch.”

“Where’s Nick?”

“I told him to eat something and go to bed.”

“He’s very upset.”

“Nick?”

“Yes.”

“He’s worried about Heath if that’s what you mean. And you know Nick, it’s hard for him to show that, let alone cope with it.”

“He’s grown very close to Heath. Closer than I think he realized until last night.”

“You’re quite a perceptive young lady.” Victoria ran her fingers through Heath’s hair. “We’ve all grown close to Heath. And I agree with you. I think Nick was caught off guard by how deep their bond runs. Three years ago none of us could have imagined the two of them would become such good friends.”

“That’s for certain,” Audra smiled. “On some days I thought they were going to kill each other.”

“So did I, dear. So did I.” The woman looked up. “Now you go ahead and eat. I’ll call you if I need you.”

Audra had no more than left the room when Jarrod appeared. Once the lawyer was assured Heath was in the same condition he had been at three-thirty that morning, he agreed to join his sister at the breakfast table.

He kissed his mother on the top of the head. “After I eat I’ll be in the study doing paper work. If you need my help you come get me.”

“I will.”

“When Nick wakes up we’ll talk to the men.”

Victoria gazed at the ill man propped against the pillows, still deep in an exhausted slumber. Regardless, she stood and walked with Jarrod to a far corner of the room. She spoke as softly as possible, not wanting to risk Heath overhearing a single word.

“I suppose it has to be done.”

“Mother, you know we have no choice.” Jarrod’s hands came to rest on the woman’s shoulders as he, too, kept his voice barely above a whisper. “They have to know what everyone on this entire ranch is facing. Those who don’t get sick are going to have to help those who do. Nick and I talked it over last night. We’ll move everyone out of the bunkhouse closest to the well and transform it into an infirmary. If we’re lucky only a very few will fall ill. The odds should be with us that most of the men had diphtheria as children.”

“The odds weren’t with Heath.”

“No,…no they weren’t. But hopefully that won’t hold true for the majority of the men.”

“I just don’t want them blaming him.” Victoria tossed a worried glance at the man in the bed before returning her attention to her oldest. “You know how nasty some of them were to Heath when he first came here.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that. But if you remember correctly those who couldn’t adjust to Heath’s presence were sent packing by Nick.”

“That’s true. However; I’m well aware of the mindless panic an epidemic like this can cause to set in. The type of hysteria it creates can make even good people turn bad.”

“I realize that. But don’t you worry. Nick and I will handle it as diplomatically as possible.”

“Nick?” Victoria raised an eyebrow. “Diplomatic?”

Jarrod chuckled. “Okay, I’ll handle it as diplomatically as possible. Obviously the men will have to know Heath’s sick. There’s no point in attempting to keep it from them. Since we sent Phillip for the doctor there’s no doubt most of them know by now that something’s wrong. But they certainly don’t have to know Heath is the first one in the area who’s been diagnosed with the disease. It’s to our benefit that we’re under quarantine. They won’t be able to leave the ranch for several weeks, which decreases their likelihood of ever discovering differently.”

“And if one of them does?”

“If one of them does then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Jarrod gave his mother’s shoulders a squeeze. “Mother, most of those men out there have just as much loyalty to Heath as they do to the rest of us. He proved himself to them long ago. I don’t think any of them will deliberately say something to hurt him.”
“I hope you’re right, Jarrod.” Victoria patted her son’s left hand before returning to Heath’s bedside. “I sure hope so.”

*****

Part 2

Chapter 7

It was a few minutes before noon when Jarrod and Nick entered the chow hall. The big building made of logs held enough tables and chairs to seat one hundred men. The kitchen was at the far end and held three huge cast iron stoves.

The Barkleys currently had fifty-five men on their payroll. Some were already seated and eating the meal prepared by the two cooks Nick employed year round. The others were still moving through the line at the long counter that separated the dining hall from the kitchen.

It wasn’t unusual for Nick or Heath to join the men for lunch, but Jarrod’s presence was almost unheard of. The chatter that had filled the building only seconds before began to slowly give way to silence. The men glanced at one another with raised eyebrows as the two Barkley brothers remained standing at the head of the room.

Nick motioned for the men in line to continue filling their plates. When the last man had taken his chair Nick stepped forward and rested a foot on the seat of a vacant chair.

“Men, I’m sorry to interrupt your lunch. As most of you probably know by now, we had to send Phillip for Doctor Sheridan during the early hours of the morning.”

Several of the hands nodded, but no one said anything.

“Heath,…Heath is very sick.”

From the back of the room a man called, “What’s wrong with him, Nick?”

Nick looked to Jarrod. The lawyer got the impression his younger brother thought it would be best if he took over the conversation at this point. Knowing there was no point to stall or to lie, Jarrod got right to the heart of the matter.

“Heath has diphtheria.”

“Diphtheria!”

The word was exclaimed with varying degrees of shock from several parts of the vast building.

Questions flew fast and furious at the Barkley brothers. How sick was Heath? What did the doctor say his chances were of pulling through? Where did he come in contact with the dreaded disease? What did this mean for the ranch?

Nick held up a hand. It took a few moments, but finally everyone quieted.

“As I already said, Heath is very sick. His chances,…well, as Doc Sheridan said, he’s young and he’s strong so he’s got that on his side. As far as where he came in contact with the disease, we don’t know. Unfortunately, other people in Stockton are sick as well.” Nick made sure to remain vague on this last issue so the men wouldn’t realize Heath was the one who brought the disease to the area. “Everyone on the ranch is under quarantine until Doctor Sheridan says otherwise.”

One man stood.

“Yeah, Chuck?”

“What about those of us who haven’t had diphtheria?”

“I was just getting to that. After lunch I want everyone who’s been assigned to bunkhouse eight to clear their stuff out. You can move to number five, it’s empty right now. We’re going to turn eight into a makeshift infirmary. It’s nearest to the well so that means easy access to water. Strip the beds down, too. Jessybell will bring clean sheets and pillowcases. I want you to remake the beds with the linens she gives you so they’ll be ready if we need them. Those of us who don’t get sick will be pressed into service to help those who do. If you’ve already had diphtheria you can’t get it again. How many of you know for certain you’ve been sick with it at some point?”

Nick counted the hands that went up. Almost three-quarters of the men present knew they’d contracted the disease in childhood. Nick figured a few more who didn’t raise their hands may have had it, but were too young at the time to now recall being ill. Nonetheless, that still left a dozen or so men who were wide open targets for the deadly disease just as Heath had been.

“What about medicine?” came the panicked question from a young man who had been among those who didn’t raise his hand. “Can’t the doc give us something ‘fore we get sick?”

Jarrod shook his head. “I’m sorry, but no. There’s no medicine available that cures diphtheria. However; quinine does reduce the high fever brought on by the disease which in turn allows the body a better chance at fighting it off. Doctor Sheridan has no quinine in his office at this time, but he was going to wire the state medical office in San Francisco in an effort to get some sent here on the next train. I assure you that just as soon as it’s available to him it will be available to us. We’ll buy whatever is needed for those of you who get sick. As well, we’ll pay the doctor to come out here and tend to those of you who fall ill. But as you know, with any epidemic a doctor’s resources quickly become strained. That’s why, as Nick already stated, we’re going to have to help each other through this.”

Jarrod went on to explain that the first signs of the disease would be symptoms similar to a cold. He told the men that anyone who was already feeling ill should report to the infirmary just as soon as it was ready.

“Doctor Sheridan will be back out to see Heath later tonight or tomorrow morning. At that time we’ll have him examine any of you who aren’t feeling well.”

Nick and Jarrod waited to see if there were further questions or comments. When none were forthcoming they nodded their thanks to the men and left the building.

As soon as the brothers were out of earshot conversation buzzed. The men who’d been ill with diphtheria in the past had little to worry about and worked hard at assuring the others they’d help them in whatever way they could.

“There’s no use in gettin’ all riled up like a pack a’ coon hounds on a hunt,” a grizzled old hand assured. “If you’re bound to git sick then you’re bound to git sick. That’s in the hands of the good Lord. Ain’t nothin’ a one of youz can do about it so there’s no point in whinin’ like a dang blamed bunch a’ females.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Hank,” Chuck scowled. “Your hand went up when Nick asked who’s had diphtheria. Stop and think for a minute about those of us who couldn’t raise our hands. If Heath’s as sick as,…”

Hank dismissed that thought with a wave of his hand. “Heath’s a tough young feller. He’ll be fine.”

The man to Chuck’s right shook his head. “I don’t know. Did you see the look on Nick’s face when he talked about Heath bein’ sick? I think Heath’s pretty bad off, as a matter of fact I think he’s real bad off, only Nick can’t bring himself to tell us that.”

“You young whippersnappers don’t know nuthin’,” Hank scoffed. “Okay, so Heath is sick. I mean that’s what diphtheria does, it makes a body sick. But grown men the age of Heath and the ages of most of you just don’t die from it. Such a thing is near unheard of.”

Phillip Mattson, the ranch foreman, stood and put an end to the talk before panic could set in.

“Listen, men, there’s no use debating who’s going to get sick or how sick they’re going to get. None of us really knows the answer to those questions, now do we? Therefore; it would be in everyone’s best interest if we finish our meal, then do like Nick asked and get number eight turned into an infirmary. If we’re lucky we won’t need it. But if we do,…well, I’ve worked for the Barkleys for a lotta years now. Longer than some of you have been on this earth. More fair, good-hearted employers you’ll never find. Like Jarrod said, they’ll get each one of you whatever you need in the way of doctorin’ or medicine. So let’s do our part by sticking together and helping one another out. With Heath being sick the Barkleys don’t need to be fretting about us.”

A red-headed man behind Phillip turned his head away and mumbled to those seated around him. Phillip pinned him with a steely gaze.

“What was that, Carney?”

The ranch hand didn’t hesitate to offer his thoughts. “I said I bet old Heath won’t be joinin’ the sick ones in number eight even though that’s his rightful place. No, siree. I bet he gets tended to in style up there in the big house by that pretty half-sister of his.”

“You might as well put an end to that kind of talk right now, mister, ‘cause I guarantee you if Nick gets wind of it you’ll be lookin’ for a new job just as soon as the quarantine is lifted.” Phillip looked out over the remainder of the group. “That goes for the rest of you, too.”

No one said anything further on the subject as those men who still had an appetite returned to their attention to their lunch. Some were in strong agreement with Phillip, some felt like Darrel Carney but were wise enough to keep their mouths shut, while others were too new to the ranch to understand what the man meant about Heath and therefore held no opinion one way or the other.

As Phillip set his dishes on the counter and exited the hall a young man pushed his full plate aside. His older brothers sat on either side of him and exchanged concerned looks. The boy had just turned eighteen three weeks before and had only worked on the ranch for six months. He licked his dry lips while glancing from one brother to the next.

“I don’t remember having diphtheria when I was a kid.”

Jim Garver smiled and elbowed his kid brother. “You still are a kid.”

“Yeah, shrimp,” Pete Garver smirked, “just ‘cause you turned eighteen a few weeks back doesn’t mean you’re a man.”

Today was one day Bill Garver didn’t feel like arguing that point with his older brothers. Jim and Pete had been employed by the Barkleys for five years. It was through them that Bill had been hired on.

“I’ve been workin’ a lot with Heath lately,” Bill said. “And,…and a couple nights ago I started gettin’ a sore throat. This morning,…well this morning I was sneezing a lot and didn’t feel much like eating any breakfast. Can’t say I’m hungry for lunch, either.”
Jim put his hand on his baby brother’s shoulder. “Billy, don’t worry. It’s probably just a cold.”

“But Nick said,…”

“I know what Nick said. Still, I think you’re just borrowin’ trouble. But to be on the safe side I want you to check yourself into that infirmary just as soon as we get it ready. That way when Doc Sheridan comes out he can have a look at you.”

The boy gave a reluctant nod of his head. Pete pushed Billy’s plate back in front of him and ordered him to eat. Though food was the last thing the young man wanted at the moment, his brothers were watching him like mother hens with one chick.

Across the room another young man was having difficulty eating. Like Billy, Jeb Galloway hadn’t been feeling well for several days now. After getting off to a rocky start three years before, Jeb and Heath had grown to be good friends. If Jeb wasn’t working alongside Heath then the two of them were generally part of the group who went into Stockton together on Saturday nights, or who sat around the table in a bunkhouse playing poker. Jeb had learned a lot about ranching from Heath over the years and had come to admire him as a boss and as a friend. Jeb would readily acknowledge he even looked upon Heath as the big brother he’d never had.

The young cowboy touched a hand to his flaming throat before rubbing it over the aching muscles in his right arm. Jeb was worried about Heath, but then he was worried about himself as well.

*****

At the same time Jarrod and Nick were talking to the ranch hands, Heath coughed himself awake. For a few moments all he could register was the heat that made him feel like he was on fire from the inside, and the thick wall of mucus in his throat that caused him to wonder if each gasping breath would be his last. He was dimly aware of a towel being held to his mouth and small hands trying to urge him to his side. He did what the hands wanted, even allowing them to push his head toward the floor. The towel followed the hands and a voice that was both gentle and firm urged him to spit the phlegm into the white cotton cloth.

Heath continued to do as the woman ordered until he had nothing left to bring up. Or at least nothing that would come up since it still felt like a rope three inches wide had taken up residence in his throat.

It wasn’t until Heath was helped back to a sitting position that his eyes focused on his nurse. Victoria gave him a gentle smile while running a cold cloth over his face. He moved his face into cloth, welcoming the few seconds of relief it brought.

Victoria held a glass of water to his lips next. Heath didn’t even try to hold it himself, he simply leaned forward and took three healthy swallows before falling back against his pillows.

“Do you want more, Heath?”

The blond shook his head while giving a mumbled, “No. Not right now.”

“How about something to eat? Silas has some chicken noodle soup warming on the stove for you. And Jake said you should try to eat some bread, too.”
“Jake?” Heath’s voice came out in a rough croak two octaves deeper than was normal for him.

“Doctor Sheridan.”

“When was he here?”

Victoria sat back down in her chair. She dipped the cloth in the basin of water again, then returned to sponging Heath’s face and neck. “Early this morning. Don’t you remember?”

Heath looked around his room in confusion. By glancing out the window he could tell it was noon. What in the world was he still doing in bed at this time of the day? And more importantly, why had Nick allowed such a thing?

“Sweetheart?”

Victoria’s voice caused Heath to refocus on her.

“Do you remember Jake being here?”

“No. The last thing I remember…,” Heath turned away. He clutched his chest and coughed until he the spasm passed. He was surprised to discover that, just like earlier, it left him weak and barely able to lift his head from the pillows. For the first time he took notice of how funny his voice sounded. Hoarse and harsh like anyone’s voice sounds when they have a head cold, but also like his throat had been coated with milk. “The last thing I remember is comin’ in from the barn after me and Nick got home.”

“That would have been late last night. Around eleven o’clock Nick said.”
“What happened then?”

“As near as we can guess your temperature shot way up and you became delirious. You woke the entire house when you tumbled down the stairs. Your brothers ran out of their rooms with guns drawn expecting to surprise an intruder trying to break into the safe, only to find you unconscious in the foyer.”

Heath was amazed he didn’t recall any of those events, nor what had occurred between that time and now, twelve full hours later.

“What’d Jake say?”

“Just that you need to rest for a few days. You shouldn’t have been working so hard, Heath. You should have told Nick how sick you really were.”

“But it’s just a cold.”

Victoria started to dispute that, then with a quick change of heart decided not to.

Maybe his chances of pulling through this will be better if he doesn’t realize what’s wrong.

“You’re right,” Victoria acknowledged as she fiddled with the edge of the blanket that covered her son. “It’s just a cold. Well, a cold and a bad case of the flu, but Jake says plenty of rest and good food will have you back on your feet in no time.”
“Never been in bed with a cold before.”

“Then you’ve missed out on the opportunity to be thoroughly pampered by me and your sister.”

Heath smiled at the teasing. “I seem to recall gettin’ that opportunity on a couple other occasions, but usually I had a bullet in me or had been kicked in the head by an ornery bronc.”

“All the more reason why this time we’re thankful it’s just a cold,” Victoria lied without so much as a blink. “Nonetheless, you’re run down and need to stay right in this bed until Jake says otherwise. Don’t you even think of sneaking outside the first time my back is turned.”

Heath coughed again, then allowed his eyes to fall shut. He felt like he had an elephant sitting on his chest.

“No, Ma’am. I won’t be sneakin’ off on you.”

Victoria was glad her son’s eyes were closed. If he’d seen her face he would have immediately guessed he had more than ‘just a cold.’ His comment about not sneaking outside on her was enough to indicate to Victoria how sick he really was. It had gotten to be a family joke that at some point during Heath’s recuperation from an injury he’d invariably be found in the barn before the doctor had given his okay. Victoria had come to expect such an occurrence, and Heath had made a game out of getting her goat over it. No matter how many times she caught him treading down the back stairs and marched him back to bed, he’d eventually foil her. He’d only laugh like a chastised schoolboy when she finally found him and threatened to tan his hide with her wooden spoon.

Heath must have known what she was thinking. As she continued to wipe his burning face he gave her a tired grin and said, “This is one time you won’t have to come searchin’ for me with your wooden spoon.”
“Is that a promise, cowboy?”
Worry creased the corners of Victoria’s eyes when Heath did no more than give a tiny nod of his head.

“Honey, I’m going to get Audra to come in here and keep wiping you down with cool water. While she’s doing that I’ll get your lunch tray ready.”

“I’m not really hungry.”

“I know. But you have to eat. Doctor’s orders.”

Heath made no reply. Victoria patted his shoulder, then went in search of Audra.

The blond man was barely aware of his sister taking his mother’s place. He recognized Audra’s voice and the smell of her perfume, but he was too tired to open his eyes. He thought it was strange that he should be so exhausted after having just awoken from twelve hours worth of sleep, but he didn’t have the presence of mind to question that occurrence.

Heath didn’t mean to give the women a hard time over the food. He wasn’t even aware he was fighting their attempts to spoon soup in his mouth and get him to take a few bites of fresh bread straight from the oven and lathered with butter, something he normally loved. The next thing he was really cognizant of was the side of the mattress dipping under a weight that was heavier than Victoria’s or Audra’s, then Nick’s voice deep and stern.

“Come on now, Heath. One way or another you’re gonna eat this.”

Heath tried to turn his head from the spoon aimed at his mouth but to no avail. Another pair of male hands firmly cupped both sides of his face. Jarrod’s voice joined Nick’s.

“Heath, I know you don’t feel like eating but you have to. Now do as Nick says and open your mouth.”

Heath wondered what everyone was making such a fuss over. After all, he just had a cold. If they’d simply leave and let him sleep he’d be fine in a day or two.

The feverish man bucked his body upward. Nick jumped up, barely keeping his hold on the soup bowl. What sloshed over fell onto the plate Silas had the foresight to set the bowl atop of, but not before droplets of the hot liquid splattered onto Nick’s hand.

“Dammit, Heath! You stop that right now and eat,….”

Victoria grabbed Heath’s shoulders while Audra dove for his ankles.

“Nick, he doesn’t know what he’s doing!” Victoria shouted over Heath’s incoherent cries.

“There’s no use getting mad at him! Just start sponging him down while we hold him still.”

Nick set the soup on the top of Heath’s dresser and did as his mother ordered. It took a few minutes, but the cool water seemed to help. Heath relaxed enough for Victoria to let go of him and join Nick in his efforts. How long of a time passed before the spoon was put in front of his mouth again Heath didn’t know. He had no memory of fighting his family, and was confused as to why his brothers were in the room when the last thing he recalled was Victoria entering with the lunch tray. The blond man was too sick to ask any questions. He simply opened his mouth and took what Nick offered. He turned his head away after three swallows, but was coaxed by his brother into taking four more. He refused the bread completely until Victoria pleaded, “Please, son, for me. Just one bite.”

Heath drank half the glass of water Jarrod held to his lips. He hated the feeling of thickness in his throat and couldn’t understand why all the liquids he was getting didn’t make it go away.

The blond man slipped in and out of delirium as the afternoon passed. His temperature climbed to an alarming height. His face burned bright red as though he’d run a mile under the hot sun, and the women had a difficult time keeping up with changing the soaked linens that lay beneath him.

What was going on in Heath’s mind, or what he was seeing when he opened his fever-glazed eyes, his family didn’t know. If he spoke at all it was in Spanish so expert and rapid that Nick could only catch a couple of words from each sentence.

The dark headed man took a wet cloth from his mother and placed it on his brother’s forehead. “Heath, it’s okay now. You’re not in Mexico, you’re with your family on the ranch. Speak English, Heath. Speak English so we can understand you.”

Heath reached up and grabbed Nick by the shirt collar. He pulled his brother’s face to his. He still spoke in Spanish, but this time his words came out slow and distinct. Though Victoria, Audra, and Jarrod had no idea what he was saying, they could sense the air of sincerity behind Heath’s tone. Victoria was shocked to see Nick break into a grin, then begin to laugh.

As Heath collapsed back to his pillows Audra asked, “What did he say, Nick?”

“Well, he just called me Lupe`, told me I have the most beautiful eyes he’s ever seen, listed one or two other,…attributes I won’t repeat in front of you ladies, and then he asked me to marry him.”

“To marry him!” Audra exclaimed. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Who’s Lupe`?”

Jarrod shook his head with amusement. “I have no idea, little sister. But it sure will provide us with plenty of entertainment when Heath is feeling up to telling the story.”
Victoria smiled at her children’s fun. During the past three years the Barkleys had come to learn that Heath’s reserved nature was as much a part of him as the slight Southern drawl he got from his mother, and the blond hair he inherited from his Grandfather Barkley. There were still a lot of things about Heath’s past his family knew nothing of. Every time he revealed little tidbits it was like getting to see the inside of a treasure box.

The afternoon gave way to evening. Victoria sent her children down to the dining room to eat in shifts. Victoria herself protested when Jarrod insisted she do the same, but finally gave into her eldest. She did no more than pick at her meal. By looking at the food left on the table the woman knew her sons and daughter had done the same. She looked up with a start when she felt a hand rest on her shoulder.

Silas’s soft voice was as soothing as a warm cup of hot cocoa at the end of a long, cold hike.

“He’ll be all right, Mrs. Barkley. My Heath,…he’s a strong boy. Tough in a way most others have never had to be.”

Victoria smiled. She reached up and patted her house servant’s hand. “Your Heath,…that he is, isn’t he, Silas. Your breakfast companion, your friend,…”

“The child I watch over for Mr. Barkley.”

“Pardon?”

Silas pulled out a chair and sat next to the mistress of the house. He’d worked for her so long that neither one of them thought twice about his actions.

“I,…well, Ma’am, I expect you’ll think ole’ Silas has gone around the bend if I tell you this.”

“Tell me what?”

“Not that long after Mr. Heath came to us, I had a dream, Mrs. Barkley.”

“A dream?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Or at least I guess you’d call it that. Sometimes I believe it was more like a vision just like the visions my mama used to get.”

“What was this dre,…vision?”

“I was in the kitchen makin’ breakfast just like I do every morning. And he was there, Ma’am, sitting right in the chair Mr. Heath sits in when he comes down early and eats with me.”

“Who was there?”

“Mr. Barkley. Do you remember how he used to rise before the sun on many a morning and join me for breakfast long before the rest of you were up?”

“I certainly do. Tom enjoyed the times the two of you spent together.”

“And I surely enjoyed those times, too, Ma’am. I got to know Mr. Barkley in a way I never would have had it not been for those mornings. I’ve always thought it was a special sign from the Lord that my Heath does the same thing. None of the other children do. Not even Mr. Nick who’s an early riser, too. They never have. Just Heath. Almost from the very first day he came here. So as I was sayin’, one night I thought I was dreaming. And in the dream Mr. Barkley was eating breakfast with me. I was tellin’ him all about Mr. Heath, what brought him to live with you all, and what a good man he is – how proud Mr. Barkley would be if he could meet him. And then he reached over and patted my arm,…why I even felt the warmth of his hand, I did. He smiled at me and said, ‘Silas, promise you’ll watch over my boy for me. Be a special friend to my Heath.’

“I smiled back at him and told him I’d do as he asked until my dying day. Then,…well then I’d say I woke up, only I don’t think I really did.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ma’am, I wasn’t in bed at all, but in the kitchen. I was sitting at the table eating breakfast, and there right next to me was a half-empty plate and a chair pushed out as though someone had just gotten up. At first, I thought I’d just been daydreaming and Mr. Heath had been with me. But then he came whistling down the back stairs and that’s when I knew that somehow, Mr. Barkley had really been there.”

Victoria didn’t dispute Silas’s story. Though she was certain he really had been dreaming, or perhaps sleepwalking would be a better term for it, she could tell the tale brought him comfort. In an odd sort of way it brought her comfort, too. Before she could say anything she heard Audra shout from above. She gave Silas a final smile while assuring, “Heath will pull through this, Silas, just you wait and see,” before running for the stairs.

Audra met her mother in the hallway. “Heath’s temperature just keeps getting higher. Nick wants us to fill the bathtub with cool water. He thinks that’s the only way to bring the fever down until Doctor Sheridan gets here with the quinine.”

“Good idea.”

The women dashed to the bathroom. When the deep tub was half full of cool water Victoria shut the faucet off. Audra retrieved a clean towel and washcloth from the linen closet while her mother got a fresh pair of sleeping pants from Heath’s dresser drawer. The women left the items in the bathroom, then moved out of the way while Nick and Jarrod manhandled their brother to the tub.

It didn’t take long for the brothers to strip Heath of what little he was wearing. Getting him in the tub was another matter. Though he was only semi-conscious, he fought them with a vengeance. Nick winced in sympathy when Heath gave his right shin a solid whack on the lip of the tub. No doubt the blond would sport a heck of a bruise in a short period of time, but for now that was of little consequence. Jarrod and Nick finally had no choice but to grapple their sibling into a sitting position and plunk him into the tub. Heath continued to fight. He trashed in the tub like a fish in shallow water, clawing for the lip in an effort to climb out. Water flew in all directions until Nick and Jarrod were as wet as their brother. But as the cool water began to work its magic on the overheated body the fight slowly ebbed from Heath. He finally sagged against the back of the tub, his head cradled in Nick’s hand.

Though three-quarters of Heath’s body was immersed in water, Jarrod and Nick used their hands to lap the cool liquid onto Heath’s upper chest and shoulders. Jarrod reached for the washcloth his sister had left on the counter. He soaked it with water then ran it over Heath’s face. When the water in the tub began to grow lukewarm Jarrod turned on the gold faucet marked cold. This action was repeated twice until the brothers began to notice a drop in Heath’s body temperature.

Heath’s first thought when he opened his eyes and stared up at the bathroom ceiling was to wonder why he was sitting in a cold tub of water. He had to admit it felt darn good, but he could never recall taking a cold bath before. Yes, he’d washed up with cold water plenty of times on a hot summer’s day, but to actually soak in a frigid tub? No, not that he could recall. The next thing Heath was aware of was two pairs of hands supporting him in a reclining position while lapping water on him. Heath shifted his eyes. He was embarrassed to discover his brothers bending over him but immediately decided that was better than the other alternative – Victoria and Audra.

“Well, fellas, I don’t suppose the ladies would consider either one of you too ugly, but you’re not exactly my choice of bathin’ partners.”

Jarrod and Nick grinned. They’d welcome the good-natured insult in exchange for the delirium that had plagued Heath all afternoon.

“You’re not exactly my choice either, Mo,” Nick shot back, using the nickname he’d somehow derived over the years from Heath’s middle name of Morgan, “but beggars can’t be choosers on a lonely Tuesday night.”

Heath chuckled before turning his face toward the wall. He allowed himself to sink further down into the water. Since he was now lucid neither Jarrod or Nick stopped this action, but let him submerge as much of his body as he could.

The blond cowboy didn’t realize his teeth had begun to chatter until Nick said, “Okay, let’s get you out of there.”

“No, Nick,” came the weak protest. “It feels good.”

“It might feel good, but you’re shivering. Come on now, don’t make me and Jarrod fight you outta there the same way we fought you in.”

Heath knew there was no use to argue further. He didn’t have the strength to take on either one of his brothers at this point, let alone both of them.

Under normal circumstances, Heath would have been mortified to have his brothers dress him and then support him while he emptied his bladder. But these weren’t normal circumstances and he was grateful for their firm grips on his elbows. As they walked Heath back to his bedroom he fleetingly wondered again how a cold could make him feel like he had one foot in the grave, but before he could question this Victoria and Audra were fussing over him as though he was visiting royalty, and Jarrod was easing him down onto clean crisp sheets, and Nick was forcing him to eat some soup and drink some water, and then a severe coughing spasm had everyone pounding on his back and bending him this way and that, and then he collapsed against the pillows to the sound of Victoria issuing a rotating schedule that would have the blond’s family taking turns sitting up with him throughout the night. Again, Heath wanted to tell them it was just a cold and not to fret so, but long before he could get the words out of his mouth he was asleep.

*****

Chapter 8

Jacob Sheridan surveyed the large room. The pulpit and pews within the Congregational Church had been replaced by neat rows of cots and pallets. The first thing Jake had done after returning from the Barkley ranch was to send a wire to the state medical office pleading for all the quinine they could give him. As soon as the town was awake and people stirring, the second thing Jake had done was gather together Stockton’s businessmen and church leaders. He apprised them of deadly illness that was about to descend on their town. He honored his promise to Victoria when he said no more than, “Heath Barkley is already very sick. I’ve seen several other people who are also coming down with the disease.”

Reverend Dyer immediately offered the Congregational Church for use as an infirmary. Jake soon had more volunteers than he could count. While men moved the pews and other artifacts to the church basement, or to storage sheds on their own property, women made up cots and pallets with blankets and sheets they brought from home. Mr. Krueger cleared his shelves in the general store of towels, wash clothes, pitchers and bowls, anything that might be used to hold water and in turn to wipe down bodies wracked with fever was greatly appreciated. By seven o’clock that Tuesday evening, less than twenty-four hours after Jake had seen Heath, he had quarantined fourteen people within the walls of the church.

The doctor smiled at a young mother who was bathing her feverish three-year-old daughter with cool water. He bent over the crying child who squirmed to get away from him.

“Now come on, Emma, is that any way to treat your old friend Doctor Jake?”

The little girl cried harder when Jake raked a ticklish finger over her abdomen.

“I’m sorry, Doctor Sheridan,” Nan Whitcomb apologized. “Emma doesn’t seem to make for a good patient.”

“No one makes for a good patient when they feel like little Emma here does, Mrs. Whitcomb. Keep bathing her like you’re doing, and try to get her to cough. Put the heel of your hand to her back like I showed you and thrust upward.”
“Yes, sir.”

Jake rose and moved to kneel between the next two cots. Emma’s older siblings lay on them with their father in attendance. The only thing that indicated six-year-old Grace was still among the living was the ruby red circles on her cheeks. The child reclined on her cot so still and lifeless, as though her body didn’t have the desire to fight its invader. On the cot to Grace’s left was her eight-year-old brother Neil. The boy gave Jake a weak smile while the doctor listened to his heart and lungs, then placed a palm on his hot forehead.

“Hey there, Neil, how’s my best patient doing?”

“My throat hurts real bad, Doctor Jake. And my chest,…it hurts worse than that time Marvin Meyers sat on me in the schoolyard. And he’s big and fat even.”

Jake gave the boy’s cheek a gentle pat. “I know your chest hurts, son. That’s why it’s important that you cough as often and as much as you can. Your sisters,…well they’re just little girls yet and they’re going to need your ma and pa to help them out. But you’re practically a grown man, so you remember to cough like I showed you. Will you do that for me?”

“I’ll try.”

“Good boy.”

Neil’s father followed Jake as the doctor moved away from his family. Halden Whitcomb looked back at his sick children, then steered Jake to a far corner of the building.

“What are my children’s chances, Doc?”

“Hal, you know I can’t quote you odds. Like I told you and Nan this morning, it’s imperative that we try to bring their fevers down while getting them to eat and cough. If a supply of quinine arrives then the chances of survival increase somewhat.”

“I know what diphtheria can do,” the man hissed, “so don’t treat me like some half-witted hillbilly. Twenty years ago I was the oldest of nine children. Because of an epidemic just like this one my folks only have two children left. I’m one of ‘em, my brother George the other. It only took one week, Doc. In one week’s time my mother and father buried seven kids. Seven. Me, I only got three little ones. And then you wonder why I want you to quote me odds.”

“I don’t wonder, Hal. Believe me, I understand. But you know I can’t predict who will live and who will die.”

“But it’s usually the young ones and the old ones who don’t have enough strength to weather the disease, right?”

“Often times, yes. Though this strain of the disease is a bit different and quite unpredictable. When I saw Heath Barkley last night he was much sicker than I would have expected given a man his age and size.”

“So he’s the carrier? The Barkley bastard is the one who brought the disease here?”
William Dyer stepped up behind the two men before Jake could form a reply.

“Mr. Whitcomb, I’ll not have that kind of talk in this building. Regardless of what purpose a church is used for, it’s still God’s house.”

“I’m sorry, Reverend, but if those are the facts then I have a right to know. My children are sick. They may die! And if that no good, sorry excuse for a man,…”

“Mr. Whitcomb, have you ever met Heath Barkley?” William asked.

“Pardon?”

“Have you ever met Heath Barkley?”

“I’ve seen him around town a few times, but if you’re asking if we’ve been formally introduced then no. No, I’ve never spoken to the man.”

“Then how can you stand in judgment of him?”

“Look, Reverend, you of all people should understand he’s the product of sin. Why the Bible tells us,…”

“The Bible tells us that we’re all sinners, Mr. Whitcomb. Every single one of us regardless of how, where, or why we were born. Now unlike you, I do know Heath Barkley. He’s a good man. A kind man. A hard working man. And just like your Neil, Grace, and Emma, Heath is someone’s child. No, Victoria Barkley didn’t give birth to him, but she loves Heath as if he was her own. And right at this moment, I can guarantee you she’s doing the same things you are. She’s worrying, and she’s praying, and she’s losing sleep, and she’s tending to her sick child. Now you go back over there and tend to your own children. There’s no use in pointing fingers or playing guessing games. We all have to pull together to help one another in times of crisis. Regardless of how this disease came to Stockton, certainly no one, no one willfully brought it here.”

Halden Whitcomb looked from the minister to the doctor. His jaw tightened and he shook his head in disgust. As he turned away they heard him mutter, “Then you just don’t understand his kind. Who knows what things he carries around inside himself as God’s punishment for the wrongdoings of the woman who birthed him.”

Jake watched the rancher settle himself back in the chair that had been placed between the cots of his six and eight-year-olds. He turned to the minister with a cocked eyebrow.

William read all he needed to in that one gesture. “You didn’t know?”

“That Heath isn’t Mrs. Barkley’s son? No. This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“My wife and I came to Stockton four years ago. Heath arrived about six months after we did. He showed up on the ranch one day in January claiming to be the illegitimate son of Tom Barkley. Whatever proof he brought with him of those words, or whatever the family uncovered after his arrival, I don’t know. All I do know is he’s long been accepted by the Barkleys as both brother and son. The gossip surrounding Heath has died down over the years, which probably attributes to why you haven’t heard the story before now. But despite that, people don’t forget. Nor do they forgive.”

“Forgive? What would anyone have to forgive Heath for?”

“That’s the sad thing, Jake. Nothing. They have absolutely nothing to forgive Heath for. But Tom Barkley was already dead when Heath came to Stockton so making him own up to his mistake wasn’t possible. Unfortunately, there will always be people like Hal Whitcomb who insist on making the son pay for his father’s transgressions.”

Jake thought a long moment before making a reply. “Until my dying day I’ll never understand the ignorance of a man like Whitcomb.”

“I won’t either. But whether you and I like it or not, there’s plenty of it to go around in this world. And when something like this happens, when a disease as deadly as diphtheria strikes an area, then fear tends to bring out the worst in even some of the best people.”

Jake nodded his head, bowing to William’s experience in this matter. The Connecticut born doctor was twenty-eight years old. This was the first epidemic of any kind he’d been forced to face. If Halden Whitcomb’s attitude was an indication of what was to come Jake wondered how he’d handle the strife.

More importantly, he wondered how Heath Barkley would handle it should he still be alive by the end of the week.

*****

Chapter 9

Heath was so certain he was on fire he tried to roll against the sheets to put the flames out. Heat more blistering than any he had ever felt baked his skin. And smoke,…the room had to be filled with smoke. That’s the only explanation he could think of for why he couldn’t breathe.

Victoria tried to calm Heath as he thrashed and flailed in vain attempts to get air to his lungs.

“Heath! Heath,…sweetheart, settle down. I know you’re hot, but you need to lie still. Heath, Mother’s here! Try to cough for me, Heath. Heath, try to cough!”

When the blond began to gasp for air Victoria knew she was fighting a losing battle. It was two o’clock in the morning, other than the glow from the lamp in Heath’s room the rest of the Barkley household was dark and quiet. Victoria had relieved Jarrod from Heath’s bedside at midnight. Heath was sleeping comfortably at that time, but had begun to grow restless as the early morning hours wore on.

The woman flew down the hall. Nick had left his door open and was sleeping fully clothed on top of his bedspread.

“Nick! Nick, I need your help! Heath can’t breathe!”

Nick was on his feet within seconds of hearing his mother’s cry. He dashed by her and tore into his brother’s room.

The rancher grabbed the thrashing Heath by the underarms. Nick lifted the blond man like he would a rag doll and positioned Heath’s abdomen across his bent knee. With Heath’s head dangling toward the floor Nick took his palm and thrust hard between his brother’s shoulder blades. Heath choked and gagged, but seemed unable to produce a healthy cough. Nick tried again and again, only to get the same results.

Nick was barely aware of Jarrod joining him. Like his brother, Jarrod hadn’t bothered to shed any clothes other than his socks when he’d gone to bed. Nick’s bangs flopped in and out of his eyes as he hammered on Heath’s back with his fist. Jarrod took the bulk of the blond’s weight and positioned Heath’s belly over his forearms.

“Hit him harder, Nick! Hit him harder!”

Heath’s arms swum upward like a drowning man searching for the surface of the water. Nick glanced over his shoulder at his mother and Audra. Like Jarrod, the young woman had been roused by the sound of her mother calling for Nick.

“Move my bed next to the fireplace!” Nick ordered the women. “Wake Silas and have him get a fire started, then fill the biggest kettle we’ve got with water and get it boiling. Shut the door and windows. When it’s thick with steam we’ll move Heath into my room.”

Victoria thought briefly of vetoing that. The steam-filled room would only make Heath hotter. But then she heard the blond man struggle to draw in another wheezing gasp and knew they had no choice. If Heath couldn’t breathe easier soon, the mucus plug formed by the disease would choke him to death. The woman grabbed her daughter by the hand. They rushed from the room to do what Nick ordered.

Victoria never knew how her sons managed to keep Heath alive that night until Nick’s room was ready. The awful wheezing could be heard all the way down the hall intermixed with the men’s shouts of encouragement to their brother, and the sound of Nick’s hand pounding against the bare skin of Heath’s back.

By the time Victoria returned to Heath’s bedside to tell her sons they could move their brother the sick man’s upper back was one massive bruise. Nick’s palm print clearly formed the outline of the black and blue mark.

Without asking for Jarrod’s help Nick moved Heath to a reclining position then scooped him up in his arms. He staggered for a moment under his brother’s weight, then got his balance and headed out the door.

“Nick, your back,” Victoria reminded the man of the sensitive back he possessed after years of bronc busting and sitting in a saddle. “Let Jarrod take some of his weight from you.”

“I’m fine! You two go on ahead so you can help me get him to the bed.”

Within seconds of entering his bedroom Nick’s hair was limp and hanging in his eyes. By the time he was easing Heath to his bed he could feel sweat trickling down his chest and pooling in his underarms. Nick used a hand to brush his hair back. A quick look at his family through the humid fog found them in the same condition.

The massive bed Nick slept in had been moved within five feet of the fireplace. The space allowed just enough walking room without tripping over the hearth. Using heavy oven mitts Victoria and Jarrod lifted the kettle of boiling water from the fire. The woman directed her son to help her set the steaming kettle in the middle of the hearth.

Nick turned from the bed where he and Audra were propping Heath against four pillows. “Why are you taking that off the fire?”

“Nick! Jarrod! Move your brother over here.”

“What?”

“Get him out of that bed and down onto his knees in front of this kettle! Audra, bring me the biggest towel we’ve got.” Victoria moved out of the way so her sons could do as she ordered. “Be careful of his arms. Nick, you’ll have to hold them against his sides so he doesn’t burn himself.”

Nick still wasn’t sure what his mother had in mind, but once he and Jarrod grappled Heath to his knees Nick had to straddle his brother’s back in order to keep Heath in place.

“Whatever you’re gonna do you’d better hurry! He might be sick, but he’s still damn strong. I can’t hold him like this for long.”

“Here, Mother,” Audra ran to Victoria’s side. “Here’s the towel.”

Victoria took the thick white cloth and with a flick of her wrist snapped it open. She laid the towel across the back of Heath’s bent head. Nick nodded when he saw what his mother was trying to accomplish. The towel formed a drape around Heath’s head and shoulders that forced the steam to billow directly into his face.

As more heat assaulted the already flaming Heath he fought with renewed fury. He couldn’t put faces to the voices shouting at him from all directions, and even if he could have their words made no sense. He screamed his rage in a voice louder than anyone had ever heard him use before. He rose up on his knees twisting and turning his upper body, doing whatever he had to in order to rid himself of the crushing weight that was hindering his freedom.

Nick Barkley had ridden some mean-spirited broncs in his day, but he couldn’t ever recall one that fought with the frenzy his brother possessed. If Jarrod hadn’t been there to help him Nick knew he would have lost his grip on Heath’s sweat-slicked body. Nick felt Jarrod’s weight come down on top of him and for just a second the old schoolyard game of monkey pile came to mind.

Shouts flew from all directions.

“Heath, stop it! Stop it now or I swear I’ll knock you out!”

“It’s all right, Heath! Heath, it’s Jarrod and Nick! It’s all right!”

“Heath,…Heath, please. Don’t fight the boys! They’re only trying to help you! Please, Heath!”

“Sweetheart, calm down! It’s okay! No one’s going to hurt you!”

The fever-crazed man paid no attention to his family’s pleas. He screamed a string of obscenities that even Nick had never heard him use before. Heath tried to whip his brothers off his back, his mind racing ahead to his next move.

The door! The door! Gotta find the door!

Hot. So hot in here. The door! Outside. Cold outside.

Go. Let me go! Don’t like to be held down! No! No one will ever do that to me again. Let me go!

Just as Heath was about to break his bonds and race for freedom, one voice raised loud in command penetrated his brain.

“Heath Morgan Thomson Barkley, I said calm down! Now I mean it!” Two small hands reached under the towel and grasped Heath’s face. “Calm down, Heath. Calm down!”

And with that the fight went out of Heath. He was so hot. And so weak. And so sick. And though he would never admit it to anyone, so scared. So very scared. But her voice, the voice of the woman he called mother, was like a beacon that guided him home.

Heath sagged forward. Only Victoria’s hands kept his face from falling into the hot water.

Jarrod waited a few tense seconds, then slowly eased himself off Nick’s back. Nick groaned when he, too, finally felt it was safe to climb off Heath. He knelt on his brother’s left side while Jarrod did the same on Heath’s right. The two men kept Heath positioned over the kettle so he’d get the full benefit of the steam.

Ten minutes later Victoria sent up a prayer of thanks when the wheezing gave way to coughing. She could hear the phlegm moving through Heath’s chest and throat. She took another towel Audra handed her and held it to his mouth. Like Victoria and her family had done in the past, she encouraged Heath to spit up what he could.

When Heath wasn’t able to cough any more Victoria removed the towel from his head. His face was red and sweat ran down his cheeks like tears. He didn’t open his eyes, but by feel alone slumped into his stepmother. Victoria held him against her collarbone and kissed his burning forehead. She was well aware they had little time to waste at bringing his fever down, but also knew that, for however brief, both she and Heath needed this hug more than they needed anything else.

Nick and Jarrod moved the bed away from the fireplace. Nick directed Audra to open the bedroom door halfway and to crack a window. He and Jarrod then hung the kettle back over the fire so steam could still fill the room to some degree.

Heath was barely cognizant of being lifted from Victoria’s arms by his brothers and carried to the bed. His family began bathing him with cool water. The high temperature was taking its toll on the man with each passing second and he no longer recognized the relief the water brought. His tried to push the hands away from his body. In complete contrast to minutes earlier, Heath was now so weak Audra was able to grasp his wrists and hold his arms against the mattress.

Dawn was casting light in the eastern sky before Heath quieted. The night had seemed to be three days long as far as Victoria was concerned. She looked at her bedraggled family. Audra was still in her nightgown and robe. Her hair was limp like overcooked noodles and eye makeup she hadn’t washed off before going to bed streaked her cheeks black like the markings on an Indian warrior. Sweat stained the back of Jarrod’s shirt and formed big wet rings around Nick’s underarms. Victoria knew she wasn’t in any better shape. Her hair hung loose around her face, her shirt and underclothes clung to her body in a way that made her long for a bath. The room was hot and stuffy, but the trade-off to the discomfort was that Heath was able to draw in life-giving air.

Nick stood and ushered everyone to the door. “The three of you eat some breakfast and try to get some sleep.”

“What about you?” Jarrod asked.

“Silas can bring me a tray.”

“You need to sleep, too, Nick,” Victoria said.

“I’m not that tired. Unlike you and Jarrod I managed to get a few winks in before Heath got bad.”

Victoria raised a skeptical eyebrow. Nick’s bloodshot eyes and pinched features told her what little sleep he’d gotten was restless and wrought with worry.

Audra gave one last look at the man on the bed before Nick pushed her out of the room.

“Go on, little sister. Get dressed, fancy up your hair like you do, put some of that goop on your face,…”

“Goop? Nicholas Barkley, I’ll have you know make-up is not goop.”

“Whatever. All I know is Heath is gonna be mighty disappointed if you give him reason not to brag that you’re the prettiest sister a man could have.”

Nick’s words brought tears to Audra’s eyes. “I’d never disappoint him, Nick.”

Nick encircled his sister with one arm and kissed her temple. “I know you wouldn’t, honey.”

Audra leaned into the cowboy’s chest. For just a moment she was a little girl of four again and in awe of the thirteen-year-old brother she called Nicky who chased monsters from her room every night and carried her down the stairs on his shoulders each morning.

Nick’s eyes followed his sister’s to the bed. In a voice barely above a whisper he assured, “He’s tough, Audra. He’s so damn tough. Nothing can keep him down. We’ll get him through this. I promise we’ll get him through this.”

Victoria squeezed Audra’s hand as the girl passed through the doorway. Jarrod put an arm around his mother’s shoulders and walked Victoria to her room. He was just about to pull the door closed for his mother when he saw her cross to the big windows that overlooked her flower garden. She stood there so tiny and alone. He watched as she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.

The lawyer stepped up behind his mother. She gave a soft smile when she felt his touch on her shoulders. She reached up and grasped one of his hands with hers.

It was as Victoria stood there taking in the first rays of sun kissing the blooming roses that she started to cry. Jarrod turned her around and pressed her head to his chest.

“Hey, there. Hey, now. None of that. You heard Nick. Heath’s going to pull through this.”

“But it’s all my fault.”

“Your fault? What makes you say that?”

“Oh, Jarrod, I knew there was a diphtheria epidemic in Laton. Opal Manners told me weeks ago one Sunday after church. I should have known when Heath first started complaining about having allergies that he was getting sick. I should have known.”

Jarrod cupped his hand under his mother’s chin and forced her to look up at him. “Now how could you have known?”

“I should have asked him. Don’t you see, I should have asked him if he’d ever had diphtheria. But I didn’t. I remember how thankful I was the day Opal told me about it. I remember thinking how grateful I was that my family was safe because my children had the disease long ago. But I,….I guess I just lumped Heath together with the rest of you in my mind. Why did I do that, Jarrod? How could I have been so careless? If I had been thinking clearly I would have known I needed to ask Heath if he’d ever had it. If I’d done that he wouldn’t be as sick as he is now.”

“Mother, first of all knowing or not knowing wouldn’t have given you a guarantee in terms of how sick Heath would become. Even Jake can’t predict something like that ahead of time.”

“But if I would have known he never had diphtheria then I would have also known that he had a lot more than a cold when he first started getting sick. Oh, Jarrod, why didn’t he tell one of us how bad he was feeling? Why did he continue to work long hours day after day when he should have been in bed?”

“That just how Heath is. You know that. Like Nick said, he’s tough. Maybe too tough for his own good sometimes. But Heath doesn’t complain to anyone in this family about anything concerning himself. He never has and I doubt he ever will.”

“And that’s all the more reason why it’s my job to watch out for him.”

“I realized a long time ago you made that your self-appointed duty,” Jarrod smiled, “but I didn’t think I’d ever hear you admit it.”

“I didn’t,….” Victoria moved away from her son and walked back to the window. “I know it sounds strange, but a woman never quite gets over the need to mother her children. After Eugene went off to college,…well, none of you needed me any longer in quite the way you had before. No one turned to me anymore for guidance or just a shoulder to lean on when life got too rough.”

“And then Heath came.”

“Yes,” Victoria nodded. “Then Heath came. If ever there was a young man who needed the gentle influence of a mother it was him. During his early days with us I can’t say I imagined our relationship would grow to what it is today. As a matter of fact I often wondered where I stood in his eyes. But it didn’t take long for me to know.”

Victoria felt Jarrod’s hands on her shoulders again. “He loves you very much, Mother. No matter what happens, don’t forget that.”

“But I let him down. I let him down by not doing what a mother’s supposed to do. By not taking care of him like I should have.”

“If you told Heath that he’d disagree with you.” When Victoria made no reply Jarrod continued. “Mother, you just gave Heath the highest compliment you could.”

“What?”

“You said you lumped Heath together with the rest of us in your mind. With the rest of your children. You’ve thought of him as your son for a good many years now. Don’t blame yourself for an oversight that came from the heart.”

Victoria’s tears flowed anew at Jarrod’s words. She patted his hand a final time, signaling to her oldest child she wanted to be alone.

Jarrod kissed the top of Victoria’s head before turning to leave the room. She heard him echo Nick’s words, “He’s tough, Mother. He’s so damn tough,” right before the door closed.

*****

Part 3

Chapter 10

Jim Garver walked to the bunkhouse door. He stepped outside and looked down the road that led to Stockton. Not a soul was on it, not even a distant dust cloud rose to indicate a rider coming.

Pete Garver joined his brother. “See anything?”

“Nothing. I thought Doc Sheridan would be here by now.”

“I did, too. But you know how things go when an epidemic hits a town. He’s probably got his hands full.”

“Him not showin’ up here yet has gotta mean the quinine hasn’t come in.”

“That’s what I figured.” Pete looked at the mansion. “I wonder how Heath’s doing?”

The lanky Jim spit in the dirt. “Who gives a rat’s ass.”

“Jimmy!”

“Well, I don’t care and you shouldn’t either. It’s because of him that Billy’s sick.”

“Come on, Jim, we don’t know that.”

“Whatta ya’ mean we don’t know that! Of course, we know it! Heath’s the first one on the ranch to get sick so that means he’s infected everyone else.”

“And?”

“And what? The bastard’s gone and brought the sickness here, that’s what. If Billy dies it’ll be his fault.”

“I thought you liked Heath. As a matter of fact just last week you said you’d never worked for a better boss or one who knew so much about horses.”

“Never mind what I said last week. Billy bein’ sick changes all that.”

“You can be just as stubborn and unreasonable as Pa when you put your mind to it, you know that?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You lose all sight of your common sense. You get angry over stuff you got no call to get riled about.”

“And you’re not riled about Billy?”

“I’m worried about Billy if that’s what your askin’. But I don’t blame Heath for him bein’ sick.”

“Well, maybe you should.”

Jim turned on one heel and reentered the building. Pete watched his brother walk to Billy’s bedside. He let out a heavy sigh as he looked through the screen door. They’d done a good job of transforming the bunkhouse into an infirmary. Every surface had been scrubbed before fresh linens had been put on the beds. Jessybell was keeping a table stacked with clean towels and sheets. Even Phillip and some of the other hands were pitching in to help her keep up on the enormous amount of laundry that was being generated.

At Nick’s orders the two men who cooked for the hands kept chicken soup simmering on the stove for those who were ill. Silas had brought out loaves of fresh bread as well. Pete couldn’t imagine what more the Barkley family could do that wasn’t already being done. Every couple hours Nick or Jarrod would come out to the infirmary to see how the sick men were. Why Jarrod had even carried soiled linens back to the house on several trips. Despite Jim’s feelings, Pete knew how lucky they were to be employed by people like the Barkleys at a time such as this. On any other ranch Billy wouldn’t have stood a chance for survival.

Aside from Billy, five other men had fallen ill. There was a wrangler fifty-four years old by the name of Fred whom Pete didn’t think would last more than a couple days. Then there was Joe, a man in his early thirties who had just started working for the Barkleys in March. He had a wife and four children who lived in a rented house in Stockton. Pete knew Joe had to be going out of his mind with worry for his family. His oldest kid was only seven. Because they were quarantined there was no way to get word to Joe’s wife that he was sick. At least not until Doctor Sheridan came out.

The other men who were sick were all in their twenties. Pete’s eyes fell to Jeb Galloway. The cowboy with the raven curls was beginning to run a temperature. His face had a red flush to it that made Jeb look like he’d been out in the sun too long, and when he coughed he sound like a foghorn.

Billy wasn’t in much better shape. He’d started coughing so hard shortly after dawn that Pete was certain he’d choke himself to death. That spell had finally passed, but Pete was well aware more like it were to come.

The cowboy squinted. Was that a buggy coming? He waited until the object crested the last hill then smiled.

“Hey, Jim! Fellas! The doc’s coming!”

No cheers went up, but the smiles that lit the faces of the men who were taking care of the sick spoke of their relief.

Finally, Jim Garver thought as he ran a cold cloth over his baby brother’s fiery face. Help is finally here.

*****

The Grandfather clock was striking eleven when Silas led Doctor Sheridan to Nick’s room that Wednesday morning. Nick and Audra were sitting with Heath while Victoria rested and Jarrod tried to concentrate on paperwork at the desk in his room. paperwork on the attorney’s door.

“Doctor Sheridan is here, Mr. Jarrod.”

“Thank you, Silas.”

Jarrod entered the hall and walked to his mother’s room. He knocked on the door, calling softly, “Mother?”

The lawyer heard his mother moving across the floor. The thirty minutes she’d spent in the bathtub followed by the breakfast she’d eaten had helped her appearance a little, but she still looked drawn and tired. Jarrod doubted if she’d gotten more than two hours of sleep since this ordeal had begun.

“Jake’s here. He’s with Heath now.”

Victoria nodded and followed her son to Nick’s room. She smiled at Silas who hovered in the background.

Jarrod and Nick lifted Heath from his pillows. Jake spent a long time listening to Heath’s lungs with first his stethoscope, and then by placing his ear directly against the blond’s back. No one missed the slight shake of Jake’s head as he straightened, nor the small frown that tugged at the corners of his mouth.

With Jarrod and Nick still supporting Heath the doctor perched on the edge of the mattress.

“Heath? Heath, it’s Jake Sheridan. Heath, I want you to open your eyes for me.”

Victoria saw Heath’s eyes move beneath his lids as though he was trying to obey Jake’s command, but the effort appeared to be too much for him.

“Heath!” Jake reached out and flicked his fingers against Heath’s right cheek. “Heath, come on! I need you to wake up for me.”

When that action didn’t produce any results Jake stood and gave Heath a resounding slap.

“Doctor Sheridan!”

Jake barely glanced at Heath’s sister. “Audra, I had to do it. It’s important that we wake him up.” The doctor looked at Jarrod and Nick. “How long has he been unresponsive like this?”

“He fell asleep around seven last night,” Nick said. “Then at one-thirty this morning his temperature started to rise again and he had a hard time breathing. That’s why we brought him in here. Mother had us hold him over a kettle of steam. He calmed down just as the sun was coming up.”

“And he’s been like this ever since?”

“Well,…yeah. But I thought he was sleeping.”

“He’s far more unconscious than he is asleep, Nick.”

The doctor turned his attention back to Heath. Another slap finally caused Heath’s eyes to open halfway.

“Heath!” Jake called, when the cowboy couldn’t seem to focus on anyone or anything. “Heath!”

Jake looked at Nick. “You try.” The doctor scampered around the bed, switching places with Nick.

The dark headed man sat on the edge of the bed and grasped Heath’s upper arms. His tone was both loud and firm.

“Heath! Heath, come on, wake up! Heath, it’s Nick! Come on now, it’s past time we got the day started!”

Heath’s right hand reached for the distant voice he recognized. He felt someone take the questing hand in a firm grip and knew by the calluses on the palm he should be able to put a name to the voice, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t.

“Heath, open your eyes! Open your eyes for me! Heath!”

Jake’s soft voice made a sharp contrast to Nick’s loud one.

“Okay, okay, that’s enough, Nick. You’ve done the best you could.” With Jarrod’s help the doctor eased Heath back to the pillows. Jake walked over to his bag and took out a thin black case. He opened it and removed a thermometer. He shook it hard four times, then returned to Heath’s side. He placed the thermometer under Heath’s tongue and ordered, “Heath, I want you to hold that thermometer in place until I take it out.”

Whether Heath really understood the doctor no one knew, but he didn’t fight the foreign object in his mouth either.

For the next three minutes Jake kept one eye on his pocket watch and one eye on his patient. He didn’t even have a chance to read the instrument before Nick was asking, “What’s it say? How high’s his temperature?”

“Too high. One hundred four point eight which explains why he’s having a difficult time responding to us.” The doctor passed the delicate tool off to Audra. “I have rubbing alcohol in my bag, Audra. Pour some in a shot glass and put the thermometer in it please.”

Silas hurried from the room to get the requested shot glass. By the time he returned the doctor was mixing powdered quinine in a cup of water. Jarrod and Nick held Heath up again while Jake placed the cup to his mouth.

“Heath, I want you to drink this. Here, let me,…”

Before Jake could finish his sentence Heath’s eyes popped open and a fist flew up. If Nick hadn’t been anticipating what was going to happen next the precious quinine would have ended up on the floor.

Amidst Heath’s incoherent cries Jarrod and Nick struggled to keep him in bed. Audra rescued the quinine from the doctor as Jake was drawn into the fray.

Victoria rushed to soak a towel in water. She wrung it out and moved to the bed. She placed the cold towel on Heath’s forehead. No matter how hard he tried to move out of her reach she stayed with him. Silas was right there to help. Just as soon as the heat from Heath’s fever caused the towel to lose its effectiveness Silas placed a fresh one in Victoria’s hands. They worked together in silent rhythm handing towels back and forth, until Heath finally started to calm down. With the three men still holding onto Heath, Victoria indicated for Audra to give her the cup of medicine. The Barkley matriarch sat on the mattress. She continued to wipe Heath’s face with a towel while talking quietly.

“Heath, it’s Mother. Sweetheart, the only thing in this cup is water mixed with quinine. No one’s trying to hurt you, son. You need to drink this. It’ll help bring your fever down. Come on now, don’t fight us. Drink this for me, Heath. Please, honey, drink it.”

Audra wondered if the cold towels had finally brought Heath’s temperature down to a point where he was no longer lost in a world of delirium or if he, like everyone else in the room, had heard the tears in Victoria’s voice. Whatever the reason didn’t matter. Audra was simply grateful that Heath allowed their mother to lift the cup to his mouth and was willing to drink from it until it was empty.

Heath sagged into the pillows as Victoria handed the cup off to Silas. The black man filled it with cold water, but try as she might Victoria couldn’t get Heath to take another drink.

Jake released his grip on Heath. Jarrod and Nick did the same. The doctor began gathering up his things.

“Jarrod, Nick, I’ll help you move Heath back to his own room. I’m sure the steam helped him last night, but it’s too hot in here for him now. I’ll leave enough quinine for one more dose. Silas, if you could get me a clean cup please, I’ll pour it into there.”

“Yes, Doctor. I can do that.”

“One more dose?” Nick questioned as Silas left the room. “Why can’t you just leave the whole bottle?”

Jake snapped his bag closed and turned from where he was standing by the tall dresser.

Because I’ve got three dozen people in town who are just as sick as Heath and a limited supply of quinine. I have no choice but to ration it, Nick.”

“Well then, send for more. I’ll give you whatever money you need,…”

“I have sent for more. But this epidemic is turning out to be wide-spread up and down the state. The medical board has wired back east to have more shipped but,…”

“But by the time it gets here Heath could be dead!”

Jake’s eyes flashed both his weariness and anger at his inability to stop a disease that would take many lives. “By the time it gets here a lot of people could be dead! Now you have to face the fact that I’m doing the best I can. Believe me, Nick, I know your brother is very ill. And believe me, too, when I say I wish I could do more. But I can’t. I have to be fair to everyone. You know that.”

Jarrod laid a calming hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Yes, Jake, we know that. Now rather than focusing on what we can’t do, what more canwe do to help Heath?”

“Aside from getting him out of this room and trying to control his temperature, I have one last idea.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to leave a bottle of sulfur with you. If he starts to choke again and can’t breathe like you described happening last night, then you put hot coals in a pan and sprinkle four healthy tablespoons of sulfur over them. Now you’ll need to wear a flannel cloth tied over your own noses and mouths to protect yourselves from the fumes. When you’re ready you’ll have to hold Heath over the pan. He’s not going to like it. He’s not going to like it one bit, but the fumes will cause him to vomit which will bring up the mucus. It’s hardly a pretty way to get someone to cough, but I’ve been told it can save a patient’s life.”

“We’re not worried about pretty,” Victoria assured. “Whatever we have to do for Heath we will.”

Victoria wasn’t sure why she saw a new kind of respect shining from Jake’s eyes when he looked at her and smiled. “I realize that, Mrs. Barkley.”

The three men carried Heath to his room. Jake shook one dose of quinine into a cup and told the family when it should next be administered, then left behind a small bottle of sulfur.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back.” The doctor picked up his bag and turned for the door. “I hope you understand.”

“We do, Jake,” Victoria nodded. “It’s bad, isn’t it? In town I mean.”

“Yes, Ma’am, it’s bad. Unfortunately probably not as bad as it’s going to get. Oh, Reverend Dyer wanted me to tell you he’s including Heath in his prayers. He’s been a big help to me. He’s allowing the church to be used as an infirmary among other things.”

“William’s a good man,” Victoria acknowledged. “Please let him know I appreciate his prayers for Heath and that I don’t want him riding out here to see us. He should stay in town and offer whatever he can in the way of assistance to you and the people there.”

“I’ll make sure he gets the message, Mrs. Barkley.”

“We’ve got half a dozen sick men in a bunkhouse,” Nick said. “I’d like you to look at them before you head back to town.”

“Lead the way.”

Jake’s examination of the sick ranch hands was quick but thorough. As he stood to leave he complimented the Barkley brothers on the makeshift infirmary.

“You’ve done everything correct out here from keeping it clean, to having plenty of water on hand, to having your cooks provide soup and bread. I’ll leave two bottles of sulfur here. Have your hands use it for the sick men in the same I described for Heath. Other than that, it looks like everyone is doing all they can.”

Jim Garver rose from his brother’s bedside. He joined Jake and the Barkleys by the door.

“What about quinine, Doc?”

“I’m sorry, but right now I’m being forced to ration what little quinine I received.”

“Okay, fine. So ration some out to these men in here.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Garver, but I can’t do that.”

“What do you mean you can’t do that?”

“I have to distribute the quinine to those people who are the sickest right at this moment.”

“These men are sick! My brother is sick!”

“I understand that, Sir, but I have people in town who are sicker. Heath Barkley is sicker. I have no choice but,…..”

“Do you mean to tell me that Heath is getting quinine and my brother isn’t? Do you,…”

“Heath is desperately ill, Mr. Garver.”

“But Billy’s ill, too.”

“Not as ill as Heath.”

Nick attempted to calm the man by placing an arm around his shoulders. “Hey, Jim, come on now. Jarrod and I are gonna do everything we can to see that Doctor Sheridan gets more quinine. We’ll wire everyone we know between here and Boston. It’s possible we’ll have a shipment headed our way by tonight.”

“And what if that doesn’t happen? What does that mean for Billy and the rest of these men! Heath gets medicine but they don’t? Is that the way it’s going to be?”

“Jim, no,” Jarrod assured, “that’s not the way it’s going to be. Doctor Sheridan has already explained the reasoning behind rationing the quinine. Heath didn’t get any special favors or privileges.”

“Like hell he didn’t! If he wasn’t a Barkley he’d be suffering like everyone else! I don’t understand it! Why do you care so much? He’s only your half brother. Only half a Barkley! Only,…”

Nick took a step forward. “Jim, that’s enough now. I know you’re upset about Billy so I’ll overlook that last remark. But,…

“I don’t care if you overlook it or not because it’s true! If Heath was still Heath Thomson, instead of Heath Barkley, he’d be layin’ out here in this bunkhouse goin’ without quinine just like Billy is!”

Jarrod managed to get a firm grip on Nick just as Pete Garver appeared and managed to get a firm grip on Jim. The two men struggled against their siblings until a weak voice caused everyone to turn toward a bunk in the corner. Billy Garver struggled to prop himself on his elbows.

“Jim,…….Jimmy, don’t.” The young man used a shaking hand to wipe at the sweat that ran into his eyes. “Don’t start a fight o,…over me. Nick,….Nick’s doin’ all he can. I know that. Please,…..”

Jim hesitated a long moment, then allowed his body to relax within his brother’s grip. He gave Nick a final glare before shaking himself free of Pete and crossing to Billy’s side.

Jarrod released Nick. Pete’s gaze took in both men.

“I’m sorry. Jim,…well, Jim’s really upset about Billy. He didn’t mean what he said.”

Nick simply nodded while Jarrod reached out to squeeze Pete’s shoulder.

“We understand. And like Nick said, we’ll do all we can to get more quinine here as soon as possible.”

“I know you will. Thanks.”

Pete nodded to the cowboy on the bunk next to Billy. “Doc, Joe’s wife rents a house in Stockton. Can you get word to her that he’s sick?”

“Sure. What’s the last name?”

“Edmonds.”

“Edmonds?”

“Yeah.”

“Does he have children?”

“Yeah. Four of ‘em. Two boys and two girls.”

Jake turned away so his voice wouldn’t carry throughout the room. “I see.”

“What?” Pete asked. “Whatta ya’ mean by that?”

Nick and Jarrod had already guessed what Doctor Sheridan was about to say, but then by looking at Pete’s face they knew he had guessed it as well.

“The Edmonds children are very ill.”

“All four of them?”

“Three of them so far. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the youngest boy is sick as well.”

For a few seconds the only sounds that could be heard was that of the barking coughs that seemed to travel from bunk to bunk. Pete stole a look at Joe Edmonds who appeared to be sleeping.

“How do I tell him?”

“You don’t.”

“But he’ll ask me. As soon as he knows you’ve been here he’ll ask me if I gave you a message for his wife.”

“Then tell him you did. For now that’s all he needs to know.”

“But,…”

“Mr. Garver, at the moment there’s nothing your friend can do for his family. Though none of us like this fact, the spread of diphtheria is not yet something modern medicine can prevent or control. Therefore, it’s best to give a patient nothing but hope and encouragement. Any words to the contrary can produce devastating results.”

Pete looked from Joe to Billy. He finally nodded before joining Jim at Billy’s bedside.

Jarrod turned to the physician. “Jake, if you’ve got just one more minute to spare I’ll write out a list of every person I can think of my family is acquainted with who might be able to get a shipment of quinine here.”

Jake couldn’t help but smile. “Considering how many people the Barkleys know I’d better spare you two minutes.”

“That you had.” Jarrod returned with a smile of his own.

The lawyer exited the bunkhouse and headed for the barn, Jake at his heels. Nick kept a pad of paper and pencil on a shelf out there where the ranch hands recorded the supplies that were needed on a weekly basis. Jarrod’s script was still neat despite writing quickly and while leaning his paper against a barn wall for support.

“There’s just no possible way you can leave some of that quinine here for the sick men?” Jarrod questioned as he wrote. “Not even one dose for each of them?”
“Jarrod, no. I’m sorry. I wasn’t lying to Jim Garver when I told him Heath isn’t getting preferential treatment. I don’t do business that way.”

“I didn’t mean to imply any less. It’s simply that,…” Jarrod let his sentence trail off unfinished.

“That you’re in-between a rock and a hard place, is that it?”

“Aptly put, Jake. Very aptly, put.”

“Look, Jarrod, I understand that I’ve just given medicine to Heath that I’ve had to refuse to give your hired hands. But again, I have no choice but to ration what little I received. The bottom line is, Heath is sicker than the men in the bunkhouse. Maybe two days from now that won’t be true, but with an epidemic of this magnitude I can’t worry about two days from now.”

Jarrod paused in the act of writing and made eye contact with the younger man. “Will Heath even be alive two days from now?”

“I don’t know. But,…”

“But what?”

“It would be best to prepare your mother and Audra for the worst.”

It took Jarrod a moment to regain his concentration. When the lawyer started writing again Jake saw a slight tremor to his hand that hadn’t been present earlier.

Five minutes later Doctor Sheridan was on his way back to Stockton with a list that included the names of four United States Senators, two renowned Boston physicians, three wealthy Philadelphia businessmen, and two Harvard University professors. Jake had no idea if any of these people could be of help, but if nothing else just knowing everyone on Jarrod’s list would soon receive a wire with a desperate plea for assistance brought comfort to the young man. At least he didn’t feel quite as alone as he had just a few hours earlier. As if Stockton had been cut off by the outside world and was in danger of losing a large amount of her citizens by forces beyond anyone’s control.

Which, Jake supposed as he slapped a short whip against his horse’s rump in an effort to speed up the buggy, was all too true.

*****

While Jarrod was giving the family doctor the list of prominent Barkley acquaintances Nick remained in the bunkhouse. He moved from bed to bed, making certain he spoke with any man who wasn’t sleeping. When he came to Jeb Galloway’s bunk the young cowboy struggled to sit up and put his feet on the floor. Nick grasped Jeb by the upper arm.

“There’s no need for that, Jeb. Lay back down.”

“No,…” The man turned his head to cough. When he could speak again he faced Nick and motioned for him to sit beside him. “No, I’m fine. It feels good to sit up for a little while. It’s easier to breathe.”

Nick saw the signs in Jeb he’d seen out on the range just two days earlier with Heath. Smoky gray circles under his eyes, pale skin, a twinge of red streaks on his cheeks. The same twinge of red that Nick hadn’t realized was the beginning of a fever when he’d noticed it on Heath while they ate their noon meal on Monday.

As if he was reading Nick’s mind, Jeb asked, “How’s Heath?”

“He’s doin’ okay. He’ll be fine. Just fine.”

A crooked grin touched Jeb’s lips. “Don’t lie to me, Nick.”

“Me? Lie?”

“Heath always says,…” another coughing spasm interrupted the young man for a moment. “Heath always says you can’t look a person in the eye when you fib.”

Nick tried to act the part of put out older brother. “Oh he does now, does he?”

“Yep. And you wouldn’t look me in the eye just now so I know you’re lyin’. Heath’s not okay.”

Nick rubbed his palms over the thighs of his pants. This time his eyes met Jeb’s. “No, Jeb. No, Heath’s not okay. He’s,…he’s pretty bad off right now.”

“He’ll pull through, Nick. I know he will. Heath,…well him and I have gotten to be pretty good friends these last couple years.”

“I know that. And I appreciate how you looked past everyone’s prejudices regarding Heath and helped show the other men what a good guy he is.”

“Don’t thank me, Nick. Friendships,…well they just happen. And because Heath’s my friend I know he hasn’t always had an easy life. He don’t talk much about it, never says nothin’ in a way that would make a person think he wants anyone to feel sorry for him or anything.”

“No. Heath’s got too much pride for that.”

“That’s some of it. But some of it,…well, I don’t reckon he really looks back on his growin’ up years and thinks of them as all that bad. He has a lot of good memories of his mother and the home she made for him. I guess maybe her love kinda makes up for everything else in Heath’s mind.”

Nick gave a thoughtful nod. “Heath doesn’t talk to me about his mother very often, but I imagine you’re right.”

“Anyway, what I wanted to tell you is that Heath’s made it through a lot of rough spots in his life. He’ll make it through this one, too.”

“I know that, Jeb.” Nick smiled while patting the young man’s leg. “Now come on, let me help you get settled back down on this bunk. You want a glass of water? Some soup maybe?”

The cowboy shook his head as Nick helped him ease to a reclining position.
He fought to keep his eyes open. “No. No, I don’t need anything. Thanks for offerin’ though.”

No, you don’t need anything but quinine. Nick looked around the room. You and everyone else in this building. And we have one dose for Heath. One dose. Will one dose really make that much difference in the long run? Could that make the difference between life and death for Heath, or life and death for someone in here? But Heath is sicker than these men. Even Jake says so.

As Nick walked out into the sunlight he wished for the wisdom of King Solomon while praying for a shipment of quinine to arrive on the next train.

*****

During the afternoon hours, the quinine reduced Heath’s fever t,o the point he was no longer delirious. Despite that, the disease had already taken its toll on the cowboy. He was weak and lethargic, seemingly unaware of who was in the room with him and unable to comply with what the person was asking him to do. As the day worn on Heath never became cognizant enough to eat which brought Audra to tears as she tried again and again to coax him into taking a bite of bread or a spoonful of soup.

The Barkleys worked in shifts that afternoon and evening. Like the day before they took turns at Heath’s bedside, taking their meals at the dining room table, and getting some rest. The normal exuberance that was a part of Victoria’s household by virtue of the personalities that lived there was missing. If Jarrod wasn’t helping with Heath then he was sitting at his father’s desk in the study attempting to do paperwork. But more often than not Victoria found him staring out the big windows that overlooked the ranch yard with deep worry lines creasing the skin of his forehead. Audra no longer bounded throughout the house as though she didn’t have a care in the world. Gone was that beautiful smile her father had loved so much and the teasing remarks she would normally toss to one of her brothers at the drop of a hat. And Nick,…well, if Nick wasn’t sitting with Heath, or outside tending to the animals, or checking on their sick employees, then he wandered aimlessly from room to room. Victoria knew he was barely eating or sleeping. Even when Nick went to his bedroom to rest his mother would hear him pacing the floor or tossing and turning on the mattress; getting up, then lying back down, getting up, then lying back down; this cycle of torment repeating itself for hours at a time.

It was ten o’clock that night when Victoria took over at Heath’s bedside. She found Nick standing at a window, staring out at the moonless night. She walked up behind her son and placed her hands on his upper arms.

“Nick?”

The cowboy turned his head just enough to look down at his mother. He gave her a weary smile and voiced a quiet, “Hi.”

“How have things been?”

Nick’s eyes traveled to his brother. Victoria felt, as well as saw, her son shrug his shoulders.

“About the same as they’ve been ever since Jake left. I’ve tried to get Heath to eat a couple times, but he’s too out of it to understand what I want him to do. Jarrod stopped in a little while ago and helped me force some soup down his throat, but in the end I think we did more harm than good.”

“It caused him to him choke,” the woman guessed.

“Yeah. He got to coughing so hard I thought he was gonna,…well, let’s just say we won’t be doing that again.”

Victoria patted a soft hand against Nick’s back before releasing him. She walked over to the nightstand and straightened the items sitting on top of it. Nick returned to staring out at the darkness while his mother added fresh water to a bowl, refolded the clean towels that had been knocked askew, gathered up the wet towels, and covered the soup that had now turned cold. Victoria set the pot of soup on Heath’s dresser. She bent and picked up the sweat-soaked linens Nick had taken off the bed at some point. She folded them, laid the damp towels on top of them, then stacked everything outside Heath’s door for Jessybell or Silas to gather.

Victoria tried to lighten the mood when she stepped back into the room.

“We haven’t seen this much laundry since Audra and Eugene were both in diapers.”

Nick didn’t even crack a smile, nor did he face his mother when he spoke.

“Speaking of Gene, the next time Jake’s out here do you think we should have him telegram Gene about what’s happening? About Heath being sick?”

Victoria didn’t say what she was thinking. That by the time Gene got the telegram the crisis would be over and Heath would either be on the road to recovery or would be dead. If the latter turned out to be the case Gene and his wife, Anna, would never be able to arrive in time for the funeral.

“I think the best course of action is for me to write Gene and Anna a letter at the end of the week.”

Nick turned. “End of the week?”

Victoria did no more than nod her head. In that instant she could see Nick understood what she was saying. By the end of the week they’d know one way or another if Heath was going to be alive to see another day.

“I,…yeah, I guess we might as well wait. I don’t suppose it makes much difference either way. It’s not like Gene’s gonna be able to get here if,…if Heath,….if…”

Nick didn’t have the heart to finish his sentence.

“Regardless of how far away he is, Gene would want to be here if he knew, Nick, and that’s what counts.”

The cowboy nodded and once again moved to gaze out at the velvet sky.

“Honey, why don’t you try to get some sleep.”

When her son didn’t answer Victoria crossed the room and placed a hand on his back. “Nick?”

“I,…I didn’t realize until this week how much I’ve come to depend on him.”

“Heath?”

“Yeah.”

“I know you do, sweetheart. We have a big operation. Heath has been a great help to you since he came to us.”

“No,…..I don’t mean that. The work. I mean,….I,…I guess ever since I was a kid I knew Jarrod would never be interested in running the ranch day after day. And by the time Gene was no more than nine or ten I knew he would never be interested in running the ranch either. But that didn’t really matter to me because there was Father. I knew Father and I would work together for years to come. But then Father died, and even though I never said anything, I was,….lonely I guess you’d call it. I missed him. His laugh, his smile,…I missed just having another Barkley to turn to for an opinion on a sick animal, or for his thoughts on a string of horses I wanted to buy. I missed having someone by my side that I could trust with my life. Heath,….Heath’s given me back all those things. I didn’t just wake up one morning and realize that. It took a long time. Maybe even a couple years. But it’s like his presence has made me whole again. Has made running this ranch a joy again. I always wanted one of my brothers to be my partner. Years ago I thought that dream had died when I realized Eugene was meant for other things in this world just like Jarrod.” Nick shook his head as he looked at his sick brother. “Who would have ever thought it? The day he rode on this ranch and told me who he was,….jeez, who would have thought it?”

“None of us,” Victoria smiled. “Not that night, and not for many nights to come. But God answers our prayers in very unexpected ways sometimes, Nick. I suppose you could say Heath’s arrival helped start the mending of the heartache you’d been carrying around inside you since the day your father died.”

“Yeah.” Nick pulled his mother to his chest. “Yeah, I suppose you could say that. If he,….”

Victoria craned her head to look up at her son. His cheeks and chin were shadowed by beard stubble and dark circles ringed his eyes. In that regard he didn’t look any different from the sick man in the bed.

Nick’s voice was no more than a whisper. “If Heath,…if he,….I don’t know if I can bury my partner again. I don’t know if I have it in me.”

Victoria wanted to assure her son that without a doubt he possessed the strength he needed to face whatever life brought his way. But right now she knew any words she said would be lost on him, so she settled for wrapping her arms around his waist and holding him as tightly as she could. Nick clung to his mother a long moment, then released her without speaking. He paused for a second as he passed Heath’s bed. He reached down and laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“Good night, Mo. I’ll be back in to check on you a little later.”

Victoria smiled at the nickname. She’d asked Heath once if it bothered him to have Nick call him that. The blond man had tossed her a crooked grin and said simply, “It beats being called ‘boy.’ Now that I hated.”

Without looking at his mother Nick shuffled out of the room.

Victoria turned the oil lamp to the softest glow possible then sat in the chair next to Heath’s bed. Though she doubted anyone was getting a restful night’s sleep the house was quiet. She heard Nick cross from the bathroom to his bedroom, then heard the slight squeak of his mattress as he laid down. When Heath started coughing she got up and closed his door. She moved back to her chair and sat by helplessly as the powerful spasms brought him off his pillows. There wasn’t much she could do to help him other than hold onto his shoulders to keep him from falling out of bed. When the fit passed he slumped back to the pillows without ever having opened his eyes. Victoria called his name, but he didn’t respond to her. She felt his face and realized his temperature was on the rise. She thought about giving him the last of the quinine, but decided to try to control the fever with cold compresses first. The quinine might be needed more as the night wore on than it was needed right now.

Victoria sponged the warm body. The wet towel moved from Heath’s forehead, to his cheeks, to his neck, to his shoulders, and finally ran over his chest. Time and time again the woman repeated this routine that she could now do in her sleep.

Twenty minutes later Victoria left the room for fresh water and warm soup. Even though she closed Heath’s door behind her Victoria could hear him coughing all the way in the kitchen. By the look on Silas’s face when he appeared from his bedroom down the back hall Victoria knew he could hear Heath as well. The black man didn’t say word as he took the pitcher from Victoria and filled it with cold water. The woman got a deep bowl from the cabinet, found a tin lid that would fit it, then placed both items on a small plate. She took the quilted pot holder Silas handed her and lifted the lid on the soup he’d left warming on the stove. She cocked an eyebrow at her house servant.

“Beef vegetable soup? Now, Silas, I know Heath didn’t eat all the chicken soup you made Tuesday morning.”

“No, Ma’am. He hasn’t hardly been eatin’ a morsel of anything. But Mr. Heath loves my beef vegetable soup. He tells me so every time I make it. I thought maybe he’d eat some of it for us.”

“It was very kind of you to go to the extra work on Heath’s behalf. I know how busy both you and Jessy have been since he got sick. I don’t know what we would have done without the two of you.”

“Me and Jessy don’t mind none, Mrs. Barkley. Not one bit we don’t. Besides, I haven’t had much cookin’ to do ‘cause not a one of you is eatin’ more than a baby bird. Why I put leftovers in front of Mr. Nick two nights in a row now and he hasn’t even noticed.”

“About the only thing Nick’s going to take notice of is the day Doctor Sheridan pronounces Heath well and fit.”

“And that day will come, Ma’am. I know it will. With as hard as we’re all prayin’ it just has to.”

Victoria patted Silas’s hand. He carried the pitcher of water up the stairs while she carried the soup. Silas replenished the water in the bowl then lingered a moment to see if Victoria needed any further assistance. The woman assured him she had everything under control.

“You look tired, Silas. Go on back to bed.”

Silas nodded. He paused for a moment beside Heath. The blond man’s face was flushed and dark circles like bruises were sunk deep beneath his eyes. Silas rested a hand on the cowboy’s shoulder.

“Heath, it’s your old friend Silas. I want you to eat all the soup Mrs. Barkley brought for you. It’s beef vegetable. I diced carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes in it just the way you like it. I made ‘em real small so you can even swallow ‘em if it’s easier for you.”

Heath’s eyes fluttered open. Victoria immediately noticed the glassy quality that broadcast the severity of his illness and fever. Silas spoke to Heath again, but the blond man didn’t attempt to focus on him. Silas waited a few more seconds, then gave Heath’s shoulder a squeeze before leaving the room. The old man shut the bedroom door then stopped in the hallway long enough to retrieve the dirty linens and say another prayer.

Victoria set the soup on the nightstand, then strained to pull Heath forward and rest his upper body against her shoulder. She worked around his limp weight, straightening his pile of pillows with one hand while holding onto his slick shoulders with the other. When she laid him back against the pillows he was almost sitting straight up.

Heath couldn’t recall ever experiencing a stranger day. Opening his eyes, something he’d always done automatically, now took all the concentration he could muster. And even then, more often than not he failed. It seemed to Heath as though someone was always moving him; carrying him from one room to another, rolling him from his right side to his left, trying to get him to walk to God knows where. He remembered two men being on either side of him attempting to bear his weight. He had no idea who they were, or what they wanted of him, or where they were taking him, and then his legs gave out from underneath him. The next thing Heath knew he was back in bed and being encouraged to make use of a chamber pot so maybe he’d told one of the men he needed to go to the bathroom, but if he did voice any such thing he didn’t remember doing so.

Sometime during the afternoon the features of these people who were attending him grew into a foggy blur. At times he could identify the blue of someone’s eyes, or recognize the gray in a shirt, but it was as if those splashes of color had been painted on nameless, faceless ghosts, and it scared him.

The woman was back now though. He wasn’t frightened of her. Her touch was always cool against his hot skin and she never pounded on his back like that loud man did. He tried to bring her face into focus as she spooned soup to his mouth. He didn’t feel like eating. Nothing had any taste, and when he swallowed it felt like he had jagged pieces of broken glass sticking to the insides of his throat. But she wanted him to try. He could hear her saying it over and over again, “Try for me, Heath. Please, sweetheart, try to eat a little something.” So he did try because for some reason he knew he never wanted to disappoint her. When he started to cough and upset the soup bowl in the process she didn’t even get angry. She jumped up as though she was worried the hot soup would burn him. He felt the liquid splatter his naked chest and shoulders, but he was already hot so really, what harm could it do?

Victoria moved quickly to mop up the spilled soup. She used a damp cloth to clean the mess off Heath. He hadn’t even flinched when the scalding liquid hit his bare skin, and showed no reaction now as Victoria dabbed at the angry red blotches on his chest.

The woman surveyed for further damage. She didn’t see any spills on the sheet that covered Heath from the waist down, nor on the pillow cases. She exchanged the towel she was using for a new one. She dipped it in water, wrung it out, and wiped it over Heath’s face. His eyes were only half open but Victoria saw them trying to follow her every move. She reseated herself and smiled at the blond man.

“Are you feeling a little better, sweetheart?”

Heath didn’t answer her, but that didn’t stop Victoria from keeping up a steady stream of soft chatter.

“Jake was here to see you this morning. He said you’re going to be just fine. Nick’s been taking care of Charger so you don’t need to worry about him. I’m going to write Eugene and Anna a letter on Saturday. What would you like me to tell them for you? Audra’s been,…”

Right in the middle of Victoria’s sentence a word was whispered in a voice so raspy and inaudible she almost didn’t hear it.

“Mama?”

“What, sweetheart? What did you say?”

“Mama?”

“Yes, Heath. Mother’s here. I’m right here with you.”

Heath struggled to push himself off his pillows. He strained to see the woman’s face while Victoria’s hands held him firm.

“No, Heath. No. You lie still. You can’t get out of bed unless Jarrod or Nick are in here with you. Do you want me to get one of them?”

“Mama?”

“Yes, honey. I’m here.”

Heath laid back against the pillows like she wanted him to. He’d do anything for her. Anything. He fished with his right hand until he came in contact with hers. He grasped the fine-boned hand and gave it a weak squeeze.

“Mama. Mama, I’m so happy you’re here.”

It was then that Victoria realized Heath thought she was Leah. She opened her mouth to gently correct him, but when a smile of pure joy lit his flushed face she didn’t have the heart to say anything other than, “I’m glad I’m here, too, Heath.”

Heath’s sentences formed in long, drawn out gasps as he tried to get enough air to speak. Victoria patiently allowed him to finish each thought.

“I’ve missed you, Mama.”

“I know you have, honey. And I’ve missed you, too.”

“I’m sorry,….there’s lots of things I’m sorry for.”

“Heath, shush. There’s nothing you need to apologize for.”

“I gave you so much trouble,…when I was a teenager. I gave you so much grief. I shouldn’t,…shouldn’t have done that.”

Victoria answered in the exact way she thought Leah might have if she was really here and having this conversation with her son.

“You were a boy, Heath. Just a boy. A boy who had to become a man far too soon. A boy who started working when he was only six years old in order to help his mother make ends meet. You have nothing to be sorry for, son.”

Heath seemed to lose his focus on both the conversation and Victoria for a moment. His eyes traveled the room until they came to rest on a far corner. Heath stared so intently for such a long time Victoria turned to look herself. But as she already knew, there was nothing there except a wooden coat rack that held two leather vests, Heath’s gun belt, saddle bags, and hat.

Heath shook his head several times as though he was firmly telling someone no. Then he turned to face Victoria once more.

“Mama, I don’t want to leave here.”

“And I don’t want you to leave here either, sweetheart.”

“No,…I mean,….no, I can’t go with you. Not now. Nick,….Nick needs my help.”

“Of course he does. Nick’s counts on you in more ways than any us can imagine. I understand that.”

“I,…I like it here, Mama. I like it here a lot.”

Victoria slipped out of her role a moment when she answered with, “And we like having you here, Heath.”

“I call her mother.”

“Pardon me?”

“I call her….Mrs. Barkley,…I call her mother now. I….I’ve thought about that a lot. Worried about it some. I,…I don’t want it to make you sad, Mama.”

“Oh, honey, no. No, it doesn’t make me sad. All of us, every single one of us, will have many people in our lifetimes we grow to love. What we call them doesn’t matter. Just because you’ve found your father’s family doesn’t mean you’ll ever forget me. I know that, Heath. Besides, no mother can stand the thought of her child being alone in this world no matter how old that child might be.”

Heath rubbed his thumb over Victoria’s hand. “She’s good to me, Mama. So good. She always has been. Since the day I came here. She’s not highfalutin like some of them rich folks we knew in Strawberry. She’s nice,…..and down to earth,…..and fun,…..gentle,…real gentle,…but tougher than a wildcat when she needs to be. But most of all,….she’s just special to me. I hope that’s okay with you. I hope I done right by you, Mama, where Mrs. Barkley is concerned.”

Victoria could barely speak around her tears. She bent and kissed the man’s forehead. “Yes, Heath, you’ve done right by me.”

By the time Victoria straightened, the exhausted man was asleep. For that she was glad. She didn’t want Heath to see her cry.

*****

Monica stood in front of Heath’s coat rack with Tess standing next to her.

“He’s not ready to let go, Tess. That’s why he shook his head at us.”

“No, Angel Girl, by far he’s not ready to let go.”

“Heath Barkley, he’s a fighter he is. And so bull headed, as I believe the expression goes.”

“Yes, when it comes to hanging onto something he loves that’s so.”

“Though I guess all humans love life. If they could only fully comprehend the beauty of God’s heaven they wouldn’t so stubbornly cling to their earthly forms.”

“It’s not life Mr. Barkley loves, Monica.”

“No?”

“Not in the sense that he’s not willing to give his life up if that’s God command. He loves this place, that woman sitting next to him, the home she’s made for him, the brothers and sister he found here. It’s his family he loves. That’s what Heath Barkley clings to.”

“Oh, Tess, sometimes it’s hard to be an angel. I know where Mr. Barkley is going is so much better than where he is, but it also pains me to think of how his passing will hurt his family.”

“Heath Barkley is going somewhere, Angel Girl, but not quite the place you think.”

“Pardon me?”

“Come along now. We need to get a move on ourselves. We have a lot of work to do before he arrives.”

“Who arrives?”

“Why Mr. Barkley of course.”

“Arrives where?”

“Never you mind. You just trust in the Lord and follow me.”

Monica gave one last glance to the sick man on the bed and the crying woman sitting beside him. She shrugged her shoulders and said softly, “See you later, Heath Barkley,” before turning to follow Tess out of the room.

Chapter 11

Women’s intuition told Victoria that Heath’s deep slumber was the calm before the storm. When her oldest son took over for her at one o’clock Thursday morning she cautioned, “Don’t leave his side, Jarrod. Not even for the briefest of seconds.”

Victoria took up the recent habits of her sons that night and didn’t bother to change out of her clothes when she laid down on her bed. The worries and stress of the week finally caught up with her. Five minutes after her head hit the pillow Victoria was asleep.

Two hours later the sound of running footsteps woke the woman. She heard Jarrod’s voice as he rushed past her room.

“He can’t breathe, Nick! He’s worse than he was last night. Much worse.”

Victoria jumped to the floor. She dashed into Heath’s room and found him sitting up in bed with his eyes wide open, frantically trying to draw in air. He clawed at his chest and throat as though he could tear away whatever obstruction was making it impossible to breathe.

At first Victoria thought Heath was fighting his brothers as they grabbed his flailing body and pulled him out of bed, but then she realized he was getting so little air that he was actually fighting to survive.

Nick positioned Heath on his hands and knees, then wrapped one strong arm around his waist. While Jarrod helped hold Heath, Nick made a fist and slammed it between the blond’s shoulder blades. Victoria winced at the sound. She could only imagine how much it hurt considering Nick was hitting the exact spot that was already bruised and tender from the previous night. Nick’s fist rose and fell again and again with no positive results. Jarrod looked up at his brother. Victoria heard the fear in his voice when he shouted, “His lips are turning blue, Nick!”

What would have been a violent beating under any other circumstances went on with Nick now yelling, “Breathe, Heath! Dammit, you breathe! Cough! Do you hear me? Cough! I said cough! Don’t you dare give up on me, Heath! Cough! Come on now, cough!”

Audra ran into the room only to have Victoria shove the bottle of sulfur in her hands.

“Audra, get this ready just like Jake told us. Layer a pan with hot coals. I’ll be right down with something we can use to cover our faces.”

While the terrified Audra raced for the kitchen Victoria headed for the linen closet. She grabbed a flannel sheet, stopped in her room and got pair of scissors from her sewing basket, then dashed down the back stairs. Audra used metal tines to put glowing coals in a shallow pan while Victoria cut big triangles from the red and white checkered cloth. The woman tied one of the makeshift bandannas around her daughter’s face and the other around her own. She handed Audra the two remaining bandannas and an empty pan.

“Here, you take these things upstairs. Tie the cloths around your brothers’ faces.”

Audra hurried off to do as her mother ordered. Victoria got a tablespoon from the cutlery drawer and poured the sulfur onto it, then sprinkled it over the hot coals. She repeated this action three more times until the smell of burning, rotten eggs brought tears to her eyes.

The woman used what was left of the flannel sheet to wrap around the hot pan. She carried it up the stairs, rushed down the hall and entered Heath’s room.

Nick was filling the air with colorful words he normally reserved for the barn while still pounding on his brother’s back.

If the situation hadn’t been so grave Victoria might have laughed. She caught a brief glimpse of herself in the dresser mirror, then looked at her children. They all wore the bandannas now, their faces completely covered below their eyes. Nick wasn’t wearing a shirt, Jarrod’s shirt was open and he was minus his socks, and Audra was in her nightgown and robe. They looked like a band of misfit bank robbers. Heath must have thought so, too, because at his first sight of his family he bucked against Nick and tried to crawl for the door.

Heath’s blocked air passages didn’t allow him to get too far. Jarrod caught him by the ankle and with Nick’s help pulled him back. Heath fought and kicked which only made him wheeze harder. Victoria was sure his heart would explode inside his chest if he didn’t get some air soon.

“Hold him like you were before!” The woman shouted over the mayhem. “Get him on his hands and knees! Put his head over this pan!”

Jarrod and Nick grappled their brother back to that position. Nick pushed Heath’s head toward the floor until his face was no more than six inches above the pan of smoldering sulfur.

It took all the two men’s combined strength to hold Heath there. He fought like an enraged bull, but he couldn’t shake the brothers whose bodies were draped atop his, nor could he wrench his head from Nick’s firm grasp.

As the first wave of sulfur hit Heath full in the face he gagged. Victoria never thought she’d heard a more awful sound; gagging that gave way to choking whenever Heath tried to vomit. For one, long, heart clutching moment Victoria thought they’d lost him. Heath’s entire body went rigid and an attempted gulp for air ended in a strangled gasp. But then it happened. He started vomiting and couldn’t stop. Victoria signaled for Audra to hold the empty pan under Heath’s mouth. They caught as much of the stuff as they could before Victoria pushed the pan away so Heath would once again be breathing in the sulfur.

This action was repeated five times, but Heath still couldn’t take in even the smallest gulp of air. Victoria knew exactly what was wrong. With Heath’s head still hanging toward the floor she shoved her right hand down his throat. As his gag reflex kicked in again to expel the foreign object she grabbed whatever she could and pulled. Strings of thick, yellow mucus came out as Heath threw up. Victoria didn’t think twice about doing this again. A mother did what she had to in order to save her child’s life.

The second time produced the same results. Mucus coated Victoria’s tiny hand but she still wasn’t getting what she was looking for. She tried again, this time shoving her hand farther back than she previously had. When she felt the rounded plug of knotted secretions she shouted, “Hit him on the back, Nick! Hit him on the back! Audra, hold the sulfur as close to his nose as you can get it!”

When Victoria’s hand finally appeared she brought with it the long, thick plug the disease caused to form that ultimately choked its victim to death.

Heath vomited one last time, then everyone heard the gulp of air that made it down his throat. He collapsed sideways, falling onto the floor in a tangled heap with his brothers. Sweat ran down his face, strands of mucus along with flecks of half digested vegetables clung to his chin, his lips were still tinged blue, he was more unconscious than conscious, but he was breathing. He was breathing, and every bedraggled Barkley in the room sent up a silent cheer.

Jarrod patted Heath’s leg as he slid out from beneath him. “Good job, Heath. Good job.” Nick leaned forward and rested his head in the middle of Heath’s back, right on the very spot his fist had been pounding only seconds before. Tears of relief ran down Audra’s cheeks as she bent to wipe Heath’s mouth with a wet towel, while Victoria placed the hand that was still clean on the side of his face. She recalled her stepson’s words from a few hours earlier when he told her he didn’t want to leave. Softly she promised, “You’re not going anywhere, Heath Barkley. You’re not going anywhere but right where you already are.”

*****

For the first time in three days Heath finally seemed to be able to draw in a deep breath. When he coughed the congestion in his chest and throat were still evident, but at least he was no longer in danger of choking. Despite that good news Heath’s temperature climbed along with the morning sun. Victoria, Jarrod and Nick attended the delirious man while Audra ran back and forth once again exchanging clean towels and linens for dirty ones.

Nick blotted a wet cloth over Heath’s chest. Victoria was perched on the opposite side of the bed wiping Heath’s face and hairline down with her own wet cloth. The dark headed cowboy looked at his mother.

“I thought we were past the worst of it earlier this morning when we were finally able to help him breathe.”

“I thought we were, too. It looks to me as though his fever’s trying to break, but for some reason his body’s not allowing it to reach its peak.”

Nick nodded his understanding. He knew with any illness that brought on a high fever it was common for the patient to literally sweat the fever out prior to a turning point for the good.

“Maybe he’s not letting it.”

Victoria and Nick glanced up at Jarrod. The lawyer entered the room carrying a pitcher of fresh cold water. As he filled the bowl by his mother’s elbow Nick asked, “Whatta ya’ mean, maybe he’s not letting it?”

“Heath’s been doing nothing but fighting this illness since Monday night, and each one of us has continuously encouraged him to do just that. Maybe right now he needs our permission to allow himself to let the illness rage. Maybe he needs our permission to allow himself to be sick.”

Victoria had to admit Jarrod’s words made sense. She had no doubt the last thing Heath would ever want to do was inconvenience his family. Victoria also knew, without Heath ever having told her, that he would never forgive himself if he thought he let her down or disappointed her in any way.

Without making further comment to her sons Victoria placed a hand on the side of Heath’s face. She turned his head until their eyes met. Though Heath’s eyes were glazed and unfocused, Victoria looked directly into them and spoke in a stern voice that hid both her worry and fatigue.

“Heath, it’s Mother. You listen to me and you listen good. It’s okay to quit fighting, son. I don’t want you to resist any longer. You let nature take its course now. Your fever’s going to climb even higher, but that’s all right. That’s what I want it to do. That’s what you need to let it do.”

Victoria repeated her words as she continued to wipe Heath’s brow. Within twenty minutes it was apparent the blond man’s temperature was inching upward. Jarrod and Nick exchanged raised eyebrows. Had their mother’s words really penetrated Heath’s subconscious, or was the perspiration beading on his lower lip and forehead a mere coincidence?

The family’s relief at this turn of events was short lived. Within minutes Heath’s fever climbed so high that he was once again lost in the dark world of people and images they couldn’t see. He swung his fists and kicked his legs as he tried to break the hold his brothers had on his thrashing body.

“No! No! Let me go! You won’t do that to me again, Bentell! I’ll kill you! Someday I’ll kill you, you sonuvabitch!”

Heath fought with out-of-control fury as he tried to slay the demons of Carterson Prison that he’d so successfully kept buried from his family all these years. The man screamed and hollered and swore until the air turned blue. Victoria knew her normally soft-spoken Heath would be mortified if he was ever told of the obscenities he’d let fly in front of her and Audra. Heath kicked and twisted and withered in an attempt to free himself from the hands that pinned his shoulders to the mattress and the ones that clamped down on his ankles until it felt like they were once again encased in steel shackles. Even with these restraints the blond man’s chest still heaved like he was running a race with a speeding train. He bucked his torso from the bed again and again. It was all Nick and Jarrod could do to hold onto their combative sibling.

“After all he’s been through how the hell does he still have this kinda strength?” Nick demanded of no one in particular.

Audra and Victoria tried to calm Heath down with soothing words and cold towels, but to no avail.

“We’ve gotta have some help!” Nick shouted over his brother’s screams. “We’ve gotta get him in the tub again or he’s gonna have a heart attack on us!”

Victoria recalled Jake’s words about the heart problems diphtheria could bring on. One look at the thrashing Heath told her Nick was correct, they had to do something and do it quick. She turned to her daughter.

“Audra, tell Silas to fill the tub with cold water, then run and get Phillip! Have him bring some men in to help your brothers with Heath!”

Audra raced from the room without saying a word. She didn’t even care that she was barefoot and still in her nightgown and robe as she dashed down the back steps. She called instructions to Silas as she flew through the kitchen. As soon as her feet hit the dirt of the ranch yard she was yelling Phillip’s name.

*****

It was all Victoria could do to keep from crying as she tried to help Jarrod and Nick control Heath. Tears were running down Heath’s face now as he called out one man’s name after another. His eyes flicked back and forth as though he was taking a body count.

“Luke!….Kenny!….Dan!……Bobby!…..Mike!….Tad!….Casey!”

In his mind’s eye Heath could see the bodies piled up awaiting burial in the large pit behind the prison. He was still mourning for his friends, screaming their names while trying to break his brothers’ grasps, when Phillip rushed into the room with two burly men at his heels.

Victoria never thought twice about what Heath’s reaction would be if he knew she was the one who stripped his pajama pants from his body. Nor did she care about what his reaction would be if he had been aware that his sister jogged by his side holding his hand as he was carried stark naked to the bathroom by his brothers, Phillip, and the hired men.

Silas stepped out to the hallway as the struggling Heath was plopped into the cold water. With that feat accomplished, Audra and the hired men stepped into the hall as well. The bathroom could only hold so many people, and for the time being Victoria, Jarrod, Nick, and Phillip seemed to have things under control.

Audra assisted Jessybell in changing the sheets on Heath’s bed. The young woman could barely hold back her tears as Heath’s incoherent cries continued to echo off the bathroom walls. The black woman reached across the bed and took the girl’s hand.

“He’s gonna be okay, Miss Audra. That ole’ fever has just gotta work it’s way outta him. But once it does Mr. Heath is gonna be okay. Jessy’s prayin’ for him right as we speak.”

Audra gave the woman a soft smile as she brushed away her tears. “I know you are, Jessy, and so am I. Believe me, so am I.”

*****

Victoria sat on the wide lip of tub by Heath’s head. While Nick supported Heath’s neck and upper body in the water Jarrod and Phillip splashed cold water across his chest and shoulders. Victoria filled a glass Silas had given her when she entered the bathroom, then cupped a hand against Heath’s forehead. She repeatedly poured water over the blond’s head, hoping the frigid liquid on his scalp would aid in bringing his temperature down. When fifteen minutes passed with no significant change she looked at Nick.

“Get the quinine.”

“But,…”

Victoria could easily imagine the array of objections that were running through Nick’s head. With only one dose of the medicine left, and not knowing if more would come, when do you make the decision to use it?

“Nick, we have no choice. Get it please.”

Jarrod took over Nick’s spot by Heath’s upper body. As Nick passed the two cowboys in the hall he tossed a terse, “I’m gonna need your help in there when I get back,” over his shoulder.

Audra and Jessybell watched the man make quick work of mixing up the medicine. When another cry from Heath punctuated Nick’s dash from the room Jessybell fell to her knees and began to pray aloud. For a moment Audra stood transfixed, then followed suit. The black house servant wrapped her chubby hand around Audra. She squeezed her eyes shut and bowed her head.

“Oh precious Lord Jesus, we ask that you lay your healin’ hand upon our Heath.”

Jessy repeated the words over and over until Audra’s voice joined hers in an open plea for Heath’s survival.

Swirling colors of green, blue, gray, and red, and heads that had no bodies floated in front of Heath. Names he thought he’d long forgotten came to his tongue as he remembered each and every man that died while he was in Carterson Prison. Somehow now he was back in Carterson and the guards were making him drink something he didn’t want, but when he tried to turn his head away four hands the size of beef steaks held it in place. A cup was put to Heath’s lips as his neck was forced backwards and he was commanded to drink by the loud, dark one. He wanted to spit the vile stuff out, but the loud one must have realized that because he held Heath’s mouth closed and yelled at him to swallow. He tried to bite the loud one next, but all he got for his efforts was a firm smack on the nose like a naughty puppy receives for chewing his master’s slippers and a stern, “Stop it, Heath! Don’t you dare do that again.”

The loud one took control once more, and with the help of the guards got the rest of the liquid down Heath’s throat. Heath smacked his fists in the water, moaning a heartsick, “no, no, no,” ashamed he allowed these men to once again get the better of him as they’d done so many times in the past.

With gallant effort Victoria hid her distress over the scene that was playing out. She couldn’t bear the thought of Heath dying without realizing his family was with him. She couldn’t bear the thought of this young man going to his grave with his mind trapped in Carterson Prison.

As she returned to pouring water over Heath’s head she repeated a soft maternal litany. “Ssssh, Heath. Ssssh, sweetheart, you’re okay. You’re at home with Mother, Jarrod, Nick, and Audra. You’re fine, honey. No one’s going to hurt you. You’re fine, Heath. You’re fine, sweetie. Mother’s here. Jarrod’s here. Nick’s here. You’re fine, honey. You’re fine.”

The woman’s voice was back; soft and reassuring. Heath’s fear melted away with the gentle caresses he felt on the side of his face. Her words were jumbled and made no sense, but her tone came through loud and clear. He had nothing to be afraid of. She’d protect him. She wouldn’t let anyone hurt him. He was safe. Soon Heath felt the fire within begin to burn low. He was floating in a cool lake with the water gently lapping his chest and shoulders. There had to be a delicate waterfall above him because the refreshing liquid washed through his hair and trickled down the sides of his face.

Thirty minutes later Heath’s unfocused eyes finally slid closed. Nick could actually see his brother’s fever-stressed body dissolve into a state of complete relaxation. The blond man turned his head in Nick’s hands, gave a heavy sigh, and promptly fell into a deep sleep.

Heath never felt himself being lifted from the water. Nor was he aware of Victoria and Jarrod drying him off with two large bath towels. Nor was he aware of being wrapped in a thick quilt and carried back to his room. Nor was he aware of his brothers dressing him in a clean pair of pajama pants. Nor was he aware of Audra pulling the blankets up to his shoulders. Nor was he aware of the kiss Victoria placed on his forehead as she settled him against his pillows.

But whether Heath was aware of the gentle ministrations or not didn’t matter. At least not to his family. What mattered was that God had spared Heath’s life. As Victoria watched her son sleep all she could do was pray that God would spare the lives of all the others this dreaded disease would touch before it left Stockton. Deep in her heart the woman knew this wasn’t to be, but she could pray.

Yes, she could pray.

*****

Chapter 12

Heath slept the next twenty-two hours without waking. That occurrence didn’t alarm or surprise Victoria, who was well-aware of how utterly exhausted he must be. When he finally woke shortly before noon on Friday Heath was groggy and unsure of his surroundings. He acted as if he’d been heavily dosed with laudanum, or so Nick later remarked to his family. Without saying a word Heath allowed Nick to help him use the chamber pot, then allowed Victoria to feed him half a bowl of Silas’s vegetable soup. Within seconds of taking the last spoonful Heath promptly returned to a soundless slumber.

When Friday afternoon came and the Barkleys saw no sign of Jake Sheridan they knew that spoke of how bad things were in Stockton. They also knew that meant no shipment of quinine had arrived. By now the count of ill ranch hands had risen to fourteen. Despite their own exhaustion, Nick and Jarrod assisted in the bunkhouse-infirmary for most of that day.

That evening at seven the Barkleys, save for Heath, gathered together around the dining room table for the first time since Sunday night. Audra had just been sitting with her blond brother and assured her family it appeared as though Heath would sleep far into the night without waking.

Given the circumstances of the epidemic the conversation around Victoria’s table was hardly what one would call lively. Nonetheless, it was nice to share a meal again though the matriarch found herself frequently glancing at Heath’s empty chair. Yes, Heath was by far the quietest of Tom’s children, but what he brought to the family Victoria couldn’t put into words. All she knew was that meal time would be a little lonely until Heath was strong enough to sit amongst them once again.

Dessert had barely been eaten before Jarrod stood and stretched.

“Family, I apologize for making my leave at such an early hour, but I’m beyond tired. I’m heading up for bed. I’ll stop in and check on Heath as I pass his room.”

Victoria accepted Jarrod’s kiss on her cheek. He followed suit with Audra, then patted Nick’s shoulder as he passed.

“Night, Jarrod.”

Audra stood as well. “I’m going to take a short ride on Charger before it gets dark. I promised Heath I would.”

Victoria looked up at her daughter. To the best of her knowledge Heath hadn’t said a word to anyone during the little time he was awake today.

“Did he ask you to?”

“No, but I’m sure he wants me to. You know how he spoils that horse. Charger hasn’t gotten any exercise since Monday.”

Victoria smiled. “You’re right, Heath does spoil that horse. You go ahead then provided Nick thinks it’s okay.”

“Sure, that’s fine,” Nick picked up the silver coffee pot and refilled his cup. “Heath’s got Charger so gentle a two-year-old could ride him. So in that case Audra shouldn’t have any trouble handling him either.”

Audra lightly cuffed the top of Nick’s head as she passed. “Very funny, big brother. I’ll be back before the sun sets.”

Nick was just putting a second piece of cake on his plate while Victoria refilled her own coffee cup, when an unearthly scream filled the twilight. With barely a breath drawn in-between the screams came again and again. It was only then that Victoria could make out the words.

“Billy! Billy! No, Billy, no! Billy, no! No, you can’t be dead! Billy! Oh my God, Billy! No! Noooooooooo!”

Nick jumped from his chair. He pounded through the foyer, threw open the door, and ran across the ranch yard to the infirmary. Victoria jumped

from her own chair and dashed up the stairs. She flew into Heath’s room and closed both his windows. She didn’t know why she also pulled the shades and drew the curtains. Shutting the windows alone kept the heart-wrenching wailing from being heard.

With trembling hands Victoria turned and faced the man lying on the bed. Heath was still sleeping soundly. The grief of the outside world had been unable to penetrate the healing rest his body so desperately craved.

Long after Jim Garver’s mournful cries for his dead brother came to an end Victoria remained by Heath’s bedside. Though he seemed unaware of the hand she continuously stroked through his hair, that action brought her great comfort. When Heath woke just after dawn on Saturday morning he was weak but lucid. With both the shades and curtains pulled it took him a moment to bring Victoria’s face into focus. He saw her turn away from him and for a fleeting second was certain she brushed at tears, but he must have been wrong about that last fact because when she faced him again she was smiling.

“How are you feeling, sweetheart?”

Heath was surprised at how sore his throat was; it felt as though he’d swallowed a flaming torch like he’d seen a man do one time at a carnival side show. His voice was raspy, too, as though he’d been screaming for hours on end.

“I’m okay. Kinda confused though. Seems like I can’t tell day from night anymore. I never had a cold knock me down like this.”

Victoria fought to bite back her tears. Since there was no light on in the room she hoped Heath wouldn’t notice the moisture that once again pooled in her eyes. When Heath hiked himself up on one elbow and peered into her face Victoria knew that hope wasn’t to be.

“Mother, why are you crying?”

The woman laid a hand on the side of Heath’s face. “I’m just so happy, sweetheart. Just so happy that you’re feeling better.”

Heath seemed satisfied with that answer. At his mother’s urging he laid back against his pillows.

Victoria stood and gave her son a bright smile that belayed all she was feeling inside. “I’ll go fix you a breakfast tray. Any requests?”

“How about a big ole’ steak, and three eggs, and biscuits, and gravy, and,….”

Victoria bent and took Heath’s face in her hands. She placed a kiss on his forehead. “Oh you and your teasing. I swear you’re worse than Nick. If I bring you those foods for your first solid meal since Monday we’ll both be wearing them five minutes after they go down. How about porridge, plain toast, and weak tea to start with?”

Heath wrinkled his nose. “Tea?”
The woman laughed knowing how much both Nick and Heath hated tea.

“How about orange juice instead?” Heath bargained.

Though Victoria wasn’t sure orange juice was such a good idea either, she didn’t have the heart to turn her son down. It was so good to hear him make any type of request for food that she was willing to give it a try.

“All right, orange juice it is. Albeit watered down orange juice, but orange juice nonetheless.”

Victoria fluffed Heath’s pillows, straightened his blankets, then headed for the door. She felt him gently snag her wrist before she could get out of his reach. When she turned to face him he asked, “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, Heath, I’m fine. Now if you want that meal I promised you’d better let go of me.”

Heath gave Victoria a final smile then released her. He settled into his pillows and closed his eyes as his mother walked out of the room.

It wasn’t until Victoria was in the hallway and had the door closed that she allowed her tears to surface once more. She leaned back against the wall and bit her lower lip to keep from crying.

Oh, Lord, how will we ever tell him? How will we ever tell him that Jeb Galloway died just three hours ago, and that before this is over so many more are bound to follow?

Victoria gathered the strength she’d worn like a cloak of armor for as long as she could remember. Just as quickly as her despair came she pushed it aside.

There’s no point in worrying about it today. He’ll be confined to bed for at least two more weeks, and who knows how long it will be after that before he’s able to return to working outside amongst the men. Heath’s not strong enough to handle the truth behind his illness right now. Jake said no shocks or upsets. Maybe by the time we have to tell him there’s been a diphtheria epidemic,…..well maybe by then things will have calmed down both here and in Stockton. Oh, Lord, please. Please. Heath can never know. Somehow you’ve got to make certain he never realizes he’s the one who carried it here. Oh, Lord, please, for my son. Please just do this one thing for the son who has already suffered so much in this life.

As she silently treaded the back stairs to the kitchen Victoria feared she was clinging to false hope, but for now that’s all she had.

*****

Despite many prayers to the contrary, the Angel of Death didn’t bypass Stockton on that Saturday morning. Grace Whitcomb was the first to die, followed two hours later by her sister Emma. At noon eight year old Neil Whitcomb took hieight-year-olding gasp for air. As his blanket covered body was carried from the church Neil’s mother screamed while his father cried and cursed Heath Barkley.

By Monday morning five more Barkley ranch hands had passed away bringing the total to seven. In Stockton the death toll had risen every hour from the moment Gracie died, but Jake Sheridan had stopped counting the deceased long ago. The young doctor thought he’d feel relief when the large supply of quinine finally arrived at eight o’clock on Monday night, but as he looked across the street at the cemetery with its row after row of freshly dug graves all Jake felt was mind-numbing despair.

*****

Chapter 13

The Barkleys were just rising from the breakfast table on Tuesday morning when Doctor Sheridan’s buggy pulled in the ranch yard. Victoria opened the door before the man had a chance to knock. By Jake’s appearance alone the family could easily discern the devastation taking place in Stockton. The doctor’s black suit coat had long been shed, as had his string tie. His white shirt and dark pants were wrinkled in a way that spoke of having been slept in and his head was minus his hat. Tufts of walnut colored hair sprung from his scalp as though he’d raked a weary hand through the thick mass many times in the past week. The whites of his hazel eyes were streaked red, and beard stubble circled his chin and upper lip.

Just like Victoria and her children could draw conclusions based on Jake’s appearance, he could draw a few of his own based on theirs. No longer were Nick and Jarrod half dressed as they had been the last time Jake was out here, and both were minus the anxious expressions they worked so hard at hiding from their mother and sister. Unlike Jake, the beard stubble the brothers had been sporting on Wednesday was gone as well. Gone too, were the unshed tears in Audra’s eyes and the grim lines around Mrs. Barkley’s mouth that had clearly broadcast her fear for Heath.

For the first time in five days Jake smiled. “Just by the looks on your faces I’d venture to guess Heath is on the road to recovery.”

Nick nodded his head. “We had a heck of a rocky time with him for about ten hours on Thursday. Thought for sure we were gonna lose him before all was said and done, but he pulled through, Jake. He pulled through.”

Victoria turned to her daughter. “Audra, while I take Jake upstairs to see Heath please ask Silas to fix him some breakfast.”

“No, Mrs. Barkley, that’s not necessary. I came out only long enough to see Heath and your hired men, drop off a case of quinine, and head back to town.”

Victoria put her hands on her hips. “Young man, when was the last time you ate a decent meal?”

“Pardon me?”

“A decent meal. Something other than a cold sandwich wolfed down in-between seeing patients?”

“I don’t know. Last Monday evening I suppose.”

“That was over a week ago, Jacob, and you look like you’ve lost ten pounds since then. I promise we won’t delay you. By the time you’re done examining Heath your breakfast will be on the table.”

Jarrod smiled when he saw the doctor was about to voice another protest. “There’s no point in arguing with her, Jake. Once Mother has decided someone needs a decent meal the discussion is over.”

“Well,…if you insist. But it’ll have to be quick.”

“I’ll go tell Silas right now,” Audra said. “And I’ll offer him my help, too. Between the two of us it won’t take long to scramble some eggs, fix some toast, and make a pot of fresh coffee.”

Jake’s stomach rumbled at Audra’s words. “I have to admit that does sound like an offer I can’t refuse. I’ll take you up on it, Mrs. Barkley, Audra. Thank you.”

Audra scampered off to the kitchen while Victoria and the men headed up the stairs. Victoria filled Jake in on Heath’s condition as they climbed.

“Heath ate breakfast about six this morning and fell asleep again shortly thereafter. He’s got his days and nights mixed up at this point, but overall that doesn’t matter too much because he’s averaging eighteen hours of sleep out of every twenty-four.”

“That’s to be expected. Aside from food, it’s the best thing for him to tell you the truth.”

The shades were pulled in Heath’s room to keep out the morning sun. Nick walked over and lit the bedside lamp for the doctor.

Jake’s examination didn’t last more than five minutes. Despite the stethoscope that was placed on Heath’s chest and the fingers that curled around his wrist to take his pulse, the blond man never woke up. Jake didn’t appear to be concerned about that, as a matter of fact he seemed to find it normal. The doctor shut his medical bag and rose from the chair. He extinguished the lamp, then motioned for Victoria and her sons to follow him out of the room. When everyone was in the hallway Nick closed Heath’s door.

“Well?”

Jake smiled at Nick’s impatience. He urged the family to move a little farther down the hall so their voices wouldn’t wake Heath.

“He’s fine, Nick. His temperature feels normal to my touch and his color is good considering all he’s been through. He still has a lot of congestion in his chest, but that’s not out of the ordinary at this point. Does he have a productive cough?”
“Yes,” Victoria replied. “It doesn’t sound tight and harsh any longer like it did last week.”
“Good. And how about his appetite? Has he been eating well?”

Again Victoria answered the man. “I’ve been giving him four to five small meals a day, but yes, he’s eating well. So far I’ve limited him to soups, scrambled eggs, pudding, soft foods such as that. I wanted to wait until you saw him before trying anything heavier.”

“As long as he’s having no trouble digesting what you’ve just listed then I’d say it’s all right to gradually reintroduce him to a normal diet. Until he’s able to be more active stay away from fried foods and heavy meals like a Barkley T-bone steak with all the trimmings, but other than that anything else is fine.”

Jake paused a moment to go over his mental check list. “Have you had him out of bed recently?”

“Yeah,” Nick nodded. “Ever since Saturday morning Jarrod or I have been walkin’ him to the bathroom several times a day. I helped him shave on Sunday and then helped him climb into the tub.” The cowboy grinned. “Even though he didn’t exactly appreciate my assistance with that last chore, or the fact that I insisted on sittin’ in there with him until he was finished.”

“I don’t imagine he did. Nonetheless, it was wise of you to stay. He’s too weak right now to be left alone in a bathtub full of water.”

“That’s what I told the stubborn fool. I figured with Heath’s luck he’d pass out, smack his head on the porcelain, and drown before any of us found him.”

“If I hadn’t treated Heath for so many injuries in the past two years, Nick, I’d be inclined to say you’re exaggerating. But knowing your brother the way I do, I doubt you could be more correct.”

Victoria and Jarrod chuckled over the exchange between the men and the truth behind their words. After the levity passed the doctor directed the conversation back to Heath’s care.

“Because we want to keep the risk of Heath contracting pneumonia to a minimum I’m going to have you increase his activity level. Jarrod and Nick, with your help I want him to walk the length of this hallway once, from front stairs to back, three times a day. You can start this today right after he’s had lunch. As he continues to grow stronger you can increase the frequency of the walks. I hope to be back to examine him again later this week or early next. At that time I’ll decide if those walks can include going up and down the stairs and touring the lower portion of the house. Other than that, he’s to be in bed for the remainder of this week and all of next. As I told you the first night I was here; no shocks, no upsets, and please keep your household as quiet and calm as possible.”

Jarrod cocked an amused eyebrow at Nick.

“What?” The cowboy asked.

“Our household quiet and calm with Nick around? Mother, I think we’ll be forced to send Nicholas on a lengthy cattle buying trip before Heath’s pronounced fit.”

“Hey, I can be quiet and calm when I have to be.”

Victoria patted Nick’s arm. “Of course you can, dear. At least if you really set your mind to it you can.”

Before Nick could ask his mother what she meant by that Jake spoke again.

“Has Heath complained about muscle aches, a persistent headache, or joint pain?”

“No,” Victoria said.

“Not to me,” Jarrod replied.

“No,” Nick answered, “though he really seemed to enjoy soaking in that hot tub of water the other day.”

“Well, I can just about guarantee you that’s because every muscle and joint he possesses hurts. No doubt he has a dull headache, too. This is all an after-effect of the strain the disease and the high fever puts on the body. There’s not much you can do for him other than see if he wants to soak in the tub every day, or even a couple times a day if it brings him relief. I’ll leave you some aspirin powder, Mrs. Barkley. There’s instructions on the bottle in regards to how to mix it with water and how often to administer it. That should help limit Heath’s pain until it eventually leaves him for good.”

“And how long will that be?” Nick asked.

“Another week, maybe ten days at the most.”

Nick shook his head. “Heath should have told us he’s hurting.”

“Nick, you know by now he’s not going to,” Jarrod said. “There’s no point in being angry at yourself for not realizing he’s in pain, and there’s no point in being angry at Heath for not saying anything about it.”

“I agree,” Jake said. “By virtue of our individual personalities, how we handle illness and pain differs with each one of us. I don’t want you having words with Heath over this, Nick. At least not right now. Remember, no upsets.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember. But can I have words with him over it about two months down the road?”

“Sure,” Jake smiled. “If you think it will do you any good that is.”

“Probably won’t. But every so often I like the satisfaction of butting my head with ole’ Silent Sam in there.”

Victoria smiled at Nick’s words. Considering how uncertain things were just one week ago in regards to Heath’s health, it was wonderful to have life slowly getting back to normal.

Jake looked at the family. “Any other questions?”

“Only one,” Victoria replied. “As soon as Heath’s feeling better he’s going to be asking me at least twenty times a day when he can return to work. What do I tell him?”

“As far as returning to work in terms of a full day of physical labor, my guess right now would be one month.”

“One month?” Nick groaned. “Oh my Lord he’ll drive us all crazy by then.”

“Heath’s not a good patient I take it?”

Victoria shook her head. “For a man who’s normally so quiet, and as laid back as a rug as Nick would say; no. He’s an absolutely rotten patient.”

“He’d drive a nun to cuss like a drunken sailor, Doc,” Nick added.

“I see. In that case I’ll caution against making him any promises where returning to work is concerned. But I will offer this hope. If Heath is doing well at the end of his two week convalescence period then I’ll allow him to do things like paper work for the ranch here in the house, and maybe,…..and I do mean maybe, he can do some light work in the barn or tack room. However; I’d advise against telling him that right now. If his physical condition isn’t what I expect it to be at that time then he’s not going anywhere but right back to bed.”

Victoria voiced her own thoughts, as well as those of her sons. “I couldn’t agree more, Jake.”

The woman led the doctor to the front stairs with Jarrod and Nick following. Before they got halfway down Jake could smell eggs, bacon, and fresh coffee. Audra stepped into the foyer.

“Mother, we have Doctor Sheridan’s breakfast on the table. And I made enough coffee for everyone.”

A heaping plate of scrambled eggs was waiting for Jake where Heath normally sat. The doctor appreciated the good food and pleasant company, but didn’t allow himself to linger. He wanted to examine the sick men in the bunkhouse, get the first doses of quinine administered, then be on his way back to Stockton. The man rose to follow Jarrod and Nick outside.

“Mrs. Barkley, Audra, thank you for the meal. Tell Silas I said thank you as well.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.” Victoria stood to walk with the men to the door while Audra cleared the table. “And the next time you stop out try to plan your visit for the supper hour. We’ll more than welcome your company at our table again.”

“I appreciate the offer, Ma’am. And believe me, there’s nothing this bachelor doctor would love more than another one of Silas’s good meals, but right now I can’t promise when I’ll return.”

Jarrod had no trouble deciphering what the doctor meant. “How are things in town, Jake? How many have we lost?”

“Sixty at last count. It may be twice that before the epidemic runs its course.”

Victoria brought a hand to her mouth.

Sixty people. Sixty people. Oh, Lord, have mercy on their souls.

The woman looked up when she realized Nick had called her name twice. He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. No doubt his thoughts mirrored hers.

“Jarrod and I are taking Jake to the bunkhouse.”

Victoria smiled at Jake and once again thanked him for coming. She cautioned him to get some rest and to eat three square meals a day which made him smile in return. The woman watched as Nick took the crate of quinine out of the back of Jake’s buggy. Her eyes followed the men as they crossed the ranch yard. When they disappeared around the corner of the barn she shut the door.

Victoria didn’t even hesitate before turning for the stairs. She suddenly felt an overpowering urge to check on Heath. That now familiar need had taken up residence within the woman during recent days whenever the terrible toll of this disease weighed too heavy on her mind.

*****

Jarrod and Nick stood by while Jake examined the seven remaining sick men in the bunkhouse. The brothers helped the doctor mix quinine solutions and with the aid of two other ranch hands moved from bunk to bunk administering it.

When Jake had given all the medical care possible he repacked his bag and stepped outside, Nick and Jarrod at his heels. The men walked twenty feet from the building before speaking.

“How many have died?” Jake asked.

“Five between Friday night and yesterday. Young Billy Garver was the first. After that,…..well after that the others seemed to go down hill fast.” Nick said. “How about the ones who are left? Will they make it?”

“I don’t know. A few of them are pretty bad off, but now that the quinine’s here their chances of survival have increased somewhat.”

Jarrod squinted as the morning sun assaulted his eyes. “Can we expect anyone else to get sick yet?”

“It’s a possibility, though if none of your other men show signs of illness by the end of the week then I’d say the worst of the disease is past.”

“When will the quarantine be lifted?” Nick questioned.

“A lot of that depends on how quickly the epidemic moves through Stockton. I’d say it will be in effect at least one more week, if not two. I should be able to give you a definite answer when I come out here again to see Heath.”

“Fair enough.” Nick held his hand out to the doctor. “Thanks, Jake. For everything.”

“You’re welcome.”

Jarrod shook hands with the man next. “Jake, thank you.”

The Barkleys walked the doctor to his buggy. Jake was just about to climb in when Jim Garver approached. The man was hollow-eyed and unshaven. Like Jake, locks of his sandy hair stuck out in five different directions.

“Doc,” the man nodded in solemn greeting.

“Mr. Garver.”

“My brother Billy died, Doc. He died on Friday night.”

“Yes, I know. Nick told me. I’m sorry, Mr. Garver. I wish I could have done more.”

“You could have.”

“Pardon?”

“You gave Billy’s medicine to Heath! You gave the quinine to that half a Barkley instead of to my brother! My brother who had two parents who loved him! Two parents united in holy matrimony like God meant for it to be! Two parents who’ll be broken hearted when the letter arrives tellin’ them he’s gone! It’s not fair! It’s not fair, do you hear me! Heath don’t have no one! His ma’s dead and everyone knows his pa never cared about him! Hell, old man Barkley went to his grave without ever knowin’ about Heath! He can call Mrs. Barkley Mother, but she ain’t, ya’ know! She ain’t his ma no matter what Heath or anyone else says! And them,…” Jim waved a hand at Jarrod and Nick. “They’re just his half brothers. It ain’t like Heath means to them what Billy meant to me! How can he? Huh? You tell me that! How can you feel that kinda love for a brother you didn’t grow up with in the first place?”

Jarrod threw an arm out to keep the smoldering Nick from ripping Jim Garver apart. He stepped in front of his hot-tempered sibling, though in truth the fury that burned inside the lawyer was no less hot than the fury burning within Nick.

Jarrod’s jaw was clenched so tight Jake was surprised he could speak.

“Jim, I’m going to overlook what you’ve just said about my family,….my entire family, because I understand you’re in deep mourning for Billy, and therefore may not be thinking clearly. Believe me when I tell you that we’re all grieving for your brother and feel great sorrow over your loss. However; that loss doesn’t entitle you to slander my father, my mother, or my brother Heath. What goes on behind that door,” Jarrod pointed to the big oak door that led into the mansion, “is none of your business. If you have an opinion about any member of my family you damn well better keep it to yourself if you want to continue to be employed here. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Jim’s eyes traveled from Jarrod to Nick. He wasn’t afraid of them. Not any of them. He wished Jarrod would step aside and let Nick take a swing at him. At least then Jim would have an excuse to unleash his wrath on the very people who had caused Billy’s death because of their misguided loyalty to a bastard brother.

“I’ll repeat myself one last time, Jim. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

Before Jim Garver had a chance to tell Jarrod Barkley to go to hell Pete came running across the ranch yard. He had no idea what was transpiring, but from the looks on everyone’s faces, and Nick’s clenched fists, the cowboy could easily imagine what words had been spewed from Jim’s mouth.

“Jim! Jimmy!” Pete placed a hand on his brother’s back. “Jimmy, come on. We’ve got work to do. I need your help out by the corral.”

Jim stepped beyond his brother’s reach, gave Jarrod and Nick one last glare, then headed for the barn.

When Jim was out of hearing range Pete turned to the Barkley brothers. “I’m sorry about whatever he said. Jim’s not a bad guy. Not at all. It’s just that he’s really torn up over Billy’s passing. He’s eleven years older than Billy. Right after Bill was born our mother took sick. She was bedridden for an entire year. Pa worked on the Donavon ranch over by Sacramento back then so he couldn’t stay home to help Ma. Jimmy had to drop out of school to run the household and take care of Billy. I was six. I could help out some, but not to the extent Jimmy could. I guess you could say he became Billy’s second mother during that year. Ever since that time Jim’s had a soft spot for Bill. I suppose he even looked upon him as more of a son than a brother.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Jarrod agreed. The lawyer compared Jim Garver’s situation with his own when thinking of the often paternal-like relationship he had with both Audra and Eugene because of the large number of years that separated them, then add to that the death of their father when the two youngest Barkleys were still teenagers.

Nick spoke for the first time since Jim had confronted them. “Look, Pete, you know how much I value both you and Jim. You’ve been with us a good number of years now and are two of my best workers. Billy was rapidly following in your footsteps. I thought the world of the boy. He was a great kid with a promising future. His loss is being felt by both myself and my family. But you make it clear to Jim that I won’t tolerate any more comments about Heath like the ones he made just a few minutes ago. I don’t want to fire Jim, but I will if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut.”

“I understand, Nick. I can’t say as I blame you for takin’ that position either. Heath’s your brother. That fact alone means you gotta stand by him. And stand up for him when he can’t stand up for himself like right now ‘cause he’s sick. I’ll talk to Jimmy. I promise I’ll make him see that none of this is Heath’s fault.”

“I hope you can do that, Pete.”

Pete turned and watched his brother stomp around the corner of the barn.

He shook his head in quiet dispair and mumbled, “I hope I can too, Nick. I hope I can, too.”

*****

Chapter 14

Keeping Heath in bed that first week of his recovery wasn’t much of a challenge for Victoria. Although she would have never admitted it to Heath, she was even a little disappointed he didn’t give her a run for her money in that regard. On a more serious note, she knew his compliance with the doctor’s rules spoke of just how exhausted and weak the diphtheria had left him. He slept the bulk of each day away. When he was awake he was content to sit propped up against his pillows and play checkers, crazy eights, dominos, or cribbage with Audra. He walked the length of the upstairs hallway three times a day with either Jarrod or Nick by his side just like Jake said he should, but he never asked to venture to other parts of the house. Which again, Victoria knew spoke volumes about how he was feeling.

When supper came to an end each evening that week Jarrod and Nick would invariably wander up to Heath’s room and take over the entertainment duties from their sister. A poker game would soon be underway which Heath nearly always won, followed by a long bull session that Nick referred to as ‘man talk.’

What exactly ‘man talk’ was, Victoria didn’t know. Though she soon came to realize it was often heavily laced with female names followed by wicked laughter and then an urgent, “Ssssh! Mother’s coming!” which might be voiced by any of the three males depending on who heard her coming up the stairs.

For the most part Heath thought he was doing a good job of hiding his physical discomforts from his family that week. Well, hiding them from everyone but Victoria that is. Somehow she knew. While they ate lunch together in his room on Thursday she commented, “It’s unlike you not to attempt to sneak out of the house on me at least once when you’ve been ordered to stay in bed.”

Heath’s eyes met his stepmother’s. In that moment he could easily read her concern for him. He knew she wanted him to open up to her and be honest about how he was feeling, but that’s just not the type of man he was. This same aspect of his personality had driven his own mother to distraction the few times he’d been ill as a child.

The blond man simply winked at Victoria as he swallowed the last of his milk. “I kinda figured you deserved a break from havin’ to keep an eye me. I get the feelin’ I’ve kept everyone a little too close to home this past week or so.”

Victoria was well aware Heath’s words were an invitation to explain why Jarrod wasn’t going to his Stockton office each morning, or why Nick wasn’t venturing farther than the ranch yard, or why Audra hadn’t gone for her weekly visit to the Mission Orphanage on Tuesday. But Victoria wasn’t about to budge from her conviction that Heath be protected from what was occurring outside the house. As she rose to take away his lunch tray she kissed him on the top of the head and said nothing other than, “Personally, I like having my children close to home. It brings me great comfort to see all of you here safe and sound each night.”

Heath knew he was expected to take a nap after Victoria left his room. Not that he minded too much at this point in time. He’d found just a walk up and down the hall with one of his brothers, or a thirty minute checker game with Audra, or a lunch time conversation with his mother like the one he’d just had, left him feeling like he could sleep for several hours.

As the man turned on his side and nestled beneath his covers his eyes wandered to the partially open window. Usually Victoria shut the shades in the afternoon to keep the sun out so he could sleep, but today he’d asked her not to.

It seemed as though he’d been trapped in darkness for so long that it was nice to look outside and see the upper half of the bright red barn. Heath sat up a little more and was able to view a portion of the ranch yard. He thought it was odd that he saw almost no activity going on below. Usually at this time of day men were working horses in the corral and coming and going to get new work orders from Nick or Phillip. Another thing Heath noticed was that he hadn’t seen a wagon pull out of the yard all week bound for Stockton, or anywhere else for that matter. Nor did any neighboring ranchers stop by to consult with Nick about some issue or the other. That event was almost unheard of. The outside world seemed quiet in an eerie sort of way. The stillness reminded Heath of a January day when you knew a big storm was brewing. Once the animals were taken care of the wise man didn’t wander too far from his home, but rather took advantage of a rare day when little work could get done and the best thing you could do was sit near a warm fire and count your blessings with your family close by. But it wasn’t January, three days ago the calendar had turned to June. And in June the Barkley ranch bustled with activity. Or at least it always had up until this week.

The blond cowboy finally gave up on looking out the window to once again settle on his side in bed. When he coughed every muscle in his body ached. He thought back over the past ten days, but in truth, most of them were a blur. He’d been told by Victoria that his lack of memory was nothing to worry about and was simply caused by the high fever he’d been running. He supposed that was true enough. After all, why would she lie to him? But still, he couldn’t recall ever being this sick with a cold before, or with any type of illness for that matter. While Heath might not be lucky when it came to injuries, he’d always been lucky when it came to those common maladies like measles, mumps, chicken pox, and influenza. If he got sick at all, it was generally with what a doctor referred to as a ‘light case.’ This time he must have gotten a ‘heavy case’ because boy howdy, he felt like someone had tossed him from the hay mow and then stomped on him several times for good measure.

A few of the vague memories Heath carried with him from when his illness was at its peak surfaced at the forefront of his mind. He recalled being held down by guards from Carterson Prison, though now he was certain those guards were actually his brothers. He smiled when he thought of ‘the loud one.’ No doubt that was how his fever-addled mind had appropriately labeled Nick. He recalled laying in something cold that he thought at the time was a mountain lake, but had come to realize was probably nothing other than the Barkley bathtub. Nick had forced him to drink some kind of god-awful bitter medicine then, he was sure of it. Not that Nick would admit it when Heath had asked him. Or at least not in so many words. Nick just grinned while pointing a finger at him and saying, “You ever try to bite me again, Mo, and you’ll be one sorry Barkley.”

Heath’s other memory of that day included the soothing voice of a woman telling him he was going to be fine while at the same time cool water cascaded over his head. He hoped to God that memory was a false one and Victoria hadn’t been sitting in the bathroom with him while he was laid out in all his naked glory for the whole wide world to see, but his modesty would never allow him to ask. He supposed if Mother was actually with him, sooner or later Nick would find reason to tease him about it and then he’d know for certain. All Heath could do was offer up a silent prayer in that regard.

Lord, just don’t let him bring it up at the dinner table in front of everyone. He can rib me all he wants when we’re out on the trail together, alone in the barn, spending the night in one of the line shacks, but not at the dinner table with Mother and Audra sittin’ right there. Please, not at the dinner table.

Heath shifted in bed again, momentarily forgetting about the mass of bruises in the center of his back. When they came in contact with his pillows he had to swallow a yelp of pain. He wondered if anyone would have told him about the black and blue splotches if he hadn’t caught sight of them in the bathroom mirror the other morning. Nick got a funny look on his face when Heath wondered out loud how he’d come to look like he’d been in a brawl, then said, “You were having kind of a hard time coughing.”

As Nick helped Heath climb in a steaming tub of water Heath replied, “This is what you do to someone who’s havin’ a hard time coughin’? Boy howdy, Nick, I’d hate to see what you’d do to someone who was choking to death.”

Nick turned away then so Heath could no longer see his face. He didn’t stay in the bathroom with Heath that day and talk nonstop about whatever came to his mind like he’d done on previous days. Instead he left the room with a quick, “Call me when you’re ready to get out,” tossed over his shoulder. Heath wondered if he’d said something wrong, but when Nick returned thirty minutes later he seemed like his old self so Heath let the subject of his bruises drop.

Try as he might Heath could recall very little else since riding home from the range that rainy Monday night almost two weeks in the past now. He wondered if he’d ever really know what had transpired in the time since then, but before he could ponder that further he fell asleep.

*****

Jake Sheridan returned to the Barkley ranch on Friday morning. He didn’t look anymore rested than when he visited on Tuesday, but at least he’d found time to change clothes and shave. Though the man arrived between breakfast and lunch Victoria insisted he sit at the dining room table for a few minutes and eat one of Silas’s blueberry muffins. Because Jarrod couldn’t get to his office in town he’d run out of paperwork to do and was now working along side Nick on the ranch. The two men wandered in from the barn as Victoria poured coffee for the doctor.

“Jake,” Nick nodded as Audra rose to retrieve coffee cups for her brothers. “How are things in town?”

“Calming down finally. I plan to lift all quarantines on Wednesday morning.”

Nick reached for the coffee pot and filled the cup his sister set in front of him. “Good, ‘cause we’re running low on supplies.”

Jarrod stirred two teaspoons of sugar into his coffee and asked in a low voice, “How many did we lose, Jake?”

“Between the area ranches and Stockton; one hundred and thirty-three.”

Nick’s mouth formed a grim line. “Make that one thirty-five. Two more of our men died on Wednesday.”

Victoria laid a hand atop the doctor’s. “Is it over, Jacob?”

“I believe so. At least the worst of it. At this point I don’t expect to lose anyone else I’m tending. Jarrod, that quinine your friend shipped us was literally a life-saver. The number I quoted could have easily been three times as high without it.”

Jarrod’s ‘friend’ was actually an old family friend. Thatcher Hillman Livingston was one of the richest and most influential men in Philadelphia and had been Tom Barkley’s best boyhood pal. Mr. Livingston’s contacts were vast and far reaching. How he managed to get his hands on the volume of quinine that was shipped to Stockton Jarrod didn’t know and he didn’t care. He did know he’d forever be in Thatcher’s debt and would be sending him a note of thanks along with a large check just as soon as the quarantine was lifted and mail service resumed.

Heath was awake for Jake’s visit that day. The doctor shooed everyone out of the room this time so he could give Heath a more thorough exam than he had on Tuesday. Twenty minutes later he rejoined the Barkley family in the parlor. He wasn’t surprised when Nick was the first to jump from his chair.

“Well?”

“He’s fine, Nick. Progressing just as I hoped he would. His congestion is clearing up and he looks like he’s putting on some of the weight he lost. I take it his appetite continues to increase?”

“Yes,” Victoria nodded.

“Good. Now as far as next week goes, on Monday let’s begin to broaden his horizons. Those walks he’s taking up and down the hallway can extend to this part of the house. As a matter of fact I don’t see why he can’t join you at the table for meals starting Monday as well.” Before the smiles around Jake could get too broad he held up a warning hand, “However; that doesn’t mean he still needs anything other than rest and quiet. Heath will be surprised to discover just how much that little bit of activity tires him.”

“So he has to go right back to bed after he eats?” Audra asked. “I don’t think he’ll like that one bit.”

“Audra’s right,” Victoria said. “If you give Heath that much freedom I’m going to have quite a time getting him to return to bed.”

“He doesn’t necessarily have to return to bed I don’t suppose. Provided you can keep the main floor quiet and free of visitors then he can take up residence on the couch.”

Victoria nodded while formulating a plan in her mind. Audra could entertain Heath with games in the mornings much the way she had been this week, only those activities could take place right here in the parlor in order to give Heath a new view of the world. Then after lunch Victoria would insist he nap the afternoon away in his room where he wouldn’t be disturbed. When supper ended he could join his brothers in the study where they could engage in a game of cards or ‘man talk’, provided Heath was willing to recline on the sofa in there and call it a night at an early hour. If nothing else this should enable Victoria to keep her patient happy, while also keeping him under her watchful eye.

“Has he given you any problems about the bed rest issue this week?” Jake asked.

“No. None at all. Which only indicates to me how much this has taken out of him.”

The doctor offered a ray of hope. “Next week will be different. He’ll start to feel a little better, a little stronger, each day. But nonetheless he’ll be far from ready to engage in anymore than I’ve already mapped out. Therefore I think your challenge with keeping Heath occupied will begin, Mrs. Barkley.”

“Don’t worry, Jacob, I’m ready to meet that challenge head on.”

Jake smiled at the tiny but formidable woman. “I’m sure you are, Ma’am. I know I wouldn’t want to be in Heath’s shoes if he gets it in his head to disobey your rules.”

“Based on past experience, I wouldn’t want to be in Heath’s shoes either,” Jarrod said as he stood to take Jake outside to the infirmary.

Nick stood as well and cupped his rear end with his hands. “I’ll second that. I’ve felt Mother’s wooden spoon one too many times over the years not to know that heeding her rules is something a smart cowboy does.”

The family laughed at Nick’s antics as the men walked outside. Audra moved to hug her mother.

“I’m so happy Heath’s going to be okay. Before long he’ll be back on his feet and everything will return to normal.”

Victoria returned her daughter’s hug but didn’t have the heart to say what she was thinking.

No, Audra, everything won’t return to normal. At least not for a long time. One hundred and thirty-five people are dead. One hundred and thirty-five men, women, and children have lost their lives all because Heath stopped to help a family repair a broken wagon. One good deed. One good deed that I wish to God had gone undone.

*****

Part 4

Chapter 15

It didn’t take the Barkleys long to fall into a new routine on Monday. Everyone silently rejoiced over Heath’s return to the breakfast table. Heath himself was rejoicing over the fact that he was fully dressed for the first time in two weeks and not laying flat on his back in bed. It wasn’t until Jarrod and Nick rose to leave the table that Heath commented on Jarrod’s choice of clothing.

“You don’t look like you’re going to do any lawyerin’ today, counselor.”

Jarrod’s eyes flicked to his mother before settling on Heath. “That’s because I’m not, Brother Heath. I’m between cases right now and got all caught up on my paperwork while you were ill. Since Nicholas can’t stand to see anyone idle for more than twenty-four hours, he twisted my arm into giving him a hand around here for a few days. I plan to return to my office later in the week.”

Heath seemed to find Jarrod’s explanation within reason because he said no more. The men made their leave. Nick kissed his mother and sister before bidding his younger brother goodbye.

“See you at lunch, Heath.”

Jarrod kissed both the women as well, then patted Heath on the back as he followed Nick to the door. “See you later, Heath.”

Heath’s eyes tracked his brothers’ movements. Even though he could no longer see them, he could imagine them standing in the front foyer putting on their gun belts and hats. When the door closed Victoria pointed a stern finger at her remaining son.

“Don’t even think it.”

A tiny smile touched the corners of the blond man’s mouth. “Think what?”
“About how you’re going to get out that door and follow your brothers without me seeing you.”

“No, Ma’am.”

“No Ma’am what?”

Heath rose and gave Victoria a kiss of his own. “No, Ma’am, I won’t let you see me.”

“Heath Morgan Barkley!”

“I’m just kidding, Mother.”

Victoria gave Heath her best maternal glare when she replied, “You’d better be.”

Audra held out a hand to her brother. “Come on, Heath, let’s go to the parlor. I’ve got a fun morning planned for us.”

It was all Victoria could do not to laugh at the expression on Heath’s face. He looked just like Eugene had as a boy whenever Audra forced him to play house with her baby dolls. The woman watched as Audra made Heath comfortable on the sofa. She put two pillows behind his back and covered him with a light blanket despite his protests that he didn’t need one. Within five minutes they were setting up the checker board while arguing over who was going to use the black pieces versus who would use red.

Victoria sighed as she listened to the playful squabbling and poured herself one last cup of coffee. She had a feeling it was going to be a long week. She could only hope that by next Monday Heath would at least be given permission to perform light duties in the barn and tack room.

*****

In spite of the fact that he’d dozed off around ten that morning while Audra read to him, Heath was exhausted by the time lunch was eaten. The headache that had finally disappeared over the weekend was back with a vengeance. The pounding in Heath’s skull made it difficult to follow his brothers’ conversation. His appetite was almost nonexistent as well. As Victoria took note of the tight lines around Heath’s mouth and the way he picked at his food, she came to the conclusion the morning had been too much for him. She mentally kicked herself for not making him return to bed after breakfast, but on the other hand this minor set back wasn’t all bad. At least it would keep Heath from trying to do too much too soon.

When Nick and Jarrod stood to go outside Victoria nodded to Heath. His head was resting in his palm and he was sound asleep.

Nick walked over and laid his hands on Heath’s back. He lightly rubbed up and down his brother’s spine. “Come on, Mo, let’s get you up to bed.”

When Heath didn’t immediately awaken Nick tried again with a bit more volume. “Heath. Heath, come on! Let me help you up to bed before Jarrod and I go back outside.”

Heath blinked several times, then looked around the table with an expression that said the last hour was a blank to him. His words were slightly slurred when he asked, “What timez it?”

“Almost one.”

“Almost one what?”

Jarrod and Nick couldn’t help but laugh at their brother’s confusion.

“Almost one o’clock. In the afternoon. And past your beddy-bye time by the looks of things. Now say good night to Mother and Audra so I can get you upstairs.”

Heath did no more than wave a tired hand at the two women, then allowed Nick to take his elbow and walk with him to the upper level. Jarrod followed his brothers in the event Nick needed his assistance.

When the men were out of earshot Audra turned to her mother. “Is Heath okay? Should I go get Doctor Sheridan?”

“Heath’s fine, sweetheart. The morning simply took a lot out of him.”

“But all he did was lay on the couch and play a few games.”

“Audra, you have to keep in mind just how sick Heath was not even two weeks ago yet. An illness like that depletes the body. It will take him a while to get his strength back. Remember how much he was sleeping last Monday?”
“Yes.”

“Well by Saturday that time had been cut in half. And on Tuesday when he took his first walk up and down the hallway Nick had to take him into Jarrod’s room to rest for a minute before they could make the return trip. Remember that?”

“Yes. It scared me.”

“It scared me, too. But by Friday Heath was making that trip all by himself several times in a row. So you watch and see, by the end of the week he’ll have overcome a good deal of the fatigue that’s plaguing him today.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

Victoria patted her daughter’s arm. “I know I’m right. Now come on, I need some help in my rose garden. It hasn’t gotten any attention for two weeks. The sunshine and hard work will do us both good.”

Audra couldn’t disagree with her mother on that point. Victoria hadn’t stepped out of the house since Heath got sick, and Audra had only done so to take a few short rides on Charger. An afternoon spent in the rose garden underneath the June sun would feel wonderful.

*****

Jim Garver took another long pull of whiskey straight from the bottle. If Nick saw him drinking on the job he’d fire him in a heartbeat. But who the hell cared. Billy was dead and nothing on God’s green earth mattered any more.

Jim staggered out of the empty bunkhouse he quartered in to what had been the infirmary. Of the fourteen Barkley hired hands who had fallen ill nine died. Nine. And yet that bastard Heath lived. Sometimes there was just no justice in this world as far as Jim was concerned.

The cowboy had no idea why he felt the need to visit the place where Billy had taken his final breath. There weren’t any men left there. Those that had survived the disease were now strong enough to be recovering in their own bunks. Maybe Jim just needed to say a last goodbye. Maybe he just needed, for one last time, to run his hands over the bunk where Billy had laid suffering. Maybe he just needed to hug Billy’s pillow to his chest just like he’d hugged Billy right before he passed on.

Jim stopped when he came to the screen door and took a step sideways. Silas and Jessybell were in the building stripping the beds of their blankets and sheets. It was too late to mourn Billy a final time. The bunk where he’d died was already barren of anything but its mattress.

The man swiped at his tears with an angry hand. He leaned back against the building, wanting to do nothing more than scream until he had no voice left. When Jim finally managed to calm himself he focused on the conversation coming from within.

“Tis a powerful shame what happened here,” Jessybell was saying to her husband. “So many good men gone. But ‘twas the Lord’s will. Sweet Jesus, ‘twas the Lord’s will and we musn’t question what He sees fit to do.”

As was often the case, Silas kept silent while his talkative wife rattled on.

“If I was to be a woman of weak faith I’d be a wonderin’ why God allowed Mr. Heath to come ‘cross dat little Caroline Atkins. She was already sick, yez she was. But Mr. Heath, he didn’t know dat. How could he? And then little Caroline, she gits Mr. Heath sick, and then Mr. Heath, well he comes home and gets lots of others sick. Tis a terrible thing this diphtheria sickness. Terrible. So many people die. One hundred and thirty-five I hear Doctor Sheridan tell Mizz Barkley.”

“Hush, woman!” Silas ordered as he stripped another bed. “Don’t you go talkin’ about none of this. Do you hear me? None of it. Mrs. Barkley says my Heath isn’t ever to know that Miss Caroline died, or about the sickness she had, or how he brought it back with him. You wasn’t here when Heath came to the Barkleys, Jessy. You didn’t see how the people in this valley treated him. They were downright cruel, and it hurt him. He never said a word to no one about it, but I could tell. It hurt him bad. That’s why this can’t ever be spoke of again. Never! That poor boy still gets grief from some of the folks ‘cause he wasn’t born to Mrs. Barkley. Lord knows he sure don’t need no more.”

Jim Garver pushed himself away from the building.

I knew it! All along I knew it was Heath who got everyone sick. The bastard! The son-of-a-bitchin’ bastard. He’ll pay for Billy’s death. He’ll goddamn pay!

*****

The furious cowboy marched right to the front door of the mansion. There was no one around to stop him. The other men were spread out all over the ranch’s vast acreage doing various jobs Nick had assigned them. Jim was supposed to be looking for strays in the north pasture, but when lunch was over he’d simply gone back to the bunkhouse and stayed there without ever being missed.

The man stomped into the house without knocking. He knew Jarrod and

Nick were gone. He’d seen them ride away after the noon meal. As far as where Mrs. Barkley and Audra were, Jim didn’t know and he didn’t care. He looked around. He’d been in the house a few times though never on the second story. He charged up the stairs intending to do a room by room search. In the end a search wasn’t necessary. The door of the first room the man came to was closed. Jim had no doubt who he’d find on the other side.

Heath woke with a start when his bedroom door banged against the wall. The window shades had been pulled making it difficult to discern who was standing in the hall. The blond man propped himself up on his elbows and squinted into the shadows.

“Nick?”

Heath never had a chance to defend himself. The intruder flew across the room and landed on top of him with fists flying. As Heath tried to ward off the blows that pummeled his face he recognized Jim Garver’s voice.

“You bastard! You no good dirty bastard! It’s because of you Billy’s dead! You brought it here!”

Heath got enough of a grip on the man’s wrists to hold his fists at bay. He tried to buck Jim’s body from the bed, but because of his recent illness didn’t have the strength.

“What the hell are you talking about, Garver? What’s gotten into you?”

“What am I talking about? I’ll tell you what I’m talking about!” The enraged man tore his arms from Heath’s grasp. He pounded Heath’s face in time to his words. “Some kid named Caroline Atkins! She had diphtheria and she gave it to you! Now she’s dead and you brought it here! You brought it here and killed a hundred and thirty-five people including my brother Billy and your pal Jeb Galloway! There wasn’t enough quinine to go around! When Doc Sheridan brought it out he gave it to you! To you and no one else! That’s why Billy died! That’s why Jeb died! That’s why Chuck died! That’s why Mac died! That why,….”

Heath’s mind couldn’t absorb what he was hearing. As the crazed roll call of the dead continued he blocked out Jim Garver’s shouts. He didn’t try to defend himself from the fists battering his face. Nor did he try to make a run for the door when he felt Jim lift him from the bed.

Heath sailed through the air. He didn’t even care when the back of his skull came in fierce contact with a sharp corner of his dresser. To the contrary, he welcomed the blinding pain, – the pain and the darkness that came with it.

As Heath slumped to the floor the last conscious wish he made was for death to claim his miserable soul.

*****

Chapter 16

At five o’clock that afternoon Silas and Jessybell began preparations for the evening meal. Jarrod and Nick were still working somewhere on the ranch, while Victoria and Audra continued to toil in the rose garden. Silas hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Heath since entering the house an hour earlier, so assumed he was still up in his room asleep.

Jessybell stood at the kitchen sink washing the beans she’d just picked in the garden. Her husband sat at the table peeling potatoes over a deep pan. As usual, Jessybell was rattling on a mile a minute concerning things Silas couldn’t give a fig about. He tuned his wife out and daydreamed about the days when this kitchen had been quiet and all his own.

The black man cocked his head. He thought he heard a hollow ‘thud’ coming from above. He listened harder, but the noise didn’t come again. Or at least if it did it was drowned out by Jessybell’s chatter.

Silas returned to his task throwing an occasional, “Uh huh,” and “Is that so?” in his wife’s direction when he deemed it appropriate. This time when a loud clatter sounded they both heard it. Jessybell swiveled while wiping her ebony hands on her apron.

“Lord have mercy, what waz dat?”

“I don’t rightly know. It sounded like someone fallin’ down some of these here back stairs. Like boot heels bangin’ against the wood.”

Silas stood and walked across the kitchen floor. Before he made it the first step Heath staggered into view.

For several long seconds the black man was frozen in place. Heath’s face was a mass of blood and torn flesh. His left eye was swollen half-shut and his lower lip was ballooned to twice its normal size. He had a deep gash above his right eye and another along the right side of his nose. Blood ran freely from both places, staining the collar of his blue shirt red and making it difficult to discern if there were other wounds or not.

“Oh my Lord,…..” Silas ran for the man who was groping a bloody hand for the railing and looked like he was about to take a head-long tumble to the floor. “Jessy, run and get Mrs. Barkley! She’s in the rose garden! Go, woman! Run!”

Jessybell ran from the kitchen as fast as her round body would take her. Her ample bosoms bounced against her chin as she chugged through the parlor and out the French doors screaming, “Mizz Barkley! Mizz Barkley! Come quick! Oh, Ma’am, hurry! Hurry! It’s Mr. Heath! It’s Mr. Heath!”

Victoria and Audra had been examining a perfect red rose when the first hysterical cries reached their ears. Silas’s wife was known to be on the excitable side, so when Jessybell first appeared on the back veranda waving her hands while jumping up and down it was all they could do to keep from laughing. Their merriment turned to panic; however, when they were finally able to discern what she was saying.

“It’s Mr. Heath! Precious Lord Jesus in Heaven it’s Mr. Heath!”

Victoria ran for the woman with Audra at her heels.

“What, Jessy? What is it? What’s wrong with Heath?”

Jessybell had no idea how to explain Heath’s condition because, short of him having gotten caught in a cattle stampede while taking his afternoon nap, there was no way to describe the injuries she had seen.

The black woman grabbed Victoria’s hand. “Juz come with me! He be in the kitchen with Silas! Juz come with me and hurry!”

The three women retraced the same path through the house Jessybell had taken moments earlier. Victoria gasped at her first sight of the blond man’s face.

“Heath! Oh, Heath, what happened?”

Heath had somehow managed to struggle against Silas and make it to the bottom stair. He was still fighting the black man, trying to push his way past his old friend as though he was intent on getting out the door.

Victoria joined in the fray. She got her hands on Heath’s shoulders and tried to urge him to a sitting position on the stairs.

“Heath! Heath, stop it! Heath, it’s Mother and Silas! I want you to sit! Sit down, Heath!”

Despite his swollen eye and hazy vision Heath knew exactly who was trying to get him to sit. He ignored his mother’s directives as he swam for the door.

“Let me go! Leave me alone! Let me go! Do you hear me? Let me go!”

Thinking Heath had somehow taken a terrible fall and was now suffering a serious head injury Victoria turned to her daughter. “Go find your brothers! They’re checking fence lines by the Diamond River boundary! If you spot any of the other men before you get that far send them in here!”

Audra flew from the room without answering her mother. She didn’t even make it to the parlor before Jarrod and Nick walked in the front door.

The two men were laughing when they entered the house. As Jarrod was putting his gun belt and hat on the foyer table he held up a hand.

“Be quiet a minute, Nick. Listen.”

“Listen to what?”

“Don’t you hear it?”

Distant shouts drifted to both brothers’ ears.

“It sounds like it’s coming from the kitchen,” Jarrod said.

Nick tossed his hat on the table. “Yeah, it does.” The dark headed cowboy took a couple steps forward. When he turned back to face Jarrod the lawyer could clearly see the puzzlement that furrowed Nick’s brow. “I think that’s Heath.”

At just that moment Audra exploded into the room.

“Thank God you’re back! Come on, we need your help!”

“Help with what?”

“Heath!”

The men took off running at their sister’s side.

“What’s goin’ on?”

“I don’t know, but his face is covered with blood, and he’s fighting Mother and Silas, and he’s trying to get out the door, and,…”

By now Nick and Jarrod had passed their sister. The men’s first assumption as they entered the kitchen was similar to Victoria’s; that Heath had somehow fallen and injured himself. But then they saw him focus on their mother and heard the words that followed.

“Why did you lie to me? Why didn’t you tell me I had diphtheria? Why didn’t you tell me about Caroline,….and Billy,…..and Jeb, and all the others? Why? You told me from the very first day you asked me to stay here that I could trust you! You said you’d never lie to me!”

“Heath,” Victoria held out her hands to her blood covered son. “Heath, please. Please calm down. Let us help you first and then we’ll talk.”

“No! I don’t wanna talk! And most of all, god dammit, I don’t want your help!”

Heath’s exit might have been a dramatic one had he not passed out as soon as he stepped around Victoria. Jarrod and Nick rushed to catch him. As one they lowered him to the kitchen floor.

The two men ran their hands over their brother’s body. When they could find no broken bones Nick looked up at his mother. In a voice that was both calm and reassuring he said, “I think because of all the blood it looks worse than it is. Jarrod and I’ll carry him to his room. You and Audra bring some cold water and towels. Between the four of us we’ll have him patched up in no time.”

Victoria nodded her head but didn’t move. After her sons had gotten Heath upstairs, and after Audra had joined them with the requested towels and water, Victoria lurched for the kitchen table. Jessybell saw her mistress begin to fall and grabbed the woman’s thin shoulders. She helped Victoria to a chair. When Jessybell was sure Victoria wasn’t going to faint dead away on her she wet a towel with water straight from the pump and crooned soft words while holding it against Victoria’s forehead.

Silas assessed the situation then went to the cabinet where the Godfrey’s Liniment was kept.

“You just sit here for a few minutes, Mrs. Barkley. I’ll help take care of Mr. Heath.”

Victoria couldn’t even find the words to thank the black man. She felt Jessybell’s pudgy hand pat her shoulder.

“It’ll be all right, Ma’am. Everything’s gonna be all right, juz you wait and see.”

Victoria sat there recalling the pain-filled words Heath had shouted at her.

You told me from the very first day you asked me to stay here that I could trust you! You said you’d never lie to me!”

The woman slid the cold towel down over her eyes. She didn’t want Jessybell to see her cry.

*****

Chapter 17

Heath sat in the over-stuffed easy chair in his bedroom with his head tilted back, face to the ceiling. Jarrod and Nick had been forced to put him in this spot when they’d carried him in and discovered vomit all over the bed. They’d removed Heath’s boots and blood soaked shirt the moment they sat him down. With Audra’s help the men began the task of cleaning their brother’s battered face. Silas soon joined them. It was the sting of the liniment against his many cuts that finally brought Heath to consciousness.

Heath stared at the white ceiling, refusing to make eye contact with his siblings. He was sick of people hovering over him, sick of people fussing over him, sick of people removing his clothes without his permission, and just plain sick inside whenever Jim Garver’s words returned to echo within his pounding skull.

Heath’s eyes tracked Audra’s movements as she stripped his bed of the soiled linens. He had no idea how long he’d been unconscious after the beating, but as soon as he’d come to he’d staggered away from the dresser, collapsed on the bed, and thrown up until there was nothing left in his stomach. At any other time Heath would have been embarrassed to have his sister cleaning up such a mess and would have protested her doing so without his help, but right at the moment, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find it in his soul to give a damn.

When Heath had no more cuts that needed dousing Silas patted his shoulder and left the room. Audra finished putting fresh linens on the bed, then made her leave as well. Heath felt her kiss on his right temple, but didn’t react to it in any way that indicated to the woman he even knew she was there.

It wasn’t until Audra was gone that anyone spoke directly to Heath. Jarrod stood over him. He reached a hand behind Heath’s neck and gently lifted his head from the back of the chair.

“Heath, look at me. How many fingers am I holding up?”

When Heath didn’t answer a small note of panic rose in the lawyer’s voice.

“Heath? Come on. How many fingers? Heath, can you hear me?”

Heath grabbed Jarrod’s hand and yanked it aside.

“I can hear you just fine.”

“Then why didn’t you answer?”

When Heath again made no reply Jarrod looked at Nick who shrugged. The lawyer tried again.

“Can you see okay?”

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

Heath’s voice was tight, his words sharp and terse. “Yes, Jarrod, I’m sure. I’m seein’ a lot things plain as day right about now.”

When Heath fell silent once more Jarrod waited him out for one full minute. When still no words were forthcoming he turned to Nick.

“Come on. Help me get him back to bed.”

“No!”

“Heath,….”

Heath wrestled his arms from his brothers’ grasps. “Dammit! I said no!”

“Now look, Heath,….”

Heath glared up at Nick. “No. You look. Why did you do it, Nick?”

“Why did I do what?”

“Why did you give me the quinine?”

“Why did I,….because you were sick, that’s why!”

“Why to me and not to Billy, or Jeb, or any of the other men who work for us who were sick, too?”

Jarrod crouched in front of Heath and placed a solicitous hand on his knee.

“Heath, I don’t know how you came by your information, but judging by the looks of you I can take a pretty good guess. Jim Garver was up here this afternoon, wasn’t he?”

“It doesn’t matter who was up here. I asked Nick a question I want an answer to.”

Nick kept silent and let Jarrod continue to speak.

“Heath, if in fact Jim did pay you a visit then you only heard one side of the story. Jake Sheridan had no quinine in stock when you first became ill. When he did get a shipment two days later it was a small one. He had no choice but to ration the quinine he gave each patient. By then you were the most critical. There were other people in Stockton who were very bad off as well. The men here who had fallen ill weren’t that sick yet. Jake had no other alternative but to forego giving them quinine and wait until another shipment came in last Monday.”

“Then why?”

“Why what?”

“Why didn’t you give mine to them? Why didn’t you give mine to Billy and Jeb, or anyone one else who needed it?”

Victoria spoke from the doorway. “That wasn’t an acceptable alternative.”

Heath looked past his brothers, addressing his question to his stepmother. “Why not?”

“Jarrod already told you why not,” the woman stated as she entered the room. “You were Jake’s most critically ill patient at that time. If you’re angry because you think you received special treatment for no other reason than your last name is Barkley, then get that notion right out of your head.”

Heath struggled to his feet. He did a good job of pretending the room wasn’t doing a wild spin in front of him.

“If I’m angry it’s because I was lied to! Because every time I asked someone why I was so sick I kept getting told I had a bad cold! I’m angry because Nick forced medicine down my throat I would have refused if someone had just told me what was goin’ on!”

“Oh for crying out loud!” Nick spat. “You were so delirious we coulda’ told you Charger learned to do a rain dance and you woulda been lookin’ out the window for the coming storm! You were so delirious I coulda’ had you believing you were married and the father of twelve and you’d have been rattling off the names of your kids. You were so delirious that we coulda’ told you the house was on fire and you would have simply smiled and said, ‘That’s nice.’ ”

“Heath,” Jarrod attempted to reason when Nick’s tirade came to an end, “what Nick is trying to say in his own colorful way is that you weren’t capable of making any decisions regarding your health. You were that sick.”

“Well I don’t recall giving anyone permission to make those decisions for me!”

As she watched Heath sway back and forth Victoria came to the end of her patience. “You gave that permission, young man, the day you joined this family.”

Heath’s eyes locked with Victoria’s. “That might be so. But I damn well didn’t give you permission to lie to me.”

Nick took a step forward. “Heath, before this goes any farther I’ll remind you who you’re talking to. I won’t have my mother spoken to in that manner.”

Heath glared at his brother as best he could through one swollen eye and one that still had dried blood on the lashes.

So the line in the sand has finally been drawn. It’s taken three years for how they really feel to come out, but when push comes to shove she’s not my mother. She’s not my mother and I’m living here simply because she’s too soft hearted and generous to do any less for her husband’s bastard kid.

If the blond man had only voiced his thoughts Nick would have set him straight. What he’d said to Heath he would have said to any of his siblings if they’d used that same tone with Victoria.

But Heath didn’t voice his thoughts because he’d learned years ago that it was harder for someone to hurt you if you didn’t lay yourself wide open by exposing your hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities. Better to be like a turtle in its shell than a faithful puppy dog waiting for a pat on the head or a kick in the hind-end depending on your master’s mood.

Heath groped for the arm of the chair and sank back to the well-cushioned seat.

“Get out.”

“Heath,…”

“Jarrod, I said get out. All of you.” The blond man turned his head so he was staring out the window, his face in profile to his family. “Please.”

Nick opened his mouth to voice a final protest, but Victoria shook her head at him. With a wave of her hand she motioned her sons from the room. She had no doubt Heath knew she was standing in the doorway looking at him, but when several minutes passed in which he didn’t say a word or turn his attention from the window, Victoria left and closed the door behind her.

*****

Victoria wasn’t given permission to enter Heath’s room at eight o’clock that night, but then she didn’t ask for it either. Heath still sat in his chair, though this time staring at the far wall. The supper tray Silas had brought up for him sat on the dresser yet and hadn’t been touched save for the glass of milk. Victoria couldn’t help but smile a little when she saw the empty tumbler. Heath had told her once that when he was a boy milk was a rare treat in their home because of its cost. “Water came straight from the pump for free,” he’d said, “but milk we had to buy.” He’d gone on to say that as a child he’d dreamed about what it would be like to be rich and have all the milk he wanted any time of the day or night. She wondered now if she’d ever told him that the endless supply of milk she kept in the ice box was for him. None of her other grown children were fond of it the way Heath was. Until he came to them it was rare more than two or three glasses were consumed in a week’s time.

Victoria crossed in front of Heath and sat on the edge of his bed. She looked at him a long time before asking, “How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“By Wednesday the quarantine will be lifted. Jarrod’s returning to his office then. I’m going to have him send Jake out here to see you.”

Heath’s eyes finally met his stepmother’s. “I don’t need Jake to see me. I told you, I’m fine.”

“Have you looked in a mirror recently?”

“No.”

“Then perhaps you should.”

“I’ve been beat up worse than this. When you’re the town bastard it happens. As a matter of fact you get used to it after a while. No point in you frettin’ none.”

Victoria hadn’t heard Heath talk like this since the first few months he’d come to live with them. But now all that old anger was back in full force. And underneath, buried deep and kept well hidden, she could hear the hurt and the shame, too.

“Heath, I told you some years ago that’s old history. It’s in the past. Long in the past. Leave it where it belongs, son.”

“Funny thing about old history. Some people just like to make sure I relive it over and over. No matter how much you want it to be in the past, it just doesn’t seem to want to stay there.”

Heath stood on shaky legs. Victoria moved to help him but he shrugged her off.

“I’m tired. I wanna go to bed now.”

“I’ll send Nick up to,…”

“No! I already told you I’m fine.”

Victoria watched as the man stumbled for the bed. She was certain he would pass out before he got there, but somehow he made it to the mattress with his eyes still open.

Heath didn’t bother to turn down the bed covers, he simply laid on top of the spread. Of course Victoria didn’t expect him to remove his pants with her in the room, but she got the impression he had no intention of doing so anyway. She crossed to the closet and pulled out a blanket. She spread it over the top of him without either one of them exchanging a word. She picked up the tray of food from the dresser and headed for the door. Right before she closed it she said, “Whether you like it or not one of us will be checking on you several times throughout the night. I suspect you have a concussion at the very least.”

Considering his head felt like it was in a vice Heath suspected that as well. But he didn’t acknowledge that fact to Victoria, nor did he make a reply to her words because truthfully, it made little difference to him if he slipped into a coma sometime before the new day dawned. Actually, death would be a blessing.

*****

Nick sat at the dining room table playing solitaire. His eyes followed his mother as she passed through the room wearing a grim expression while carrying Heath’s untouched supper. So far Jarrod had held Nick in check, but this was the last straw. They’d worked so hard to keep Heath alive during the past two weeks. Now, because of one man, Heath was on a fast downhill slide.

Jarrod was standing in front of the fireplace in the study brooding over the afternoon’s events, and where exactly Audra was Nick didn’t know. All the better. He didn’t need her to alert Jarrod of his actions. The dark headed man didn’t bother to grab his gun belt from the foyer table. He could kill Jim Garver with his bare hands just as easily as with a revolver.

Nick marched out the front door. The sun had just fallen, but there was still enough light left in the western sky to see by. Nick had just stepped off the veranda when he caught sight of a man crossing the ranch yard. Pete’s saddle bags were slung over his right shoulder and he carried a bed roll under his left arm. Nick met him half way.

“Nick,” the man nodded in greeting.

“Pete. Where’s Jim?”

“Heath told you?”

“Not exactly, but we guessed. But then that wasn’t too difficult to do considering his face looks like it was put through a meat grinder.”

“I’m sorry, Nick. Until an hour ago I had no idea. Then Jimmy,…well I finally got it out of him. He never showed up on work detail this afternoon so I had a sick feeling in my gut that he was up to no good.”

“Where is he?”

“Gone. I sent him packing.”

Nick heaved a sigh and allowed his shoulders to relax. As much as he wanted to beat Jim Garver to a pulp he supposed this was for the best. If nothing else Nick’s actions wouldn’t lay any further worries on his mother’s heart.

“I’m leavin’ too, Nick.”
“You don’t have to do that. You still have a job here if you want it.”

“Thank you. After what Jimmy’s done I really appreciate it. But he’s my brother, just like Heath is yours. I gotta stand by him and be there for him if he needs me.”

“Where will you go?”

“I already sent Jim on ahead for our folk’s place. I figured we’d stay with them a few weeks and try to help ‘em through the grief Billy’s death is bound to cause ‘em. Because we haven’t been able to get to town to mail a letter yet they don’t know. I suppose it’s best if they hear it right from us anyway. Then, after that, we’ll look for ranchin’ work again I expect. Hell, it’s all we know how to do.”

“And you’re good at it. Both of you.”

“Thanks. I will make you one promise, Nick.”

“What’s that?”

“When we look for work it’ll be far away from here. I think it would be best if Jim and Heath never cross paths again.”

“I think that would be for the best, too. Not only had Jim better never cross paths with Heath again, but he’d better never cross them with me either.”
Pete couldn’t help but toss his boss a grin. “I know. Why do you think I sent the fool on outta here before I came to talk to you?”

Nick grinned in return and held out his hand. “Pete, take care. And good luck.”

“Thank you. For everything. Tell Mrs. Barkley, Jarrod and Audra I said thank you as well. I know all of you did everything you could for Billy. And tell Heath I said goodbye and that I’m sorry for what Jim did to him.”

“I will.”

With that Pete Garver turned and disappeared into the fading light. Nick stood where he was until he heard horse’s hooves riding away from the ranch. He wasn’t surprised when he felt a hand reach out to rest on his shoulder.

Nick moved his head just enough so that he could see Jarrod out of the corner of his eye. “You heard?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And I’m glad Jim’s gone. That’s one less problem for us,….and Heath, to have to deal with.”

“No doubt you’re right on that account, Jarrod.” Nick walked away from his brother as he headed back to the house. Jarrod barely heard his final words.

“But how many more Jim Garver’s will Heath encounter before this is all over?”

Jarrod stood outside until darkness completely enveloped him. When he returned to the house he still had no answer for Nick.

*****

Each member of Heath’s family took a turn checking on him throughout that night. None of them got more than two steps into his room before they heard a succinct, “I’m fine.” Heath’s tone broadcast to all of them he had no desire for anyone to linger. Nick tried, but was quickly told to get out.

Heath didn’t put an appearance in at the breakfast table that morning. Victoria hoped that meant he was sleeping. She’d stopped in his room on her way to the main floor and found him turned on his side with his back to the door. She’d called his name in a voice just above a whisper, but he didn’t answer. She left not knowing for certain if he was finally asleep, or simply feigning sleep in order to get her to leave.

The abundant breakfast Silas prepared was wasted on the Barkleys that day. Nick poked at his eggs until he’d made such a mess of the yolks that he eventually pushed his plate aside.

“So?”

“So what?” Victoria asked her volatile son.

“So what do we do about Heath today?”

“What would you have us do about him?”

“Make him talk.”

Victoria, Jarrod and Audra exchanged smiles at Nick’s exasperation. The woman returned her attention to her second son.

“Nicholas, by now I think you’ve learned that Heath will only talk when he’s good and ready. Certainly not on my schedule, and definitely not on yours.”

“And that means what? We just let him sit up there by himself all day?”

“No. As soon as he’s awake he’s going to come down here and resume the routine we started yesterday. He’ll eat breakfast, then Audra will entertain him in the parlor this morning. If he’s not too tired prior to lunch I’ll allow him to sit on the swing with me out by the rose garden. This afternoon he’ll rest in his room, and this evening you two will entertain him just like we had planned prior to yesterday’s,….disturbance.”

“What if he refuses?”

“It’s simply not going to be allowed.”

Nick cocked a skeptical eyebrow at his mother.

“He has to rejoin the world whether he wants to or not, Nick. If we let him cut himself off from us, from those who love him, he may never recover. For today we’ll carry on as though nothing happened. If Heath doesn’t want to talk about it then we’ll respect that. Tomorrow, when Jarrod returns to Stockton, I’m going to have him send Jake out here. After that we’ll have a better idea how to go forward with helping Heath recover from both his illness and the beating, as well as recover emotionally from all he’s discovered.”

Based on their mother’s words the Barkley offspring knew she must have been awake most of the night thinking this through. Jarrod was willing to bet all of them were. When no one voiced any objections, or offered any other ideas, the lawyer knew they were in agreement with their mother’s plan.

Unfortunately no one had checked with Heath about that plan. He waited until thirty minutes after he saw his brothers ride out of the ranch yard, then walked down the stairs fully dressed wearing his gun belt and carrying his hat.

Victoria had just been headed up to check on him. She put her hands on her hips as he stepped onto the foyer floor.

“And just where do you think you’re going, Heath Barkley?”

“Back to work.”

“Back to work!”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Heath, when Jake was here on Friday he said it would be at least one month before you could return to work. Now with this beating you’ve suffered that timeline may be pushed even farther back.”

“Well, I guess like a lotta of other things around here lately no one told me that. So since I didn’t know I’ve made my own timeline.”

As Heath brushed past Victoria she reached out and shagged his arm. He turned to look at her.

“Heath, please! Listen to me. The reason Jake said you must have two weeks of bed rest is because diphtheria can cause life-threatening heart problems if you return to any activities before your body has had a chance to recover.”

Heath freed himself and headed for the door. Though he mumbled the words as he walked out of the house, Victoria heard them.

“I don’t care. I really don’t care.”

*****

The Grandfather clock in the foyer was chiming nine times when Heath returned home that evening. It was all Victoria could to do to remain sitting in her chair in the parlor. Her first instinct was to rush to greet him, but one look at his hooded expression told the woman any offer of maternal affection would be rebuked.

Heath’s eyes flicked to his stepmother’s. She could easily see the exhaustion ringing them. And now, after an entire day doing God knows what, the bruises on his face were even more pronounced than they had been that morning.

Victoria got the impression her son was going to head up the stairway without speaking to her if he thought she’d allow him to get away with it. She wouldn’t. She stood and walked to the foyer.

“Your brothers and sister are out looking for you.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Victoria’s tone clearly spoke of how ridiculous she thought Heath’s question was.

“It’s not like I’ve never put a full day of work in around this ranch before. No one ever came lookin’ for me then.”

“Perhaps that’s because you never put a full day of work in when you were actually supposed to be in bed.” The woman softened her tone. “They were worried about you, Heath. I was worried about you. When Nick almost wore a hole in the floor with his pacing Jarrod suggested they try and find you. Nick wanted Audra stay with me but she wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Well I’m sorry if I caused so much upset. But you can tell everyone I was takin’ care of myself for a lotta years before I came here. I expect I still know how to do that without my brothers and sister playin’ nursemaid.”

“Heath,….”

“I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”

“Not without supper you’re not.”

“Look, I,….” Heath squelched his words before his tone grew any sharper. He was angry at Victoria, furious at her as a matter of fact, but he didn’t mean to sound disrespectful. She’d done too much for him over the years for him to ever intentionally hurt her.

The woman seemed to read Heath’s thoughts. She ended their discussion by saying simply, “Your supper is in the oven. Please eat it before you go to bed.”

Heath gave a tight nod. He walked to the kitchen and did as Victoria requested. He was too tired to eat much, but he did down a few bites of the beef stew and fresh bread Silas had left warming for him. He’d barely made it through the day of checking fence lines in a pasture far from the house. He’d been forced to climb off Charger several times and lay down in the tall grass for a nap. Whether Heath really felt like eating or not, the man knew he needed something in his stomach in order to work again tomorrow.

The cowboy bypassed the bowl of cherry cobbler that sat on the table covered with a tin lid. He drank a second glass of milk, carried his dishes to the sink, then headed up the back stairs to his room without ever returning to the parlor to say goodnight to Victoria.

*****

An hour later Jarrod, Nick and Audra rode through the front gates. Long before they entered the house they knew Heath was back. Charger was in his stall, that fact alone indicated that one way or another their brother had arrived home.

Audra caught the front door before Nick could slam it. Victoria looked up from where she’d been sitting in her chair staring into the fireplace. The three young people walked into the parlor.

“Well?” Nick asked.

“He’s home.”

Audra sat on the couch. “Is he all right?”

“He looks utterly exhausted, but other than that yes, I believe he’s fine.”

Jarrod walked over to the table and poured himself and Nick a shot of whiskey. “Where is he now?”

“In his room. Sleeping I suppose. Or maybe staring at the wall. I really don’t know.”

Nick poured his drink down his throat, then held his glass out to Jarrod for a refill. “Did he eat supper?”

“Yes. Though judging by what was left in the pot he didn’t eat much.”

“Did he say where he was all day?”

“No, and to tell you the truth I didn’t ask. I assume he was working somewhere on the ranch. Or at least that’s what he indicated to me during one portion of our very brief conversation.”

Jarrod exchanged concerned glances with his siblings. So far their mother hadn’t taken her eyes from the fireplace that on this June night held no fire.

“Mother? Are you okay?”

“Yes, Jarrod, I’m fine. It’s just that,…” the woman finally looked up into the faces of her children. “I guess I’m at a loss as to know how to help Heath through this. I was foolish enough to think that when the time was right, if I was the one to tell him he had diphtheria and that Jeb and some of the other men had passed away, he’d be okay with it. That he’d accept the news, understand why we chose to keep it from him until he was well on the road to recovery, mourn the loss of his friends, but be able to get on with his life.”

“And he would have been had Jim Garver not charged into his room yesterday afternoon,” Nick said.

Victoria pondered this, then thought back over the words Heath had shouted at her in the kitchen the previous day.

“How did Garver know about Caroline Atkins?”

“Pardon me?” Nick asked his mother.

“Caroline Atkins. How did Jim Garver know about her? Yesterday afternoon in the kitchen Heath specifically asked me why I hadn’t told him about Caroline. With all the other upsets that occurred thereafter I never thought about that until now.”

“I don’t know,” Nick shrugged his shoulders. “But Garver didn’t hear it from me. I haven’t said a word about the Atkins family to anyone.”

“Me neither,” Audra said.

“Nor I,” Jarrod stated.

“If Garver knew about Caroline then it’s a fair assumption to make that he knew, or at least surmised, Heath carried the disease here,” Victoria said as she thought out loud. “I realize Heath is upset because we didn’t tell him he had diphtheria, nor tell him about the deaths of Billy, Jeb, and the others. I realize he’s upset because he feels guilty that he was given quinine and they weren’t. But now I’m also beginning to realize that Jim Garver may have told Heath everything we didn’t want him to know. Everything we were hoping he’d never have to discover.”

“But how could Garver have found out?”

“I don’t know, Nick. I just don’t know.”

Silas never stepped out of the dining room. He turned around with the tray of sandwiches he was carrying and scurried back to the kitchen. He fell to a chair and covered his face with his hands.

“Oh, Lord, what have we done? What have we done to my poor Heath?”

*****

Victoria remained in the parlor long after her children had gone up to bed. It was almost midnight when Silas entered the room in his robe and slippers.

“Silas! What brings you in here at this late hour?”

“Mrs. Barkley,….Ma’am,…..I need to speak to you.”

The black man stood in front of the matriarch ringing his hands. In all the years he’d worked for Victoria she could never recall seeing him this uneasy.

“Silas, sit down. What’s wrong?”

Silas perched himself on the edge of the sofa. Victoria was patient with him and didn’t urge the man to begin talking until he was ready. Silas took one final deep internal breath before starting.

“Mrs. Barkley, I was bringing you all sandwiches earlier and heard what you said when you wondered how Mr. Garver knew about little Caroline Atkins. Ma’am,….” the black man paused and swallowed hard. “Ma’am, I think it was me and Jessy that told him.”

“You and Jessy? Silas, how?”

“We were changin’ the bedding in the bunkhouse yesterday afternoon like you asked us to. Jessy, she was rattlin’ on like she does. You know that woman, she couldn’t keep quiet even if someone offered her money to. She was talkin’ about Mr. Heath and wonderin’ why God allowed him to meet up with little Caroline,….and oh, Mrs. Barkley, I’m afraid she said too much. But it was only me and Jessy. I didn’t know anyone else was nearby. I even told her to hush and reminded her that you said it wasn’t to be spoken of. Jessy shut up about it then, honest she did. She didn’t mean no harm, Ma’am. A little while after that I was carryin’ sheets to the laundry tub. I saw Mr. Garver crossin’ the ranch yard. He musta’ been listening outside the door. We didn’t know he was there, Mrs. Barkley. Truly we didn’t.”

Victoria reached over and took the black man’s hand in hers. “I know you didn’t, Silas.”

“We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“Leave?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I know you won’t want us stayin’ after all the trouble we caused.”

“Oh, Silas, you and Jessy didn’t cause any trouble. And you’re not going anywhere. Heath,…..well I’m beginning to realize now that Heath would have found out sooner or later. The truth always has a way of surfacing whether we want it to or not. You’d think a woman my age would have long ago accepted that fact.”

“You only did what you thought was right, Ma’am. Because you love that boy so. You didn’t want him all tore up inside over something that’s not his fault. You didn’t want him hurt. There’s nothin’ wrong with that, Mrs. Barkley.”

Victoria squeezed the old man’s hand as she thought of another man laying upstairs in his bed quite likely wide awake and mentally punishing himself.

“I suppose you’re right, Silas. Unfortunately, I don’t think Heath sees it quite that way.”

*****

Chapter 18

The next two days were repeats of Tuesday, only Heath began rising before dawn so he wouldn’t encounter any of his family members at the breakfast table.

How much he was eating, or even if he was eating at all, Victoria wasn’t certain. All she knew as that when he returned home each night after nine o’clock he looked exhausted, depressed, and sick. Nick tried to talk to him Thursday evening, but that simply turned into a shouting match that Jarrod had to finally put an end to. As Jarrod led Nick from Heath’s room and down the stairs the dark headed cowboy raked a frustrated hand through his hair.

“What the hell am I going to do with him?”

“Well, judging by the hollering the ladies and I could hear all the way in the study I’d say forbidding him to work isn’t the answer.”

“It might not be the answer, but anyone with two eyes can see he’s got no business leaving his bed. He can’t possibly be eating, Jarrod, or at least not much because the weight is melting off of him as we speak.”

“So I’ve seen. Mother and Audra have noticed it, too.”

“I’m more than half tempted to tie him to that bed tonight. Then we’ll see how far he gets in the morning.”

“I think Mother’s half tempted, too, but you know as well I do that’s not the answer.”

“Then what is the answer?”

Jarrod shook his head. “I wish I knew, Nick. I wish I knew.”

*****

Heath Barkley rode into Stockton at noon on Friday. The quarantine was lifted on Wednesday as Jake Sheridan said it would be. Jarrod had returned to work on that day, though not before pausing at the graveyard first to pay his respects to the many who had lost their lives during the epidemic.

Heath knew the noon hour would find Stockton’s streets deserted for the most part. Many of the businesses closed down for an hour so the proprietors could go home for lunch. Like Jarrod had Wednesday, Heath stopped when he came to Stockton’s cemetery. He climbed off Charger, looping the horse’s reins around a post of the black iron fence. He removed his hat and hung it over his saddle horn.

There was no one present when the blond man slowly walked to the vast area of ground that held fresh graves. The old trees towering above Heath seemed to be offering their own version of mourning as their leaves rustled softly in the summer breeze. A tear escaped Heath’s right eye as he counted the mounds of dirt. His heart wouldn’t allow him to continue when he reached eighty.

Heath heard someone walking up behind him. He glanced at the man but didn’t recognize him. He felt the stranger stop beside him.

“You’re Heath Barkley, aren’t you?”

Heath nodded his head.

“I’m Halden Whitcomb.”

Again, Heath nodded.

The man pointed to the graves in front of them. “And these here are my children. Neil, Grace, and Emma. It’s because of you they’re dead. Because your rich papa wasn’t satisfied with one woman so he had to go lookin’ for another until he found your whore of a mama. You’re a product of sin and God punishes your kind! I just don’t understand why He had to punish my children, too!” Mr. Whitcomb dropped to his knees as sobs overtook him. “Why? Just tell me why God punished my babies because of someone like you.”

Heath stared down at the grieving man and felt like he was watching him through a long, dark tunnel. The sun was burning too hot on his head, and he was suddenly so weak he didn’t think his knees would hold him up.

The cowboy bolted for Charger. He grabbed onto the saddle just as his legs gave away. He stood there a long time, breathing hard and smelling warm leather. When he finally felt strong enough Heath slithered onto Charger. He refused to look back at the graveyard, but he knew Halden Whitcomb was still there. Heath could hear the man’s cries for his dead children as he headed down main street.

*****

Jarrod returned to his office shortly before one p.m. after having dined with some associates at the Cattlemen’s Hotel. His secretary entered five minutes later.

“I’m back, Mr. Barkley!” The woman called from the outer office.

“Karen, when you get settled will you please come in here. I need to dictate two letters.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Within seconds Karen entered the room with notebook and pencil in hand. As she sat down she said, “I saw Heath a little while ago.”

“Heath?”

“Yes. He’s very thin, Mr. Barkley. So thin and so pale. If you want my opinion he has no business being out of bed yet.”

Jarrod smiled. “Believe me, Karen, my mother’s opinion concurs with yours. However; Heath’s opinion seems to differ. Where did you see him?”

“He was standing in the graveyard.”

“In the graveyard?”

“Yes. I was going to stop and say hello, but then with all the deaths that have occurred in the past two weeks I thought maybe he was paying his respects to a friend so I decided not to disturb him.”

Jarrod headed for the door and grabbed his hat off the rack. “Karen, forget that dictation for now. I left the mail on your desk. Please go through it and answer any necessary correspondence for me. If I’m not back by three close up the office and call it a day.”

Before the woman had a chance to ask her boss any further questions he was gone.

*****

Jarrod searched most of Stockton for Heath until he finally spotted Charger outside of Big John’s. The saloon was a favorite hangout of Nick and Heath’s. If they came to town for any reason it wasn’t unusual for them to stop off here for a cold beer.

The lawyer pushed against the swinging half-doors. He spotted a couple cowboys from the Circle V ranch at one table, and a lone man he didn’t know at another. The saloon’s proprietor, John Wesley Briggs, lived up to his nickname. At six foot six and three hundred and ninety pounds he had the girth of a grizzly bear. His rust colored beard and thick red hair only enhanced that comparison.

Jarrod picked up the beer John poured him. He kept his voice low when he said, “I’m looking for Heath. Have you seen him?”

John pointed to a room at the back of the saloon. “He bought two bottles of whiskey about an hour ago and has been in there ever since. It’s not like Heath to drink so much. I was gonna come get you in a little while if I couldn’t convince him to head on home.”

Jarrod paid for his beer and added a handsome tip. “Thanks, John. I appreciate your concern.”

The room Big John pointed to was normally used for private poker games on Friday and Saturday nights. It was the size of Heath’s bedroom at home, and decorated with nothing more than a round table and a smattering of chairs.

Jarrod entered the room and closed the door behind him. He paused a moment and studied the man seated at the table. Heath’s hat had been tossed on a nearby chair. Without its wide brim shading his forehead one could easily see the evidence of Jim Garver’s fists. An empty whiskey bottle had been pushed off to one side, and Heath was pouring a shot from the second bottle that was quickly on its way to being empty.

That’s a hell of a lot of liquor to consume in an hour’s time, Brother Heath. I dare say you won’t be feeling too good come tomorrow morning.

Jarrod pulled out the chair to the right of his sibling and seated himself.

“Mind if I sit down?”

Heath looked up for the first time. A silly grin spread across his bruised face. “Jarrod, ya’ know somethin’. Sometimez, without even tryin’, you’re one helluva funny guy.”

“Oh I am, huh?”

“Yeah. Like juz now. You asked,…you asked if you could sit down, but you waz already sittin’.” Heath shook his head and laughed. “Like I said, funny. Funny, funny, funny.”

Jarrod sat back in his chair and took a long sip of beer. “So, Brother Heath, what brings you to Stockton today?”

“Had to visit me some friends.”

The slight drawl Heath normally possessed that he’d picked up from his Southern born mother, was now coming through as strong as if he’d been raised in the heart of Dixie.

“Friends?”

“Yep. Came to pay my repect,…repent,…repast,…my respect,…respect, thaz a hard word to say when you’re drunk, ya’ know that?”

“No. I didn’t know that.”

“Well, take it from ole’ Heath, it is. Anyway,…..” Heath stared at the lawyer. “What’d you ask me?”

“I asked what brings you to Stockton today.”

“Oh, yeah. Well see, Brother Jarrod,…I hope you don’t mind me connin’ your phrase.”

“Coining.”

“Huh?”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘coining’, as opposed to conning.”

“Oh. I guezz you could be right. After all, you’re the lawyer and good with them fancy words and such. Anyway, I came to Stockton to pay my respects to my friends.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t.” Heath’s speech was slurred but slow, making the words easy for Jarrod to understand. “I can tell by the look on yer face you ain’t got a fiddly doggone notion as to what it is I’m talkin’ about. You know what yer problem is, Jarrod?”

“No, but I suppose you’re going to tell me.”

“Sure am. Yer problem is you’re too polite. ‘Cause if you waz more like Nick, who ain’t polite at all more often than not, you wouldn’t be pretendin’ to know what I’m sayin’.”

Jarrod watched as Heath poured himself another drink and downed it in one swallow. He’d never seen the blond man drunk in all the years Heath had lived with them. Heath could hold his liquor and knew his limits. He’d told Jarrod one time that any fun he’d once gotten out of drinking in excess ended when he was twenty and working at an Oregon lumber camp. An inebriated logger lost both an arm and a leg in an accident caused by his own drunken hand. From that point on Heath told Jarrod he’d had a healthy respect for alcohol and never drank to the point it impaired his thoughts or judgment.

Until today evidently.

“Okay, Heath. Then why don’t I quit pretending to be polite, and just come right out and ask you what you mean when you say you came to town to pay your respects to your friends.”

“Okay. Ask me.”

“I just did.”

“Oh.” Heath thought a long minute, took another drink, then thought again. “What waz the question?”

Jarrod took a deep internal breath. “Why did you come,…”

Heath started laughing a drunken, silly laugh that was unfamiliar to his brother. “I was juz joshin’ ya’, Jarrod. See, I can be a funny guy, too. Now, the answer to your question is,…I came to pay my respects to the people I killed.”

“Heath,…..”

“I guezz a person can’t really call ‘em my friends. I suppose I don’t even know a lotta of ‘em. But Mr. Whitcomb,….he waz there and he told me I killed his children. Neil,…and Grace,…and Emily,…no, thaz wrong. Emma. Her name was Emma. So I reckon now if I know their names that makes ‘em my friends. But they can’t be my friends for long ‘cause Mr. Whitcomb was mad that I took his babies from ‘em. Course that came as no surprise to him ‘cause I’m a product of sin, ya’ know. Thaz what he said. He announced it to the whole entire graveyard, he did, though I don’t ‘spect anyone heard ‘em cause all those in attendance was already layin’ down and restin’ in peace, as the sayin’ goes. But hell, whaz that guy take me for, some kinda’ fool? I already know I’m a product of sin. Been told that damn near all my life.”

Heath poured himself another glass of whiskey. Jarrod pushed the bottle aside, hoping if his brother had to reach very far for it he’d leave it be.

“Heath, please. You’ve had enough. Let me take you to my office and we’ll talk.”

“Talk.” Heath sat back in his chair and shook an unsteady finger at is brother. “Talk, talk, talk. Thaz all you Barkleys do. Howdy boy, I,…” Heath laughed again. “Did you hear that, Jarrod? I said howdy boy when I meant to say boy howdy.”

“I heard it.”

“I kinda like it, though. How ‘bout you? Kinda gives a new twist to an old ex….ex…..ex…..”

“Expression.”

“Yep. Expression. Thaz another hard word to say when a body’s half looped. Anyway, I don’t wanna talk. You people do enough talkin’ to last me a life time. When I first came to stay with ya’ all, I wondered on some days if any of ya’ ever shut up.”

“Yes, I suppose you did.” Jarrod smiled as he thought of how quiet Heath had been back then. Not that one would consider him a talkative man now,…or at least not when he was sober, but he’d sure come a long way in learning to contribute to a conversation during the three and half years he’d been with them.

“Especially Nick,” Heath went on to say. “Blah, blah, blah. I wonder if he knows that more often than not when he gits goin’ real long-winded like, and is wavin’ his fists in the air like a crazy man, all I hear is blah, blah, blah. Whatever he’s really sayin’ I juz tune right out.”

“I don’t blame you. Sometimes I do the same thing myself.”

Heath groped for the liquor bottle. Without pouring another drop in his glass he took a long swig. “But now unerstand this, I don’t mean to sound ungraceful.”

“Grateful.”

“Thaz what I said. Ungraceful. ‘Cause I ain’t ungraceful, ya’ know.”

“I know that, Heath. We all know that.”

“I’m pissed as hell, though. Pissed at all of you for keepin’ secrets from me. I wanna tell your mother that, but when I do I won’t use the word pissed in front of her.”

“Thank you. I’m sure Mother will appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

Heath slouched in his chair, cradling the liquor bottled against his chest and staring at the smooth surface of the table. “She’s a good woman, yer mother. I waz like a wild stallion when I came to your place. Unbroken and untamed. Didn’t think any woman had it in her to gentle me. But yer mama did. Your mama,…. well now she surely did.”

Jarrod found it ironic that Heath would use that particular analogy. His mother had said almost the same exact words to Jarrod one time when she told him, “Heath was like a skittish stallion that simply needed a little gentling. A little gentling and a lot of love. Underneath all that anger I saw a first place winner, Jarrod. A first place winner just like all Tom Barkley’s children.”

The lawyer patted Heath’s elbow until Heath made eye contact with him. “And Mother thought you were a prize, Brother Heath. She saw the person you could be from the very first day you walked onto the ranch. Now, speaking of our mother, what do you say we head home.”

“She’s not my mother.”

“Pardon?”

“Nick. He made that clear the other night. She’s not my mother.”

“Heath, Nick never said anything like that to you. At least not that I’m aware of.”

“Yez he did. He said,…he said,….let me think a minute ‘cause I mighta’ tuned him out. No,….no wait. I didn’t tune him out ‘cause what he said was too important. He said I wasn’t to talk to his mother that way. His mother. Not our mother. His mother. Your mother. I don’t have a mother, you know. Nor a father either. I’m an orphan.”

Jarrod could see this was going to rapidly turn into a pity party he had no intention of participating in. “Heath, you’re being ridiculous. You’re not an orphan. You have three brothers and one sister which completely eradicates the definition of orphan.”

As quick as Heath’s morose mood came it left him. “Eeeeeeeradicates. Howdy boy, I sure do like it when you use them big words.”

“And another thing,” Jarrod stated while ignoring his brother and barely pausing to take a breath, “what Nick said to you he would have said to any of us who were speaking to Mother in the tone you were using. He was simply letting you know you needed to back off a bit and give yourself time to cool down before you said something you’d come to regret.”

“No, no, no,” Heath shook his head. “He said his mother. I know what he meant, Jarrod. And what the hell, I don’t blame him none. I can pretend Victoria Barkley is my mother, I can tell people Victoria Barkley is my mother, but let’s face it. It just ain’t so no matter how much I might want it to be.”

“And do you plan to tell Victoria Barkley that?”

Heath looked at his brother with a dull, drunken haze to his eyes. “Huh?”

“Do you plan to tell our mother what you just said?”

“No. Ain’t got no reason to.”

“Well, I wish you would because I think she’d set you straight on a number of issues where that’s concerned.”

“She’d juz lie to me. Juz like she did when I waz sick. She’d juz say what she thinks I wanna hear. But no matter. I’m tough. I can take it. I been hurt so much in my life by people, and by their words, and by their lies, that there ain’t hardly room left to hurt me anymore.”

“Heath,….”

The blond man plunked the whiskey bottle on the table, grabbed his hat, and staggered to his feet. “Come on, Jarrod. You’re drunk. Lez git you home.”

Jarrod watched dumbfounded as his brother somehow managed to walk a straight line through the saloon, swing himself up on Charger with his usual grace, and head for the ranch.

*****

Long after supper had been eaten that evening four grim faced Barkleys sat around the dining room table. Jarrod waited until Jessybell had cleared the dishes away before bringing up the subject of Heath, and the encounter the lawyer had with him in Big John’s that day. Jarrod had spent years memorizing testimonies as told to him by clients, therefore he had no trouble recounting almost word for word the conversation he’d had with his brother. When he was finished Nick pounded a fist on the table.

“I didn’t mean anything by it when I told Heath not to talk to ‘my’ mother that way! For the love of mike, from the day Mother told us she asked Heath to call her mother I pretty much forgot he hadn’t grown up right here with us!”

“Nick, at any other time in his life Heath knows that,” Jarrod said. “It’s just that right now,…well after talking to him today, or hearing him talk rather, I’ve come to the conclusion he’s carrying more pain and guilt inside than any of us can imagine. That alone can cause a man to misconstrue nearly every innocent comment that’s made to him.”

Nick and Audra continued to pepper their brother with questions about what Heath had said in Big John’s, then began offering suggestions they thought might aid in Heath’s emotional recovery. Only Victoria remained silent. When Jarrod finally turned his attention to his mother she appeared distant and far away, as though she was lost in deep and troubling thought.

“Mother?”

The woman took her steepled fingers away from her mouth. “Yes, Jarrod?”

“You must have some thoughts on all this. Nick, Audra, and I have just batted around every idea we can come up with to help Heath, what about you?”

The woman took in her three offspring. Their faces were so full of hope, as though she was going to dispel some sort of vast maternal wisdom that would make everything all right by tomorrow morning.

“I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. From what Jarrod tells us I have a son who spent part of his day standing in a graveyard unjustly blaming himself for those who have been taken from us by an act of God. I have a son who was once again told he’s no good and is the product of sin; something that’s been said to him far too many times in his life. I have a son who called himself an orphan which indicates to me that right now he feels very alone and bereft. I have a son who’s ‘pissed as hell’ at me but doesn’t think he has the right to tell me that.”

The siblings exchanged smiles at their mother’s attempt at humor. Victoria Barkley was every ounce a lady, but she was full of vinegar, too, and a few vulgar words as spoken by a drunken cowboy barely earned a raised eyebrow from her on most occasions.

“I have a son who’s been hurt so many times by lies and deceit that he doesn’t realize, for the sake of his health, we had no choice but to deceive him where this issue was concerned, and he may never come to realize that. But most of all I have a son who is pushing his family away at a time when he needs them more than he ever has. But how I get that son to turn to me, or to any one of you, before he allows unjust guilt and blame to destroy him from the inside out, I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Audra squeezed her mother’s hand when she saw Victoria swipe at a lone tear. Nick finally broke the silence they’d fallen into.

“If you want my opinion we have to talk to him. All of us. Tonight. Like Jarrod, I’ve never known Heath to drink to the point that he’s drunk. Not once in all the time he’s lived here have I seen him turn to liquor when something’s bothering him. Not once have I seen him drink more than he should regardless of whether he’s happy, sad, angry, upset,….whatever. We can’t let him start using the bottle as a way to hide from his pain. I’ve seen too many good men ruin their lives with that method. I won’t let my brother start down that path.”

“Nick’s right,” Jarrod agreed. “We have to make Heath understand that it’s okay to hurt, okay to be angry, and okay to feel pain when he thinks about those who lost their lives to this epidemic. But at the same time we have to make him understand that we’re the people he needs to lean on to get him through this.

We all know he’s a hard nut to crack. Each one of us has come to respect that he’s a soft-spoken man who keeps many of his thoughts and feelings to himself. We’re certainly not going to be able to change that about him, and I doubt any of us really want to. It’s those qualities that make Heath the person he is. But if a simple fishing trip with me and Nick will help him heal a little bit then he needs to know we want him to tell us that. If spending a week at the lodge with Mother will help him get past some of the pain and grief, then again, he needs to know he can tell us that. If going riding every evening with Audra will somehow help him come to terms with all this, then we need to know that. If he wants to go to San Francisco for a couple weeks and stay at my apartment just for the opportunity to get away from here, then once again, we need to know that.”

Victoria gave a thoughtful nod. “It might work, Jarrod. If nothing else it’s a place to start. He enjoys doing all those things you suggested. And by far the last thing he should be doing right now is working, so if a fishing trip is in order, or a week at the lodge, or time in San Francisco, then I say let’s give it a try.”

“It can’t hurt,” Audra agreed. “One thing I’ve learned about Heath is that he’s more likely to open up and reveal his thoughts and feelings if he’s with just one person, as opposed to being in a group.”

Victoria and her sons nodded at the truth to Audra’s words. Before anyone had a chance to speak again the family heard the front door open. Victoria recognized the sound of a gun belt being laid on the table in the foyer, and could picture Heath’s hat joining it. Jarrod looked from one family member to another. When no one voiced any objections he stood and walked through the parlor. When he came to the foyer Heath was just turning for the stairway.

“Heath! Glad to see you’re home.” The lawyer’s tone was cheery and inviting. “Come on in the dining room and eat. Your supper awaits you.”

The absence of anyone in the study or parlor indicated to Heath that more than his supper awaited him in the dining room.

Counselor, I’m sick, I’m tired, and I’ve got the mother of all hangovers. Can’t you people just leave a man be?

“Ain’t hungry.”

Jarrod walked over and put an arm around Heath’s shoulders.

“Well ‘ain’t hungry’ isn’t acceptable. Not in this house. Not for a man who’s been sick and is insisting on putting in a full day of work before the doctor even wants him out of bed.”

If Heath was healthy and at his full strength there was no way Jarrod was a match for him in terms of a physical confrontation. But the blond man was far from either one of those things, and he had no doubt if he tried to flee up the stairs Jarrod would simply chase him down and bring him back.

In order to avoid making the day any longer than it already had been, Heath gave in to his brother. As Jarrod led him to the dining room Heath was already calculating how little he could get by with eating to please Victoria, and how quickly he could consume it before claiming fatigue was forcing him to call it a night.

As the two men entered from the parlor Audra came from the kitchen bearing Heath’s plate and a glass of milk. Roast chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn were heaped high. Audra sat the food and drink in front of her brother while placing a napkin and silverware off to the side.

“Can I get you anything else, Heath? A slice of bread or a cup of coffee?”

“No. This is fine.”

Heath’s stomach flip flopped as the smell of warm chicken wafted to his nostrils. God, did he have a headache. He’d only made matters worse after he’d sobered up that afternoon by forcing himself to work twice as hard repairing fences in penance for his noon time foolishness.

The blond cowboy resisted the urge to massage his forehead. He hunkered over his plate with hunched shoulders and took a stab at his chicken. Victoria immediately recognized the body language. This was Heath’s way of saying he was angry and had no intention of taking part in the conversation that was about to ensue. Jarrod and Nick exchanged glances. They recognized the meaning behind those hunched shoulders as well.

Jarrod started the discussion, but that didn’t surprise Heath. Jarrod the wise one. Jarrod the peacemaker. Jarrod the confidant. Jarrod the father figure and male head of the family.

Jarrod’s tone was quiet and full of gentle understanding. So many times since Heath had come to live with his father’s family he had appreciated that tone and the sincerity behind it. But tonight he just wanted Jarrod to shut up.

Where Jarrod left off Nick began. Now the voice that spoke had more volume, but still the words were kind and sympathetic. Or at least kind and sympathetic until Nick started to lose his temper over the fact that Heath was staring at his food and not acknowledging the conversation in any way.

Jarrod shushed Nick as Heath knew he would. Audra tried next. His little sister oozed enthusiasm as she offered to go on a long ride with him, or pack a picnic lunch, or maybe they could spend a day swimming in the Diamond River.

Jarrod suggested a couple weeks in San Francisco.

Nick proclaimed a fishing trip was what the Barkley brothers needed.

Or how about time at the lodge with Mother, was Jarrod’s next idea.

Or with all of us; the whole family, Nick was quick to add.

Their words seemed to assault Heath from all directions. It was times like this that he longed for the little house in Strawberry. Compared to this house it wasn’t much more than a shack, and God knows he was dirt poor back then, but he had his mother. The woman who understood him about as good as any woman ever had. She respected his silences. She didn’t try to make him talk when he would rather keep to himself. She didn’t think sitting at the supper table meant having to engage in useless chatter the way these people often did. Sometimes Heath enjoyed the banter and teasing that went on when he sat down for a meal with his siblings and stepmother, but when he just wanted to be alone with his thoughts he resented his family for trying to force him to participate in their conversations. He’d learned over the years, that they seemed to take it personally if he had nothing to contribute. So, out of respect for all they’d done for him, he generally said something at every meal whether he wanted to or not. Nonetheless, that didn’t mean that at times he didn’t resent what he perceived to be their lack of respect for him. As though he had no right to private thoughts and feelings he had no desire to share.

It was Victoria who finally put an end to the conversation. She’d remained a silent observer through it all and had no doubt Heath was blocking out everything being said to him. Blah, blah, blah, as he’d told Jarrod that day in the saloon. Heath might not have been aware of it, but there was, in fact, one other woman who understood him as well as Leah Thomson had.

The family matriarch held up her hand. One by one her children heeded her signal and grew silent. She settled her gaze on Heath. He’d swallowed exactly three bites of chicken and half his milk. Now he was doing nothing but pushing his food around on his plate while he stared at the table cloth.

“Jarrod,…Nick,….Audra, there’s no point in saying anything else to your brother. He’s decided he’s not going to listen so we might as well call this conversation finished. Isn’t that right, Heath?”

Heath finally lifted his head. He looked at Victoria as he stood.

“Yeah, that’s right. I’m goin’ to bed.”

Heath headed for the kitchen and the back stairs. Nick stood to follow. “Now you just wait one cotton pickin’ minute there, Heath! I wanna talk to,….”

“Nick, leave him be,” Victoria said.

“But,…”

“It won’t do you any good. From the moment Jarrod brought him in here he wanted no part of any of us. You could see it in his face. You could see it in the way he sat.”

Nick heaved a sigh of frustration before easing himself back to his chair. “So what do we try next?”

“I wish I had an answer for you, son. One thing I do know is that we have to come up with something and come up with it quick.”

“What do you mean, Mother?” Audra asked.

“His eyes.” Victoria looked from her daughter to her sons. “When I looked into his eyes as he stood to leave the table all I saw was pain, and sorrow, and fear.”

“Fear?” Nick questioned.

“Yes, fear.”

“But what is he afraid of?”

Victoria had to swallow hard to talk past the sudden lump in her throat.

“I think he’s afraid to go on living, Nick. I think….I think he wants to die.”

What made Victoria’s statement all that more prophetic was that none of her children could dispute it.

*****

It was ten minutes after four on Saturday morning as Heath walked down the front stairs. He had full saddle bags thrown over his right shoulder and was carrying his bed roll and boots. When he got to the foyer he bent and pulled the boots on.

The first faint rays of dawn were starting to break upon the outside world.

There was just enough light coming in through the windows to see by, though the house was still heavily bathed in nighttime shadows. Heath propped a folded piece of paper against the vase that sat on the round table, then turned for the door. He hadn’t taken more than two steps when a voice spoke from the parlor.

“Going somewhere?”

The man took a deep breath and turned. Victoria, dressed in her pink satin robe, stepped into the foyer.

“I asked you a question, Heath.”

“Yeah, I’m goin’ somewhere.”

“Where?”

“I,….I don’t know. I’m just gonna be gone for a few days.” The man pointed to the table. “I left you a note.”

“I see that.” Victoria walked over and retrieved the paper. She unfolded it and read out loud, “I’ll be gone for a few days. Heath.”

The woman looked up at her son. “Much like you, your notes never waste any words. Though usually they start with ‘Dear Mother’ and end with ‘Love, Heath’.”

Heath shrugged. “I didn’t have time to write all that. I wanna get movin’.”

“You want to get moving, or you don’t want to get caught by your family sneaking out of the house?”

Heath’s temper flared, but he remembered to keep his voice low. The last thing he needed was Nick flying down the stairs.

“I’m not sneaking. I just wanted to get an early start.”

“And why didn’t you tell us this last night when we were all sitting together at the table? Why didn’t you tell us then, that you were going away for a few days?”

“Didn’t feel like talkin’.”

“I got that impression.” Victoria paced the floor in front of her son. “Heath, when you were sick I made some decisions concerning what was best for your health that you’re quite angry with me about. Isn’t that true?”

“Ain’t angry with no one.”

“Oh, I think you are.” Victoria stopped and turned to look her son in the eye. “As a matter of fact I know you are, otherwise you wouldn’t have told Jarrod you’re ‘pissed as hell’ at me.”

If Heath was shocked over Victoria’s choice of words he didn’t show it. His eyes narrowed in fury.

“Jarrod should keep his big mouth shut.”

“Perhaps you should cork the whiskey bottle long before your tongue gets loose, then Jarrod wouldn’t have reason to open his ‘big mouth’ as you put it.”

“Doesn’t matter. What’s done is done.”

“You’re right,” Victoria conceded. “What’s done is done, and none of us has the power to go back and change what’s already happened. If I had to do it over again, if I had the same exact choices to make today that I had to make when you were so ill, I wouldn’t do any of it differently. I know that’s not what you want to hear, and I’m sorry about that fact, but your well-being was first and foremost in my mind and my heart. Heath,….son, Jake Sheridan told us that while you recovered you were to have no shocks and no upsets of any kind. You were too weak to withstand that type of stress. How could I tell you about Caroline, or Billy, or Jeb, or anyone else given those circumstances?”

Heath simply stood there looking down at Victoria. When he spoke all he said was, “How could you not?”

The man turned for the front door once again. Victoria ran to his side and grabbed his arm.

“Heath! Heath, please. Honey, you have no business leaving this house. You’re still sick. You’re still weak. Please, if nothing else just stay until you’re fully recovered. After that,…..well after that if you still feel the need to get away for a few days I’ll support that decision with no questions asked.”

“I’m sorry, but no. I already made up my mind. I’m goin’ and I’m goin’ now.”

The blond man freed himself from Victoria’s grasp. Without any further words he walked out. It was the first time he’d left this house without kissing Victoria goodbye since the day he began calling her mother.

The woman recognized the significance of that action as she leaned against the door and cried.

*****

Chapter 19

Heath Barkley had no particular destination in mind when he’d left the ranch five days earlier. But then there were many things he was uncertain of, like whether or not he ever planned to return to what had been his home for the past three and half years.

Heath hadn’t taken much with him when he rode out that Saturday morning. Just two changes of clothes, his leather jacket, his gun, the rifle Nick had given for Christmas, two boxes of ammunition, his canteens, a few personal items he had room for in his saddle bags, and his precious Charger. The heavy coat Caroline Atkins had admired two months earlier had been left hanging in the closet. It wouldn’t fit in Heath’s saddle bags and besides, July wasn’t that far off. He hardly needed a winter coat in the middle of summer. When the seasons began to change again he could buy himself another coat if he was still in an area that felt the bite of winter winds.

The blond man crossed into Nevada that fifth day of his journey. It was all his weary body could do to make camp at sunset. Victoria had been correct. He was too weak to travel. Heath supposed, deep down, he knew that the morning he’d walked out of the house. But the urge to get away from that ranch, from Stockton, was far stronger than the urge to stay. Funny thing though, after five days on the trail the pain was still with Heath. He thought he’d find the sorrow that filled his heart lessening with each mile he put between himself and home. That hadn’t happened so far, but tomorrow; tomorrow he’d ride on and he’d begin to forget. Begin to forget he was the person who killed one hundred and thirty-five men, women, and children. Yes, tomorrow he’d put enough distance between himself and Stockton so that the memories, and the pain, dimmed.

That night’s supper was hardtack and beans. The last of the food Heath had packed from Silas’s kitchen was eaten the previous evening. He hadn’t wanted to take too much, in part because of the logistics of carrying it on Charger, and in part because he wouldn’t take what wasn’t his. He supposed Nick would raise the roof at that thought and call it pig-headed foolishness. And maybe it was. After all, Heath had given the Barkleys the work of two men since the day he’d arrived. As time had gone on and he’d earned his new family’s trust, Heath and Nick had begun sharing the responsibilities of running the ranch on a day-to-day basis. Nonetheless, Heath didn’t take charity. When he walked out of that house he had little more with him than he’d carried the day he walked in. The money he had in his wallet amounted to forty-three dollars. Everything else he’d earned over the past three years, and he’d earned quite a bit as an equal partner in all the Barkley holdings, was either sitting in his account at the Stockton National Bank or had been invested for him by Jarrod. He supposed if he’d been smart he would have waited to leave until he could have gotten to the bank and wiped his account clean of the several thousand dollars that resided there, but it truly didn’t make any difference to him. There was a time in Heath’s life when he would have considered forty-three dollars a fortune. He’d get by on that until he found work.

Long after the sun set Heath sat in front of the fire sipping coffee. He found his mind drifting to the ranch. He could picture exactly what everyone would be doing now. Supper was over and Victoria was sitting by the fireplace in the parlor reading, or doing a cross stitch, or maybe sewing a cuff button back on one of his shirts. Heath quickly discarded that last idea, she certainly wouldn’t be worrying about fixing his shirts for him now.

Jarrod might be in the parlor, too, reading the newspaper. Or he might be in the study doing work he’d brought home from the office. Nick could be doing any number of things; cleaning a gun, mending something in the tack room, or convincing Jarrod to play a game of billiards with him. Now Audra,….Heath had no doubts as to what Audra was doing. She was in the parlor setting up the checker board for their nightly game. Boy howdy, did that girl love to play games.

But then Heath remembered the picture in his mind was a bit off-kilter because he was missing from it. And if he was missing from it then who would sit and play checkers with Audra?

The man whipped the last of his coffee into the campfire. The flames hissed and flashed high a moment as though they were scolding him, then burned back down. Heath pushed himself to his feet. He swayed back and forth as a wave of dizziness caused the landscape to spin. When the world finally stopped turning he walked over to check on Charger one last time. As he petted the horse’s nose with long, tender strokes he said, “Some thing’s are best forgotten, Charger.”

*****

Four more days passed in which Heath continued to ride farther into Nevada. He bypassed every town he came to. He had no desire to meet up with anyone or be engaged in conversation.

The man ran a hand over his face. It had been over one week since he left the Barkley Ranch, and over one week since he’d shaved. A good many years had passed since he’d worn a beard. Not since he’d worked for Clint and Carter Armstrong on the Double A Ranch down Yuma way when he was twenty-one. He’d worn his hair long at that time, too, letting it grow to his shoulders. But then that was the fashion most of the wranglers who worked for the Armstrong brothers adopted. It was rough and rugged country made up of rough and rugged men. Heath Thomson was known to be about the roughest and ruggedest of the bunch. Though he had no mirror to look in Heath knew his beard was a burnished auburn in color, just like he knew if he went without a hat for several days under the hot sun his hair didn’t bleach to pale blond like most folks would assume it might, but rather ended up with streaks of golden red running through it. For years Heath had wondered where that came from. His mother had been a brunette, as had his Uncle Matt. It wasn’t until he arrived at the Barkleys and found out about his Scottish heritage and his strawberry blond Grandfather, Theodore Barkley, that the mystery was solved.

Heath stopped his travels when the Nevada sun was in the middle of the sky. He’d forgotten how hot this part of the country could be. He found a bit of shade for himself and Charger in a tiny grove of scraggily trees, but not much else. Heath knew he needed to find a water hole before the day came to an end. He’d refilled his canteens beside a stream the previous morning, but the water was almost gone. And as much as he dreaded making contact with anyone, be they man, woman, or child, he was going to have to head for a town soon. The muscles in his shoulders and upper arms were beginning to ache again; his headache was back, too. Not to mention he was starting to cough. A couple night’s rest in a hotel room would do him good, along with a hot bath and a few hot meals. Then he could inquire as to any ranches in the area that might be looking for help. He knew he could come by work easily enough. If not in Nevada, then on up in Idaho territory. It didn’t make much difference to Heath. Work was work and one ranch was about the same as any other. Well, almost any other unless you compared them to the ranch he held close to his heart. But he didn’t plan on mentioning that one to anybody. As far as he was concerned Heath Barkley ceased to exist the day Billy Garver died.

*****

Chapter 20

Fourteen days had gone by since Heath had left home. Fourteen long days in which Victoria had gotten very little sleep.

The woman was alone in the house that Saturday afternoon. Like she’d found herself doing on many occasions since Heath’s departure, she wandered up to his room. Victoria crossed to the bed where she rested a hand on a brass knob. Heath had left the room neat and clean as was his habit. The bed had been made, the multi-colored quilted spread pulled tight and hanging with military precision to the floor. He’d even changed the sheets as though to say the room could now be turned over to someone else. His closet broadcast that same message. He’d pushed the clothes he’d left behind to one end of the wooden rod, leaving the other end barren as if Victoria was going to find a son to replace him who would have need of the empty space. His dresser was the same way. The clothes he hadn’t taken with him had been moved down so that the upper two drawers were empty. The few personal items he’d kept on display in the room were gone, as was the small wooden box he kept in his dresser that held things that were dear to him; – his mother’s Bible, a wooden train engine that had been the only toy he’d ever had as a child, a poem Rachel Caufield had written for him the night he was born, and a pocket watch that had belonged to his maternal grandfather, Morgan Thomson.

Victoria smiled a bit when she looked at the one remaining item in the room, the cougar statue sitting on top of the dresser. The ugly thing had been sent to ‘The Barkley Boys’ two Christmases ago by Tom’s sister Josephine. Aunt Josephine had never been out of Philadelphia and her notions of ranching were amusing at best. She never had understood her brother’s love of the land or the animals, it was so foreign to how they’d grown up. Exactly what the cougar represented to her sister-in-law about the ‘wild west’ Victoria didn’t know, but evidently the woman thought it was something Tom’s sons would like. Victoria remembered the laughter that accompanied the opening of that gift, and also recalled how thankful she was that Aunt Josephine was far away in Pennsylvania. To say her four sons had displayed poor manners that Christmas Day would have been an understatement. Though Victoria had to admit she and Audra hadn’t been much better as they, too, were drawn into the men’s fun.

A playful argument had ensued after dinner about which brother should be forced to take ownership of the statue. Nick thought it would make a perfect addition to Jarrod’s office, while Jarrod thought Eugene should take it back to college with him, while Heath was all for saving it until Audra’s February birthday and passing it on to her. By day’s end the cougar had been put away on a closet shelf in the study and all but forgotten about. Or at least forgotten about by everyone but Heath. Two months later he was the one who retrieved it and put it in Nick’s room. From that point on the cougar had made the rounds. It would stay in one brother’s room for a while, only to be moved some time later on the sly. Much to Victoria’s horror it had shown up in the middle of the dining room table on a night when Jarrod was entertaining California’s Attorney General, had ended up in the bathroom once, and traveled to Victoria’s room on another occasion. She never was able to determine who had put it any of those places, though she suspected Heath was once again the guilty party. Because he was so quiet people didn’t think of him as a prankster, but his family had learned long ago he possessed a wicked sense of humor that every so often was just itching to break free.

It was Nick who had moved the cougar from Jarrod’s room to Heath’s room one of the first nights Heath was sick. When Heath was recovering from his illness and had finally taken notice of it he’d grinned and told Nick he’d pay him back. Now Victoria wondered how a stupid little thing like an ugly statue could bring tears to her eyes.

The woman mentally chastised herself as she walked to the closet. She couldn’t go on like this. None of them could. Without giving it a second thought she began to spread the clothes out on the rod. She turned when she heard Nick’s voice behind her.

“What are you doing?”

“Moving these clothes back like they were. If I don’t they’ll be wrinkled when Heath returns.”

“You think he’s planning to?”

“I don’t know, Nick. But I can hope.”

When Victoria emerged from the closet she found Nick sitting on the arm of Heath’s chair.

“He took the family picture, you know.”

Victoria’s eyes followed Nick’s to the barren table in the center of the room. This was where Heath had displayed his copy of the most recent family photo taken last summer when Eugene was visiting with Anna.

“I realize that. He also took his mother’s photo.”

Nick looked at the nightstand. Sure enough, the small picture of Leah Thomson was missing that Heath had always kept there.

“Then that says it all. He’s not coming back.”

“Maybe. Or maybe it says something else.”

“Like what?”

“Like Heath needs his family more than he cares to admit right now. That Heath loves his family far more than he knows how to reveal.”

Nick shook his head at what he deemed the silly sentiments of a female.

“It’s been two weeks, Mother. You said he told you he was only going to be gone a few days.”

“I know. But a ‘few days’ is a very abstract term.”

“I think two weeks is a heck of a lot more than a few days no matter how abstract. You should have let me go after him that first morning like I wanted to.”

“Nick, we’ve had this discussion before. What good would you going after Heath have done?”

“You know what good it would have done! I’d have brought him back here.

Knocked some sense into that stubborn head of his! Sat on him in this bed if that’s what it would have taken to make him rest and get past all this.”

“It would have never worked and you know it. You couldn’t have guarded him twenty-four hours a day, none of us could. Eventually he would have left again. Only that time filled with so much resentment that he might never come back.”

“Well it sure doesn’t look to me like he’s planning to come back this time, so why should we have been fretting over next time!”

As soon as Nick saw the tears that welled up in his mother’s eyes he regretted both his temper and words. He gently pulled her down until she was sitting in the chair. He leaned sideways, hugging her tiny form to his broad chest.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that,…it’s just that I’m worried about him and I miss him. I miss him something fierce.”

“I know, sweetheart.” Victoria tightened her arms around her son’s waist. “I miss him, too.” The woman glanced up at the bronze statue, longing to see it suddenly show up in any other part of the house. “I’m worried about him and I miss him, too.”

*****

He was hot, so hot he felt like he had his head in Silas’s cook stove. And tired, so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. The cough was worse now, too, jarring his body and almost throwing him from the saddle with its force.

Three weeks had passed since he’d left the ranch, or maybe even four, and Heath had yet to come across a town. It was so strange, he was familiar with this part of Nevada and was certain he’d stumble upon small settlements as he traveled. But not a building or person had been seen. It was all Heath could do not to give a mirthless laugh. He’d wanted isolation and now he had it. Charger wandered aimlessly day after day because his master wasn’t cognizant enough most times to give him any directions. Heath had long ago lost his hat and felt the sun scorching his head. And speaking of the sun, that was another weird thing. They hadn’t run across any water holes, but somehow Heath’s canteens remained full enough for him to get a drink when necessary and for him to give Charger a drink. Or maybe he was slipping in and out of delirium, and didn’t realize he was finding water on occasion and refilling the canteens. All the cowboy knew for certain was that if he didn’t come to a town soon he’d die. Not that he necessarily feared that event. He was far from home now, but the pain was still with him. So in the end, death would be a welcome relief. He’d dreamed of Jeb the other night and woke up with tears on his face. Yes, if only death would come she would be his friend.

Heath patted Charger on the neck as he slumped forward, too weak to hold himself upright in the saddle. “I’m sorry, old pal,” he murmured as he hugged the big horse. “I never meant to bring you this far from home and leave you high and dry with no one to take care of you. You were a wonderful gift from a wonderful family. If there was any way I could get you back to them I would.” The dry, desert-like world began to swim in front of Heath’s eyes. As he toppled from the saddle he mumbled, “I really would.”

*****

Chapter 21

It seemed to Heath as though he’d been trying to return to consciousness for days now, but that he felt too darn good to make the effort. Each time awareness would flick on the edge of his brain he’d snuggle deeper into his pillows and pull the covers closer to his body. It was the humming that finally brought him around. Someone was humming his mama’s favorite hymn, The Old Rugged Cross.

Heath made three attempts at opening his eyes before he was finally able to take in the world surrounding him. He was lying in a single bed supported by a black iron frame. There was a matching bed five feet to his left. The beds were separated by an old battered nightstand that held a lamp residing atop a lace doily.

The cowboy’s eyes roamed a larger portion of the room next. A five drawer dresser stood against one wall, and a comfortable looking chair similar to the one in his room at the ranch sat in the far corner. The walls were clean and covered from top to bottom with a fresh coat of white wash. Pale blue curtains hung at the two windows that were opposite one another and billowed gently in the morning breeze.

A woman stood at the washstand with her back to Heath. She was pouring fresh water into a bowl and arranging clean towels next to it. When she turned around and caught sight of him she smiled.

“Well, a cheery good morning to you! I’m so happy to see you’ve finally decided to join us.”

For some reason the young woman with the lilting Irish accent looked familiar to Heath. But try as he might he couldn’t place her. No doubt about it, she was a beauty in every sense of the word, and if he’d run across her in the past he would have definitely remembered the encounter. She was slender and fine-boned as a young filly, and had large eyes that could be green, or could be amber, depending on how the light hit them. Her deep red hair was pulled back in one thick braid that fell to her waist while bangs fringed her forehead. She wore a mint green dress with a lace collar and had a white ruffled apron covering it that fell to her shins, just like the apron Heath remembered his mother wearing when she cooked at the Miner’s Cafe in Strawberry.

The woman crossed to Heath’s side and placed a hand on his forehead.

“Ah, no sign of fever. That’s good.”

“Fever?”

“Oh my, yes. You were burning up when Doctor Wallace found you.”

“Found me?”

“Yes. Just outside of town.”

Heath hiked himself up on his elbows. Through the west window he could indeed see the tops of buildings.

“When did he find me?”

“Four days ago.”

“Four days ago!”

“You don’t remember any of it, do you?”

“No, I don’t reckon I do.”

With a weary sigh Heath sunk back to his pillows and watched her return to the washstand where she picked up a black medical bag.

“Well, take it from Monica,…that’s me, you’ve been one very sick man. But no matter, Doctor Wallace and I, we took good care of you.”

The woman returned to Heath’s side and removed a stethoscope from the bag. “Now sit up for me.”

“What?”

“I asked you to sit up. I need to listen to your heart and lungs.”

Heath pulled the covers a little tighter around his bare chest. “I’m fine.”

“That might be so, but you were sporting a good deal of congestion just yesterday. I need to see if it’s better.”

“I said I was fine.”

“Now, Mr.,….” Monica stopped there, waiting for her patient to supply her with his name.

Heath barely gave it a thought when he said, “Lee.”

“Lee?”

“Yeah.”

“And would that be your first name or last name?”

Heath had to admit that was a logical question. Days ago, when he’d been on the trail, he’d decided he’d use the male version of his mother’s first name when supplying anyone he met with his name. On a ranch full of men he could get away with introducing himself simply as Lee. It might be weeks before anyone thought to ask if that was his first name or last, if they ever thought to ask at all. Leave it to a woman to throw a wrench in his plans.

“Ummmm,….last.”

“You don’t sound too sure of that,” Monica said, as though she was privy to some sort of information Heath wasn’t aware of. “But then I suppose the fever you were running has you a bit addled.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“Now, as I was saying, Mr. Lee,……do you have a first name?”

Oh, Lord, just what I need, a talkative woman.

“Reckon so.”

“And that might be,….?”

Heath hadn’t given much thought to this. All he knew was that he no longer had the desire to be known as Heath Barkley.

“Mr. Lee? Your first name, please.”

Heath thought another few seconds, then said, “Morgan.”

“Morgan Lee?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Mr. Morgan Lee, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Now as I was saying, I need you to sit up for me.”

“But,…”

“Oh, no. No buts. And don’t be so modest. My goodness, Tess and I bathed you so if you’re worried,…”

Heath felt the color drain from his face. “Bathed me?”

“Yes. You were filthy, full of trail dust and several weeks worth of dirt by the looks of you. And so ill. So very ill. Really, Mr. Lee, you must take better care of yourself.” Monica reached for the blankets Heath was clutching to his chest. “Now come on, let go of these. I’m only going to put my stethoscope against your chest, and then against your back. Nothing more. I promise.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“No, but I am Doctor Wallace’s nurse.”

Despite Heath’s continued protests the woman got him to a sitting position. She propped the pillows up behind his back so he could lean against them. With great reluctance he loosened his grip on his covers. He allowed them to drop to the middle of his stomach, which was as far as he was willing to let them go.

Heath felt cold metal come to rest against his chest as the woman placed a warm hand on his shoulder.

“Now take a deep breath.”

Heath did as requested. The metal cone moved and Monica said, “Again. Another deep breath please.”

This action was repeated two more times, then Monica had him lean forward. Now the stethoscope was placed on his back. Each time it moved he was asked to take a deep breath.

“Okay, Mr. Lee, we’re done. See, now wasn’t that easy? And not nearly worth the fuss you gave me.”

Monica helped Heath lean against his pillows once more, then folded the stethoscope and put it away.

“I believe I can give Doctor Wallace a clean bill of health on your behalf.”

“Thank you.”

Ah,….don’t thank me. It’s the good doctor you should be thanking. The poor man, he’s so busy he’s barely getting two hours of sleep a night. He was coming back from the Grishem ranch when he found you. Goodness knows he didn’t have the time to take on another patient, but of course Doctor Wallace couldn’t just ride away and leave you lying there in the hot sun. So he brought you here and tended to you until his attention was demanded elsewhere. Then Tess and I took over.”

“I see.”

Monica looked into the cowboy’s face. “If you’ll pardon me for sayin’ so, you don’t seem very happy about your good fortune. As a matter of fact you have an air of sadness about you that makes a body wonder how she can be of help.”

“I’m fine.”

“So you’ve told me on several occasions already. But alas, I recognize a stubborn Scotsman when I meet him, so I’ll leave you to your brooding.”

“I’m not Scottish.”

“Oh, Mr. Lee, you are a funny one,” Monica laughed as she picked up her medical bag. “I knew you were a Scotsman the moment I laid eyes on you. Why that wild red hair and beard just give you away. Yes, you look like a rugged bonnie man of the highlands, you do.”

Heath decided he needed to take a long look in a mirror. Monica must have read his thoughts.

“There’s fresh water here on the stand for washing up, and a toothbrush and toothpowder for you to make use of, too. In the top drawer of the dresser are some clothes for you. I see by what you brought you favor blue shirts, but the ones you had are dirty and need a good scrubbing. Now I myself picture you looking quite dapper in brown. Or green, as well. Yes, green would go nicely with your coloring. Anyway, you’ll find shirts, pants, socks, and underdrawers in the dresser.”

A tiny bit of longing touched the edges of Heath’s soul as Monica rattled on about the shirts and what colors she thought he’d look best in. Audra was forever trying to convince him to wear something besides his favorite blue chambray work shirts on a daily basis.

“So come on now, up with you. Get out of that bed.”

Heath started to throw back the covers, then thought better of it when he realized he was stark naked beneath them.

Monica laughed again. “Oh, come now, Mr. Lee, I’m a nurse. It’s not like I’ve never seen a man in the all-together before. And Tess and I did bath you as I already mentioned.”

Heath did nothing more than blush.

“But, I can see by the look on your face you prefer to take your clothes off for a pretty lady when the time is of your choosing.”

The cowboy blushed even harder at that remark, and was somewhat astounded that this fresh faced young woman would say such a thing. When Heath made no reply Monica said, “I assume you would like me to leave, is that it?”

“Uh,….yes, Ma’am.”

“If you insist, then I shall. Though mind you I’m reluctant to do so. You’re still weak and could take a nasty fall.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“I’m sure you will be. Just the same, I wish Jarrod and Nick were here.”

Heath stared at the nurse, sure he hadn’t heard her correctly. “Pardon me?”

“Jarrod and Nick.”

“How do you know Jarrod and Nick?”

“Me? Oh, I don’t know them. But when your fever was at its highest you were calling for them. You appeared quite desperate to have them near. Tess and I felt so bad for you because you seemed so upset,….so frightened. Are Jarrod and Nick friends of yours, Mr. Lee?”

“No.” Heath hesitated a moment before finishing his reply. “No, I don’t know who they are.”

“I see. Well, that does happen sometimes when a person’s temperature gets unbearably high.”

“What happens?”

“The mind makes things up. Imagines people who don’t really exist.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, I reckon that’s what happened to me then, ‘cause I don’t know anyone by those names.”

Monica headed for the door with her medical bag in hand. “I must get a move on, I need to help Doctor Wallace. You get yourself cleaned up and dressed, then go out to the kitchen.”

“Kitchen?”

“Yes. This door leads to the parlor, and from there you’ll be in the kitchen.”

“Is this your house?”

“No, it belongs to the doctor. As a matter of fact this is his bedroom. There’s another bedroom on the other end of the house where Tess and I sleep.”

“Is Tess a nurse, too?”

“No, she’s the doctor’s housekeeper.”

Heath kept a blanket around his waist as he swung his feet to the floor. Before the nurse could walk out the door he beckoned her one last time.

“Monica?”

The woman turned to face Heath. “Yes, Mr. Lee?”

“Where am I?”

“I already told you, Doctor Wallace’s house. I better come right back over there and check you again. Maybe your temperature isn’t as low as I thought it was.”

“No, no. I’m okay. What I meant was, where is this place? The town. What’s the name of the town?”

“Oh, the name of the town it is you’re wanting.” Monica smiled at her patient as though he’d be delighted when she told him where he was. “Heaven. You’re in Heaven, Mr. Lee.”

“Heaven?”

“Yes. Heaven, Nevada.”

And with that Monica left Heath alone to clean up and dress.

*****

Thirty minutes later Heath exited the bedroom. Though he was loath to admit it, he certainly could have used assistance from Jarrod and Nick. He felt well-rested, but still weak. He discovered if he moved slow he could manage pretty well, anything resembling a brisk pace caused the room to spin.

A look in the mirror that was mounted on the washstand told Heath all he needed to know about his appearance.

No wonder Monica called me a Scotsman.

Heath’s time in the sun without his hat had streaked random strands of his blond hair red just like he knew it would. And his now full beard was red as well; again, just like he remembered it being back when he worked on the Double A. Heath supposed he was going on eight weeks without a hair cut, that fact was showing, too. On the sides of his head his hair hung over his ears, in the back it touched his shirt collar. Heath’s hair was curling in the back, too, something else he’d discovered on the Double A that his hair did if it got long enough. The man couldn’t help but smile a little bit. He doubted any of the Barkleys would recognize him if they passed him on the street. But that was okay. Today,…..today Heath Barkley died and in his place Morgan Lee was born.

Heath put on a green shirt and pair of tan pants. The pants weren’t his, they felt brand new. Yet they were styled exactly like the pants he favored and were his size. The shirt fit him perfectly, too. Well, maybe that wasn’t exactly true. Both the shirt and pants were a bit baggy, but if he was at his proper weight he had no doubt they’d fit him as though they’d been made for him.

Heath wondered if these people who found him had gone out and bought him new clothes. He recalled Monica saying his other clothes were in need of washing. After four weeks on the trail he could imagine that was true.

The man opened the small closet the room contained. His leather jacket and gun belt were hanging there, his saddle bags and boots rested on the floor, while his rifle was propped in a corner. He checked one of the saddle bags and discovered his wallet and money within. All forty three dollars was accounted for which spoke of the honesty of these folks. Before he moved on he’d have to pay them back for the new clothes and the care they’d given. Though it was ranch work he was wanting, he was certain there was something he could do in this town to earn some money for a few days, even if it was just mucking stalls at the livery stable.

Heath pulled on his boots then made his bed so Doctor Wallace’s housekeeper wouldn’t have to. It was the least he could do in partial repayment of her kindness. He made his way to the door and walked into the parlor.

The main room of the house was small, but comfortable. A stone fireplace took up one wall with two maroon overstuffed chairs angled sideways to the hearth. Each chair possessed its own matching ottoman. Heath could almost picture the doctor stretched out at the end of a long day, smoking a pipe while he read the newspaper. A floral patterned couch sat across from the chairs with a coffee table in front of it. A bay window with a cushioned window seat looked out over a front porch that contained two rocking chairs on one end, and a swing on the other. The small yard was more flower garden than anything else and rimmed by a white picket fence.

The cowboy followed his nose through the room. He could smell eggs frying and easily found the kitchen. A black woman almost as tall as Heath and three times as wide stood at the sink with her back to the cowboy. She wore a gingham dress that was both orange and brown, and had a matching gingham scarf tied backwards on her head. Like Monica, she was humming a hymn, though this one Heath recognized as When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.

The woman seemed to sense Heath’s presence. She turned around and gave him a broad smile.

“Well, there you are! Monica told me you’d be out shortly. Have a seat, baby. Tess has your breakfast ready.”

When Heath hesitated Tess pulled a chair out from the round table that sat four. “Come on, son, have a seat. Unless, that is, you prefer takin’ your meals standing up.”

“No, Ma’am. I don’t reckon so.”

“I don’t reckon so, either. And I’m not ma’am. I’m Tess. You just call me Tess, baby.”

“Yes, Ma’am,….Tess.”

“And you would be?”

“Lee.”

“Lee?”

“Yeah. Morgan Lee.”

Heath was forced to drop his gaze under Tess’s doubt-filled scrutiny.

“Morgan Lee, is it? You don’t look like no Morgan to me, nor any Lee that I’ve ever seen either.”

“I don’t, huh?”

“No siree bob, you don’t. Now with that shaggy hair and beard you’re sportin’ you look a little like my old friend George Custer, but of course you’ve got too much red in that mane to be kin to him.”

Heath looked up as a plate was set in front of him. Despite the cowboy’s efforts to remain isolated from the world around him he couldn’t help but raise a skeptical eyebrow. “You knew General Custer?”

“I surely did, baby. But then old Tess knows lots of people. And speaking of that, which Lee’s would it be that you’re related to?”

“Which Lee’s?”

“Yes, you know. Like the Rothwell Lee’s of New York City? Or the Henry Lee’s of Chicago? Or the Franklin Lee’s of Boston? Or the Robert E. Lee’s of Virginia?”

“Robert E. Lee? You knew him, too, I suppose.”

“Don’t you go smirkin’ at me. If Tess tells you she knew Mr. Robert E. Lee, then you can bet your bottom dollar on that fact.”

By now Heath thought the woman was half out of her mind, but kept his opinions to himself as he dug into the plate of eggs she’d put before him. It wasn’t until he’d taken the first bite that he realized two things. Number one; he had a healthy appetite for the first time since before he got sick, and number two; she’d made him the exact same breakfast Silas knew he favored. Two eggs over easy, two pieces of toast spread with butter and strawberry jam, three strips of bacon, a blueberry muffin, and fresh squeezed orange juice.

Tess pulled out the chair to Heath’s left and sat down next to him.

“Go on, baby, you eat up. You’re so skinny old Tess could thread you through a needle.”

Heath had seen enough of himself in the washstand mirror to know how gaunt he was. The beard hid his hollow cheeks and the jaw line made sharp by weight loss, but anyone who knew him well would see signs that indicated he hadn’t been physically well in many weeks.

The meal commenced without further conversation. When Heath was done he pushed his plate aside.

“Thank you. Everything was very good.”

“Well now, aren’t you a nice young man,” Tess grinned. “Quiet, but nice. Polite and such a gentleman. I bet you do your mama proud.”

“My mama’s dead.” Heath’s reply came out quick and terse. He came here to put his past behind him, not to relive it every time he turned around.

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that, I just thought,…”

“Thought what?” Heath asked as he finished his juice.

“Well, Mo,……you don’t mind if I call you Mo, do you? Morgan,….Morgan just doesn’t seem to fit you. I bet other people have called you Mo a time or two, huh?”

Heath thought of Nick. “I reckon so.”

“Does it bother you? ‘Cause if it does I won’t call you that.”

Already feeling like he’d been bombarded with too many reminders of the family he was trying to forget since waking just one short hour earlier, Heath replied, “I’d prefer Morgan if you don’t mind.”

“All right,” Tess sighed. “Morgan it is. But you sure don’t look like a Morgan.”

“You’ve already said that.”

“I guess I have, haven’t I? Such is the affliction of the elderly, baby. The memory is the first to go. And speaking of memory, what were we talking about? Oh, your mama. So she’s passed on, you say?”

Heath sighed. Obviously the woman wasn’t going to let this subject drop.

“Yes, Ma’am. Almost five years ago now.”

“I see. Well, that sure is odd.”

“What’s odd?”

“When you were so sick you were talking to her as if it hadn’t been that long since you’d seen her. You said, ‘Mother, I’ll pick up that package for you when I’m in town. You know Nick, if you leave it up to him he’ll forget.’ ”

Heath’s eyes narrowed and he set his glass down with a fierce thump. “I never called my mama that. Mother. I never called her that, so I guess it couldn’t have been her I was talkin’ to, now could it?”

“Goodness gracious, there’s no call to get so angry about it. Fever plays tricks on the mind, that’s for certain.” Tess stood to carry Heath’s dishes to the sink. “If you say there’s no woman in your life you call Mother then I imagine you know best. Of course, if you want my opinion you sounded like you knew her real well. Like you have a lot of love for her and,….”

“Where’s my horse?”

Tess turned around. “What was that?”

“My horse. Charger. He would have stayed with me. Doctor Wallace must have seen him.”

Tess started laughing. “You sure are a moody one, Mr. Morgan Lee. One minute we’re talking about mothers, then before I know it we’re talking about horses. But no need to fret. Your horse is being looked after. He’s been stabled at Mr. Thurmond’s Livery. Rest assured, Randall is taking good care of him. That little boy has yet to meet a horse he doesn’t love, or a horse that doesn’t love him back.”

“Little boy? I’m not sure a kid should be taking care of Charger.”

“Randall’s feelings would be hurt if he heard you say that, Mr. Lee.”

“How old is he?”

“Randall?”

“Yeah.”

“Eight.”

“He’s too young to be working in a livery then.” Heath stood. “Where is it? I’ll go take care of Charger myself.”

Tess gave Heath a pointed look. “Mr. Morgan Lee, how old were you when you held your first paying job?”

“Pardon?”

“Don’t cock your head like that and pretend you didn’t hear me just to avoid answering my question. You might get away with that with some others in your life, but not with Tess. Now how old were you?”

“I reckon about six.”

“About six?”

“Okay, six.”

“And what’d you do?”

When Heath didn’t answer Tess prompted, “Mr. Morgan Lee? I asked you what you did to earn money when you were six years old.”

Heath finally gave in under the woman’s gaze. He was finding her to be just as persistent as Victoria Barkley.

“I worked in the mines. And in,….in a livery stable.”

Tess smiled. “A livery stable. So see. You have nothing to worry about. Randall will take good care of your horse.”

“That might be so, but I’ll go check on him anyway. Just as soon as I pay you folks back for the clothes and care you’ve given me I need to be on my way.”

“I’m sorry to be the one who has to break the news to you, son, but you’re not going anywhere.”

Heath watched as the woman moved about the kitchen cleaning up the remnants of breakfast as though she hadn’t just made what sounded like a veiled threat.

“What do you mean I’m not going anywhere?”

“Didn’t Monica tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

Tess looked up from wiping the table and met Heath’s eyes.

“This town is under quarantine, baby. We’re right in the middle of a diphtheria epidemic.”

The room started to spin in a counter clockwise motion. Before Heath could hit the ground Tess had him seated in a chair. Without asking any questions she wet a towel with cold water from the pump and placed it on his forehead.

For a moment Heath wondered how she knew he was on the verge of passing out, but he quickly pushed that thought aside as his entire being cried with despair.

No! Oh, God, please no! No!

For the first time since he’d left home Heath had no where to run to. No place to hide. No means of escape. No matter how hard he tried to be Morgan Lee, when push came to shove God was making certain he was well aware he was Heath Barkley.

Heath Barkley, Tom Barkley’s bastard son.

*****

Chapter 22

Heath ignored Tess’s orders to return to bed and rest. She followed him through the house and watched as he took his wallet out of his saddle bags. He put it in the back pocket of his pants, buckled his gun belt around his waist, then headed for the front door.

“Now just where do you think you’re going, Mr. Morgan Lee?”

“I already told you. To check on Charger.”

“Your skinny behind don’t need to be goin’ to check on no one, let alone a horse. It needs to be right back here in this bed. I don’t know what kinda spell that was you just had in my kitchen, but I recognize when someone’s about to faint dead away on me.”

“I’m not gonna faint. I’m fine.”

“No, you’re stubborn is what you is. Stubborn as the day is long. Well, have it your way then. You just go marchin’ right on outta this house and collapse in the middle of the street. And when that happens you just see if ole’ Tess comes along to pick you up.”

The woman was still predicting a multitude of maladies that were bound to befall Heath as he exited the house. He crossed the front porch in four strides and trotted down three wooden steps. He walked the flower-lined path to the front gate, refusing to take notice of the hundreds of blooming roses that made him think of Victoria’s garden back home. When he arrived on the sidewalk he paused, then looked both left and right.

As town’s went, Heaven was a small one. To the north Heath spotted a bank, a saloon, a hardware store, a rancher’s grain and supply store, the jail, and the undertaker’s which also doubled as a furniture store. To the south, and immediately next door to Doctor Wallace’s house was his medical office. Beyond it was a barber shop, cafe, a general store, a dress maker’s shop, a tiny post office, a blacksmith shop, and the livery stable. Houses were interspersed amongst the businesses, and at the very edge of the town Heath could see a steeple rising above a church. Another building with a bell mounted on a ten foot tall pole stood across from the church. Heath correctly assumed it was Heaven’s school house.

Heath walked south toward the livery stable. It was a few minutes before ten on Thursday morning and the town was quiet. Too quiet as far as Heath was concerned. He knew what that meant. Everyone who wasn’t sick was helping those who were, and if that wasn’t the case then most folks who were healthy were hiding in their homes, too scared to come out. Heath hated to tell them this, but from recent experience he knew they’d all been exposed to the disease long before Doctor Wallace was aware of its arrival. Therefore, cowering in fear while hoping the deadly virus passed them by would do little good.

The stable that housed Charger was so close to being an exact replica of the stable in Strawberry where Heath had worked as a boy, that he had to close his eyes and reopen them twice to make certain he wasn’t dreaming.

A man Heath guessed to be sixty-five years old with thinning gray hair, stooped shoulders, and a weary smile approached.

“Howdy, son. Somethin’ I can do for you?”

“I was told my horse is here. A chestnut bay gelding.”

“Oh, sure. Sure. We got him. Randall’s taking mighty fine care of him. So you’re the stranger Doc Wallace found outside of town.”

“Huh,.. yeah.”

“Well, you’ve got yourself a beautiful horse there, son. Yep, that’s one mighty fine lookin’ animal.” The man held out a hand gnarled by years of hard work. “I’m Jasper Thurmond. I own this here livery.”

“Morgan Lee,” Heath said while shaking the man’s hand.

“Glad to see you’re back on your feet. Lord knows we’ve got enough sick people in Heaven. We sure don’t need anymore.”

“No, Sir. I reckon not.”

“I suppose you’ve got a hankerin’ to see that horse of yours.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Don’t call me sir. Makes me feel old. Jasper will do. Come along then. Follow me.”
Heath passed empty stall after empty stall, most of them in need of repair.

Jasper seemed able to read Heath’s thoughts.

“Not much business right now. A lotta that has to do with the epidemic a’ course. Not much travelin’ going on as you can imagine.”

“I suppose not.”

“Now when folks is healthy I’m kept hoppin’ come Saturday nights. A lotta cowboys come in from the neighborin’ ranches. The saloon can barely hold ‘em all. Most of ‘em like to drink until they can’t walk a straight line. Their horses get stabled here on account of that law the sheriff has in place.”

“Law?”

“No drinkin’ and drivin’ the sheriff says. Ain’t that just the most peculiar expression you ever heard?” Jasper winked and elbowed Heath. “But you won’t hear me complainin’. Best thing the sheriff ever did for my business. I been makin’ money right and left since she started enforcing that one.”

“She?”

“Yep. Sheriff Tess.”

Heath stopped in his tracks. “Did you say Sheriff Tess?”

“I surely did.”

“As in Doctor Wallace’s housekeeper?”

“Yep. One and the same.”

A woman sheriff? And a black woman at that? Heath was beginning to think Tess was right. Maybe he did need to go back to bed. He was certain if he could just start this day over he’d find it to be a bit more normal than he had so far.

“But then Tess does a lot of things around Heaven, Mr. Lee.”

“Huh,….yeah. I’m gettin’ that impression.”

Jasper led Heath out the back of the livery. A thin, tow-headed boy stood inside a small corral. Charger pranced around the child, getting his morning exercise.

Mr. Thurmond beckoned the boy. “Randall! Randall, come here, son!”

Randall patted Charger on the nose, then turned and ran for his boss. Charger danced after the boy as though he didn’t want to lose sight of his new playmate. As soon as Charger caught a whiff of Heath’s scent he threw his head back and whinnied. He trotted over to the fence and nudged his face against Heath’s shoulder.

Heath smiled as he patted the horse’s neck and stroked his nose. “Hey, Charger. Hey, boy. No, I didn’t go off and leave you. I’ve just been laid up a few days is all.”

“He’s a right nice horse, Mister. Charger is his name you say?”

Heath turned his attention to Randall, who was scrambling onto the fence. The boy sat down. His small hand joined Heath’s in petting Charger.

“Yep. Charger’s his name.”

“Well, Mister, that’s one fine name for one fine animal if you don’t mind me sayin’.”

Heath smiled at the boy’s enthusiasm. It brought back memories of his own enthusiasm for horses when he was the same age.

“No, son, I don’t mind you sayin’. Thank you.”

“Where’d you get him from? Did you buy him out at the Slater ranch? My ma keeps house for Mrs. Slater so I been out to their place a time or two. Mr. Slater sure has got some top a’ the line stock.”

“Nope, didn’t buy him from Mr. Slater.” Heath looked at Charger and smiled. “He was a gift from my family.”

“Boy, are you lucky. Your family must love you an awful lot to give you a gift like Charger.”

At that moment Heath couldn’t help but think of Caroline Atkins. Randall’s words were almost identical to hers back on that cold, cloudy April afternoon.

“Wow! Both the chocolates and this pretty coat. Your family must love you a lot, Mr. Barkley.”

When Heath finally made a reply he was barely able to mask the pain in his voice. “Yeah. Yeah, I reckon they do, son.”

Jasper turned to his helper. “Randall, this is Morgan Lee. Mr. Lee, this is my employee Randall Becker.”

Heath held out his hand the child. “Randall. Pleased to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, too, Mr. Lee. Say, you don’t happen to be related to General Robert E. Lee, do you? Tess knew him ‘fore he passed on.”

“So I’ve heard. But no, I’m not related to the general. As a matter of fact, why don’t you just call me Morgan.”

“My ma says it’s not proper to call adults by their first names.”

Heath smiled. “Your ma sounds like she’s working hard at raising a polite young man, but if I give you my permission to use my first name then I think it’ll be okay. What do you say?”

“Well,,…all right. As long as you explain it to my ma if she asks.”

Heath tousled the boy’s shaggy hair. “I’ll do that.”

It was when Heath lifted the boy off the fence that he noticed the signs of poverty. The pants with the patches sewn at the knees, the lack of shoes on the child’s feet, the cuffs of the shirt that rose a good two inches above his wrists, and the fact that the child weighed ten to fifteen pounds less than most boys his age.

So that explains what such a young boy is doing working here. How well I remember.

Jasper put an arm around the child’s shoulders.

“Randall, you’re in charge for the rest of the day. I gotta be gettin’ on home to the Mrs.” The man looked at Heath. “My wife’s got the sickness. She’s doin’ poorly. My daughter’s been stayin’ with her as much as possible, but she’s a widow with nine youngins’ of her own. Some of them have takin’ sick, too. It’s all Eunice,….my daughter,…it’s all Eunice and me can do to keep up with things in both households.”

Now Heath understood the man’s weary smile and the worry he’d sensed behind it. As Jasper started to walk away Heath hailed him.

“Mr. Thurmond!”

“Yeah, son?”

“Tess told me about the quarantine, so since I can’t leave town for a while I’ll be needin’ a way to make some money. Maybe you and I can help one another out.”

“How so?”

“Well, I can assist Randall in keeping things goin’ here.”

Jasper chuckled. “Son, your horse is the only one I’m boardin’ right now. I think Randall can take care of Charger all by himself. And until the quarantine is lifted I won’t have any busy Saturday nights.”

“I reckon you’re right there, but it looks like you can use a man who’s good with a hammer to do a few repairs around here.”

Jasper thought a moment, then gave a slow nod of his head. “Well now, that’s a fact. The place has kinda fallen apart the last few years ‘cause of my bursitis. My body hurts me so bad on some mornings it’s all I can do to get out of bed, let alone drive a nail. You a good carpenter?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“All right, I’ll tell you what. You get to work on anything around here you see needs fixin’. I’ll stop back late this afternoon, and if I like what I see I’ll pay you three dollars a day to return this livery to tip top shape. That wage includes boarding your horse.”

Though not since arriving on the Barkley ranch had Heath worked for as little as three dollars a day, he wasn’t going to argue with the man. Between the money he already had and what he figured he could earn over the next couple weeks, he’d easily be able to pay Doctor Wallace for room and board, plus have cash in his pocket when he rode out of here.

“Fair enough. I’ll get started right now.”

“Randall can show you where everything is. I’ll see you boys sometime before the sun sets.”

Heath watched as the old man walked to a house across the street. He was surprised to feel a hand slide into his. Randall looked up at him with excitement lighting his eyes.

“Gee, Mr. Lee,….I mean, Morgan. Gee, Morgan, I guess we’ll be workin’ together, huh?

“Looks that way. Now how about if you show me where Mr. Thurmond keeps his tool box.”

“Sure. Come on! Follow me.”

Without dropping Heath’s hand Randall led him to a back room where the cowboy found a well-equipped tool box and a pile of lumber. Within minutes Heath was hard at work with a faithful helper by his side.

*****

It was noon when Heath put his hammer down. He’d repaired all the loose boards on two stalls and replaced the ones that were missing. Randall proved to be a competent assistant. He handed Heath tools before he was even asked for them, and swept both the stalls clean of wood shavings and old nails when Heath was finished.

Despite Randall’s earlier exuberance, Heath found him to be a quiet little boy. If he had something to say he said it, otherwise he kept his peace. Something Heath found refreshing after his morning with Monica and Tess.

Heath stood back to admire their work. “Well, Randall, I’d say we’ve done a good job given the time we’ve put in so far. After lunch we’ll start again.”

“Yes, Sir. Mr. Thurmond will be pleased.”

“I’m glad to hear that ‘cause I can sure make use of the money I’ll be earnin’.”

The boy helped Heath gather the tools and put them back in the box. “Do you turn your money over to your ma too, Morgan?”

Heath looked at the child as he propped some lumber up against a stall.

“What?”

“The money you make. Do you give it to your ma to help her make ends meet like I do?”
Heath crouched down so he and the boy were eye level. “My mama passed away a few years ago, Randall. But before that, when she was still livin’, yes, I gave her the money I earned to help her make ends meet. As a matter of fact when I was your age I worked in a livery stable just like this one.”

“You did?”

“I sure did.”

“Was the man you worked for as nice to you as Mr. Thurmond is to me?”

“Yep. Mr. Carver was his name. And he was real nice.”

“That’s good, ‘cause I hear tell there’s some mean bosses out there who don’t treat kids right.”

Heath thought of some of the mine bosses he’d had as a child and how many times he hid bruises from his mother when one of them would kick him or slap him because Heath, at six years old, wasn’t working fast enough to suit them.

“I hear tell that, too, Randall. Which makes a man like Mr. Thurmond even more special.” Heath stood. “Come on, let’s go get some lunch.”

“Where at?”

“I saw a cafe down the street. Is the food any good?”

“I don’t know. I ain’t never been in there. Ma and I can’t afford to eat our meals out. Besides, I brought my lunch. I’ll just wait here for you.”

Heath watched as the boy took a dented tin lunch bucket off a low shelf. When all that appeared was a shriveled apple and a hard piece of bread Heath asked, “You got anything else in there?”

“Nope. But I’ll share with you.” Randall began to tear the bread in half.

“That’s mighty nice of you, Randall. But I’m thinkin’ that a boy who does a man’s job like you did this morning needs more in his stomach than an apple and a piece of bread. So why don’t we walk down to that cafe and I’ll buy us both lunch.”

“Thank you for the offer, Sir, but I don’t take charity.”

Somehow Heath knew that’s what the child was going to say. “Well now, I don’t look upon it as charity. You see, Mr. Thurmond hired me to do carpentry work and you helped me. He’s not payin’ you for the work you did with me this morning, so it seems to me as if I owe you something for that, and for the good care you’re giving Charger.”

Heath could see the boy was mulling over his words. The child glanced down at his apple one last time, then looked up at Heath and smiled.

“I guess that sounds fair. After all, I did work pretty hard.”

“That you did.” Heath held out his hand. “Now come on. Put your lunch bucket away and let’s go see what that cafe has to offer.”

“I hear the food’s wonderful,” Randall said as he and Heath walked hand in hand into the noon time sun. “But then everyone says Tess is the best cook in Heaven.”

“Tess?”

“Yeah. Didn’t you know?”

“Know what?”

“She owns the cafe.”

Heath rolled his eyes. “No, I didn’t know. But somehow, Randall, I shoulda’ guessed.”

*****

Part 5

Chapter 24

Heath shook his head and smiled as he looked up at the sign hanging over the cafe’s entrance.  A Little Bit Of Heaven.

The cowboy held the screen door open for Randall.  The boy stopped just as he crossed the threshold. Heath sensed the child’s nervousness and understood the reasons behind it.  When you grow up poor so many things others take for granted, like dining in a cafe, are beyond your everyday experiences.  When given the opportunity to partake in some of life’s simple pleasures you’re not always certain how to act or what to say, which can cause your stomach to churn as you pray you don’t embarrass yourself or those around you.

Because it was just a few minutes past twelve the cafe was full save for one table.  When all eyes turned to Heath and Randall, Heath didn’t give it a second thought.  He was the stranger Doctor Wallace had brought in four days ago, no doubt everyone was curious as to who he was and where he’d come from. When Randall leaned into Heath’s legs as if unnerved by all the attention the cowboy reached down and took the boy’s hand.

“Come on, Randall.  We’ll go sit at that table back there.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t be in here, Morgan.  I…I ain’t never been in a cafe before and I’m not wearing shoes.”

“And exactly what does wearing shoes have to do with being hungry?”

“Well…nothin’ I guess.  Only maybe it ain’t proper like.”

“Randall, you’re too young to be frettin’ over what is and isn’t proper.  We’re hard working men and we need to eat.  Right?”

Randall couldn’t help but return Heath’s grin.

“Right.”

Heath led the boy to the empty table.  As he passed three men sitting at a table in the center of the room he heard a sneered,  “I didn’t know they were lettin’ bastards eat in here now.”

Even after all these years the words still cut right to his heart. Heath felt his face burn red.

How could they know?  How could they know anything about me?  I left that all behind.  I left everything about myself behind the day I rode off the ranch.

      Before Heath could start the first fistfight that A Little Bit Of Heaven had ever witnessed, one of the man’s buddies spoke up.

“Maybe that’s Randall’s daddy, comin’ back to give him an honest name.  Say, if a bastard’s daddy shows up outta the blue, does that not make him a bastard anymore?”

Heath saw Randall’s head drop to his chest.  By the tight set of the boy’s shoulders he knew the child was trying hard not to cry.  Just as Heath was about to pounce on the men a frying pan slammed in the center of their table.  The troublemakers and Heath looked up to see Tess.

“This here cafe is called A Little Bit Of Heaven for a reason, gentlemen. Like God’s house, all who enter are welcome.  Even the likes of you three, though Lord knows ya’all would try the patience of a saint.  You should be ashamed of yourselves and your cruel words.  The Bible says God loves fools and little children, though with fools like you a woman would have to wonder why. Now you git.  Go on…git your hides right on outta here.”

“Aw, Tess, we didn’t mean nothin’ by it.   We was just funnin’ with the boy is all.”

“Well the next time you wanna ‘fun’ with someone, Harry, you see old Tess first and she’ll hit you right up side the head with this here fryin’ pan in order to knock some sense in to that empty skull a’ yours.”  Tess pointed to the door.  “Now go!   Git on outta here ‘fore you give me cause to prove I helped Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio hit a home run right outta Yankee Stadium!”

The men pushed back their chairs and bolted for the door.  They knew Tess well enough to know she didn’t make idle threats.  Randall watched with wide eyes, then beckoned Heath to bend down.  He cupped his hands around Heath’s ear and whispered, “Sometimes Tess says stuff a fella’ just don’t understand, but no one messes with her, that’s for sure.”

Heath nodded.  “I can see that.”

Tess glared at the rest of her patrons, daring anyone else to comment about Randall’s presence.  When nothing more was said she turned and smiled.

“Hello, Randall.  Mr. Morgan Lee.  Now why don’t you boys have a seat right over there.  Ole’ Tess will be right with you.”

Heath nodded his thanks and led the boy to the empty table that sat two.

Randall’s eyes never stopped roaming the interior of the cafe, but then neither did Heath’s.  The walls were pale blue with white, fluffy clouds painted on them.  Angels dressed in long, flowing white robes with gold trim floated amongst the clouds.  Some carried harps, some carried Bibles, some carried children, and some seemed to be beckoning to the cafe’s patrons with outstretched hands.  Gold curtains hung at the cafe’s three windows, and every table was fitted with a gold cloth giving one the impression that you were indeed, in a little bit of Heaven.

Randall pointed to the wall above his head.  “I didn’t know there were black angels.”

Heath looked up.  Sure enough some of the angels were black, while others were white, while some looked to be Mexican, others American Indian, and others oriental.

“I reckon angels come in all colors, Randall.”

“They sure do,” Tess said as she came to take their order. “Every color you can think of, Randall.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Tess, ‘cause I’m pretty sure my friend Orra would like to be an angel someday.  She sure does cotton to singin’ hymns and quotin’ the Bible all the day-long.  I guess that would make her a good angel, huh?”

Tess cupped the boy’s chin and looked into his eyes. “It sure will, baby.  It surely will.”

The woman started scribbling on her pad.  “All right, boys, Tess is gonna start you both off with a nice tall glass of cold milk.  Then she’ll bring you each a bowl of her homemade chicken dumpling soup.  Then–”

“Uh…Tess,”  Heath interrupted.

“Yes?”

“Would you mind if we take a look at some menus?”

“Menus?  Why, Mr. Morgan Lee, you don’t need no menu.  You’ll eat what Tess puts in front of you.  Have you forgotten you’re supposed to be home in bed as it is?”

“No, ma’am, but–”

“I don’t wanna hear no buts.  You just sit here and keep Randall company until I get back.”  The woman walked away muttering, “Menus.  Don’t that beat all?  Menus. Hummmf!  He must think I’m runnin’ some kinda help-yourself, all-you-can-eat, fish-fry-on-Friday-nights smorgasbord here.”

Randall hunkered low to the table and giggled.  “See what I mean?  Tess says some down right funny things.”

“Yeah, Randall, I’m beginning to see that more and more.”

Heath sat there with the boy and waited for Tess to return.  He was a bit put out by the whole thing.  After all, if he was paying for his meal he preferred to make his own food choices.  Lordy, but did this woman remind him of Victoria Barkley.

Within five minutes time a feast was carried out to Heath and his helper.  Cold glasses of milk, hot chicken soup, and plates piled high with roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, and dinner rolls were set before them.  Randall’s eyes could barely take in all the food.

“Is it a holiday or something, Tess?”

“No, baby, no holiday.  Just a special day now that Mr. Morgan Lee brought you in here to eat some of Tess’s good home cookin’.  Now you boys clean your plates till there ain’t a morsel left, then Tess will bring you both dessert.”

“Do I get to chose that?”  Heath asked with a hint of teasing to his tone.

“No,” Tess replied.  “But don’t you worry none, Mr. Morgan Lee.  You’ll like the dessert just fine.”

Heath didn’t doubt that he would.  He was amazed that once again, the woman had managed to put all of his favorite foods in front of him.  Her roast beef was as tender as Silas’s, and her potatoes were light and fluffy, too, just like the ones Silas whipped for Sunday dinner.

Randall and Heath were too busy eating to exchange any words. Tess praised them both for cleaning their plates when she came back to pick up the dirty dishes.

“Randall, I’m glad to see you liked Tess’s cookin’.”

“Yes, ma’am.  It was wonderful!”

“And, Mr. Morgan Lee, I’m glad to see you finished every bite.  We’ll fatten you up yet before you leave Heaven.  You’re too skinny.  Just skin and bones is all there is to ya’.  And Tess would know ‘cause she helped give you a bath.”

Heath felt the color rise to his cheeks.  Tess threw back her head and laughed as she put a dish of apple pie in front of him.

“Oh, but you are a shy one.  The ladies find that attractive in a man, you know.”

Heath wouldn’t meet Tess’s eyes as he took his first bite of dessert.

“No, ma’am, I wouldn’t know.”

“No special woman in your life, Mr. Morgan Lee?”

“Not right now.”

“Hummmf.  Well, ole’ Tess will have to do something about that.  Yes, she surely will.  You look like the kinda man who needs a good woman to take care of him.”

Heath didn’t deem that comment worthy of an answer and was glad when Tess walked away.  He wasn’t too pleased to hear her mumbling women’s names, but decided not to fret over it.  He wasn’t going to be in Heaven long enough for any matchmaking to take place on his behalf.

The apple pie tasted exactly like the pie Heath’s mother had made. Heath didn’t protest when Tess brought him a second piece as well as a cup of black coffee.  She didn’t ask him if he took his coffee black, but like a lot of other things about him, she just seemed to know.

Or more than likely she doesn’t care, Heath thought, with a good dose of humor as the formidable woman walked away.

Randall sat quietly staring at the table cloth while Heath finished his dessert. Now that the meal was coming to an end the boy’s excitement over eating in a cafe appeared to have left him.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Randall looked up.  “Huh?”

“I said, penny for your thoughts.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Well, whenever I get real quiet like you are now my moth…someone will say ‘penny for your thoughts.’  It’s an expression.  It’s a way of one person inviting another person to share what’s on their mind.”

“Oh.”

When the boy said no more Heath let the subject drop.   If anyone had respect for the comfort of long silences it was Heath Barkley.

Heath had just eaten his last bite of pie when Randall spoke.  The boy looked at him through thick blond lashes with his head half bent toward the table.

“Morgan?”

“Yeah?”

“I…well…I understand if you don’t want to be my friend no more.”

“And just why wouldn’t I want to be your friend?”

“Because…because of what Harry and the others said.  Because…because of what they called me.”

“I don’t put any stock in what a man like Harry says.”

“But it’s true.  I am what he called me.  A…” the boy dropped his voice to a whisper.  “A bastard.”

Once again Heath felt the old anger and shame rise within him.

“Randall, when I look at you all I see is a hard working young man who I’m proud to call my friend.”

“But do you know what that word means?”

“Bastard?”

“Yeah.”

“Yes, I know what it means.  Nonetheless, I don’t pick my friends based on who their father is or where he’s at.  Makes no difference to me one way or the other.”

Randall grinned with delight.  And in that grin Heath saw the boy he had been reflected back at him.  He knew the pleased look on Randall’s face came from not being rejected, from not being told his new friend wanted no part of him.  When you’re the town bastard you get used to having friendships pulled out from under you as soon as your buddy’s parents find out your mother’s an unwed woman.

The boy played with his fork, relaxed now that he knew Heath wasn’t going to judge him for something beyond his control.

“My father’s a great man, you know.  Real brave.  My ma says so.  I think he fought in the Indian Wars with General  Custer. That’s why he can’t be here with me now.  He’s in the Army. Works as a scout.  But someday…someday when he can, he’ll come back and live with me and Ma.”

“I’m sure he will, son,” Heath said.

The blond man sat there mulling over the Randall’s words.  How odd it was that they echoed his own words when he was about the same age.  His father was a great man.  His father was a brave man who couldn’t be with them because he was off doing something far more important than providing for his son.  But someday…someday his father would come back to him.

Well, for Heath Barkley that day had never come, and he doubted it would come for Randall Becker either.  But better to leave the boy with his dreams.  In a few more years Randall would come to realize that’s all they were, dreams.  Dreams of a man he’d never meet.  Dreams of a man who wasn’t nearly as noble and brave as an eight year old child wanted him to be.

Heath shook the dark thoughts from his mind.  So far being Morgan Lee wasn’t much different from being Heath Barkley.  Boy howdy, would he be glad when the day came that he could ride out of Heaven.

“Come on, Randall.”  The cowboy stood. “It’s almost one and time for us to get back to work.  I’ll pay Tess for our meal, then we’ll be on our way.”

Tess looked up from behind the counter where she was tallying figures in a ledger book.

“Pay?  You ain’t gonna pay, Mr. Morgan Lee.”

“But–”

“I promised Doctor Wallace I’d look after you.  You shoulda’ been takin’ that meal in bed today. So you don’t owe me nothin.’  You and Randall just get on outta here now.”

“Look, Tess, I don’t take charity.”

“And I ain’t offerin’ you charity.  I’m offerin’ you three square meals a day like the doctor said I should.  Whether you eat them at the doctor’s home, or here at A Little Bit Of Heaven, don’t make no difference to me.  Tess’s only job is to get you strong and healthy again.  Now go on with you, Mr. Morgan Lee, and don’t be arguin’ with me.  If you don’t do as I say I’ll put a needle in your arm and feed you through a tube.”

Heath looked at Randall who shrugged his shoulders.  Evidently this was another one of Tess’s odd sayings.  Heath couldn’t imagine how such a thing would work, but by the look in the woman’s eyes he knew he didn’t want to give her reason to carry out that threat.

“All right, Tess, Randall and I will be on our way.  Thanks for the meal.”

“You’re welcome.  And I expect to see your skinny hide at the dinner table tonight, you got that?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I got it.”

Randall took Heath’s hand again as the two walked back to the livery stable.  “Ain’t Tess a corker, Morgan?”

“Boy howdy, Randall, I’d have to say she is.”  Heath shook his head and mumbled,  “Feeding a person through a tube.  Whoever heard of such a thing?”

Before the cowboy had time to contemplate that further he and Randall were hard at work.

*****

At four o’clock that afternoon Jasper Thurmond returned to the livery stable.  He eyed Heath’s work, then whistled with appreciation.

“Mr. Lee, I’d say I’m getting more than my money’s worth out of you.  You’re hired.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Randall ran over and took Jasper’s hand.  “How’s Mrs. Thurmond feelin’?”

Heath could see the fear behind the old man’s smile.  “She’s fine, son. Just fine. Thank you for askin’.”

“And what about Benji and Paul?  How are they?”

Jasper looked at Heath.  “Benji and Paul are two of my grandsons.”

“They’re my best friends, Morgan.  Well, them and you.  They’re like my brothers.   Do you have any brothers?”

Pushing all thoughts of his siblings aside Heath answered, “No.  No, Randall, I don’t.

“Me either.  Or sisters.  So I pretend Benji and Paul are my brothers.  They don’t mind, do they, Mr. Thurmond?”

“No, Randall, I don’t reckon they mind a bit.”

“So how are they?”

“They’re sick, son.  They’re…sick.”

“But they’ll get better, won’t they?”

“Sure, Randall.”  The old man refused to meet the boy’s trusting gaze.  “Sure. They’ll get better.”

Mr. Thurmond handed Heath the three dollars he owed him.  “You come back tomorrow morning, Mr. Lee.  Things aren’t…things aren’t so good at home so I’d be much obliged if you’d do the work we agreed upon until the worst of this epidemic has passed.”

“I’ll be happy, too.  Thank you.”

After Mr. Thurmond left Heath picked up his tools while Randall saw to Charger’s needs.  When both boy and man declared their working day over Heath took Randall’s hand and led him down the street.

“Where we goin’, Morgan?”

“To the general store.”

“How come?”

“I told you earlier that I owed you something for the good care you’ve been giving Charger, and for helping me today.  Since Tess wouldn’t let me buy you lunch I still have an obligation to you.”

The child looked up with puzzlement etching his features, but when Heath said nothing further Randall kept his questions to himself.

The visit to the general store lasted thirty minutes.  Heath was relieved to find this was one establishment Tess didn’t own.  The last thing he needed was her hovering over him while he saw to Randall’s needs.  When the pair left the store Randall was wearing new trousers, a new shirt, and a pair of tan boots almost identical to Heath’s.  The boy carried a wrapped package under one arm that held an additional shirt and pair of trousers.  In Heath’s arms was a wooden crate filled with everything from flour, to sugar, to coffee, to fruit, to canned goods, to penny candies.  On his head was the only thing he’d purchased for himself, a new cowboy hat exactly like the one he’d lost in the desert.

“Seems like I didn’t do enough work for all you bought, Morgan,” Randall commented as he led Heath toward his home.

“Well now, I don’t see it quite that way.”

“My ma might not like it.  We don’t take charity, you know.”

“I know.  And don’t you worry about your ma.  I’ll make it right with her.”

Randall ran ahead of Heath, chewing on a licorice stick.  When he came to a tiny, run down house with weathered boards in bad need of paint he burst in the front door.

“Ma!  Ma!  You’ll never guess what!”

Heath followed the boy. The front room was both living room and kitchen. The place was tidy, but small.  He could see a door that led out to the backyard, and another door that led to a bedroom.

A young woman barely out of her teens lay on a cot in the center of the room.  Her pale orange hair fell in thick waves to the middle of her back; random strands were stuck to the sheen of perspiration dotting her forehead.  A black woman who had to be to seventy if she was a day was tending the ill woman.

The sick woman’s waxy face was stained ruby with fever, making her freckles hard to see.  When she coughed Heath cringed.  He knew exactly what was wrong with her.  As memories of the Stockton graveyard came to the front of his mind all he wanted to do was set the crate down and flee.

Randall didn’t seem to sense the severity of his mother’s illness.  He walked over to her cot and bent to kiss her.

“Hi, Ma.”

The woman’s smile broadcast her enormous love for her child.  When she spoke her voice was raspy and harsh, just like Heath recalled his being only a few weeks ago.

“Hi, sweetheart.  How was your day?”

“Just dandy.  I made me a new friend.”

“You did?”

“Yep.”  Randall beckoned Heath in from the shadow of the front door. “This here’s Morgan Lee. And a’ fore you ask him, no, he ain’t related to the General Robert E. Lee that Tess knew. But he’s stayin’ with Tess at Doc Wallace’s.”

Randall’s mother tried to sit up straighter against her pillows.  “You must be the man Doc Wallace found a few days back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Morgan, this is my ma, Josie Becker. Her real name is Josette.  Josie’s just her nickname. Don’t you think Josette is about the prettiest name you ever heard?”

“Oh, Randall, don’t put our guest on the spot like that.”

“That’s okay, ma’am.  The boy’s right.  It is a pretty name.”

“Well thank you, Mr. Lee.”

“Morgan.  Please call me Morgan.”

“Only if you’ll call me Josie.”

“All right.  Josie it is.”

Randall ran over to the black woman who was filling a pan with fresh water from the pump.  To all intents and purposes the old woman acted as though she wasn’t even aware Randall and Heath were in the room.

“And this here’s Orra.  She’s Ma’s friend from ages and ages ago.”

The skinny old black woman turned to greet Heath.  “I be happy to meet you, Mr. Lee.  Mighty happy.”

“Nice to meet you, too, Miss Orra.”

 

Josie took notice of her son’s apparel for the first time since he’d walked in the door.

“Randall, where’d you get those clothes?”

“Morgan bought ‘em for me, Ma.”  The boy held up the package he still had tucked under his arm.  “And he bought me an extra set, too.  And food.  He bought food.”

At the mention of food Heath walked the crate into the kitchen area and set it on the counter.  Josie gathered all her strength and tried to sound firm.  Fire flashed from the twenty-two year old’s blue eyes.

“I don’t know what Randall’s told you about us, Mr. Lee, but we don’t need your sympathy, or your charity.”

“But, Ma–”

“Randall, that’s enough.  I won’t have any back talk.”

The boy hung his head; embarrassed to be bawled out in front of his new friend.  “Yes, Ma.”

“Look, mMa’am–”

“My name’s not ma’am.  It’s Josie Becker. Miss Josie Becker,” the sick woman emphasized as though to test Heath’s character.  The cowboy didn’t even blink.

“Look, Miss Becker, I didn’t buy Randall the clothes or bring the food out of sympathy or charity either one.  Truth of the matter is Randall’s been taking excellent care of my horse while I’ve been laid up, and then today Mr. Thurmond hired me on at the livery to do some carpentry work.  Randall worked with me all day and I felt it was my obligation to pay him for the hours he put in.”

The woman turned to her son.    “Is that true, Randall?  Did you work with Mr. Lee today?”

“Yes, Ma. All day long.  And you know what?”

“What?”

“We even ate lunch at Tess’s place.  At A Little Bit Of Heaven.  Oh, Ma, it was wonderful.  The only thing that woulda’ made it better was if you and Orra could have eatin’ there with us.”

The black woman looked at Randall from where she was unpacking the crate.  Her words made Heath think of Hannah.

“Oh go on with you, boy, talkin’ foolishness like that.  Go on with you now.”

“No, really, Orra, we did eat there.  Didn’t we, Morgan?”

“We sure did.”

“And Ma, Morgan said it was okay if I call him by his first name.  Is that all right with you?”

Heath could see the woman was quickly tiring.  She fell back into her pillows.

“Sure, son.  That’s fine with me as long as Mr. Lee said it’s okay.”

When Josie was wracked by a coughing spasm that left Randall wide-eyed with fear.   Orra shoved a dishpan into his hands.

“Randall, you git on outside and pick the beans for supper, then fill the wood box.  Go on, now.  Hurry along.”

“But–”

Heath placed a hand on the boy’s back.  “Come on, Randall.  Let Orra tend to your ma.  I’ll help you with your chores.”

Josie flashed Heath as much of a grateful smile as she could muster.  To the sounds of her harsh coughs Heath and Randall left the house.

A healthy garden sprouted in Josie’s back yard just like the garden Heath’s mother had in Strawberry.  The vegetables they’d harvested during the summer months got them through many a long lean winter, just like Heath was certain this garden did for Josie Becker and her boy.

Randall and Heath were sitting on the back steps snapping beans when they heard Orra’s cry.

“Miss Josie!  Miss Josie!  Oh, Miss Josie, you gots to breathe!  You gots to breathe!”

Heath threw the beans in his hand aside and raced for the house, Randall at his heels.  As soon as Heath entered the kitchen he could tell Josie was much worse than she had been just a short time ago.  He recalled one of the first days of his illness and how one minute it seemed like Victoria was leaving his room to get him lunch, and the next minute Jarrod and Nick were restraining him while trying to feed him.  He’d later been told his fever had climbed dangerously high with a speed Victoria had never seen before in all her years of tending sick children.

Josie’s body twisted and withered on the small cot as she tried to draw in air.  Her face burned Heath’s hand.  He leaned her over his knees like he vaguely remembered his brothers doing to him and used his palm to thrust between her shoulder blades.  Heath blocked out Orra’s hysterical screams of, “Miss Josie!  Miss Josie!”  and Randall’s frightened cries of “Ma!  Ma!”  as he worked to get the woman air.  She finally coughed hard three times, then drew in a deep breath before collapsing against Heath’s legs.  He turned Josie and scooped the unconscious woman up in his arms as easily as if she was Randall.

“Where’s the doctor working out of?”

“The church,” Orra answered. “He’s got most a’ the sick people there.  But you just leave Miss Josie be.  She won’t be welcome.”

“Welcome or not, that’s where she’s goin’.”

As Heath started for the door the black woman grabbed his arm.

“Mr. Lee, you can’ts take her there.  You can’ts!  They’ll just make you bring her on back, they will.  They say she’s not a good woman ‘cause she ain’t got no husband.  Orra knows that’s not true, Miss Josie is a good woman, but no one cares what Orra say and they’ll make you bring her back.”

“I don’t mean any disrespect, Miss Orra, but no, they won’t make me bring her back.  She’ll get the care she needs if I have to stay there all night and give it to her myself.”

Randall ran along behind Heath clinging to his belt as the cowboy’s long strides headed for the church.

Everyone looked up when Heath burst in the front doors with Josie.  He moved for the first empty cot he saw, but was stopped by two men who blocked his path.

“You just take her right on outta here, Mister!”

“That’s right.  Git her out!  If she’d spent more time in church long before she beget that there boy, she wouldn’t be in need of the Lord’s help today.  Now go on! Git!”

Heath glared at the men.  How he hated their ignorance.  A spiteful ignorance born of cruelty he’d known his whole life.

“I’m not going anywhere.  Now get out of my way.”

“Evidently you don’t know how things is done in Heaven, stranger.  I hear tell you already had the boy in the cafe, like you can waltz around bendin’ the rules to please yourself.  Well, you can’t, and I ain’t got no problem in teachin’ you that.”

Heath’s jaw clenched in a way that his brothers would have recognized signaled the end of his patience.

“I’ve never punched a man in a church before, but if you don’t move out of my way you’ll be the first.”

“Oh yeah?  Well, let’s just see you–”

Before the fight could escalate further Doctor Wallace appeared.

“Gentlemen, that’s enough.  We’ve don’t need anymore trouble than we already have.  Now, Burton…John, move out of the way and let this man pass.”

“But, Doc,….”

“I said move!”

Burton Hughs and John McClafferty stared at the doctor a moment longer, then reluctantly did as he ordered.

“I bet you’re cut from the same cloth,” pudgy Burton Hughs sneered as Heath passed.  “Probably somebody’s bastard yourself.  I suppose you all stick together.”

Abraham saw the muscles in the stranger’s back tighten, but the young man didn’t say another word to his tormentors.  The doctor was ashamed of these people who lived in a place called Heaven while he watched as one after another, those who were healthy sat on empty cots to prevent Heath from placing Josie near their loved ones.  Finally, a woman stood and beckoned from the last row.

“Sir, please!  Bring her back here.”

Heath walked a straight line to the woman.  He placed Josie on the cot nearest the wall.  He glanced to his right and saw six children lying on cots of their own.  The oldest couldn’t have been more than eight, the youngest a baby of twelve months.  They all had varying shades of brown hair and just by looking at their features Heath knew they were brothers and sisters.

“I’m Della Crawford,” the woman introduced.  “This is my husband Frank.”  A man who had been tending two of the children looked up and gave Heath a tired nod.  “And these…these are our children.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.  I thank you for your kindness.”

“Don’t thank me for offering Miss Becker the common decency she deserves.”

Heath moved aside while Doctor Wallace examined Josie.  He placed a hand on Randall’s back.

“This is Randall.  Miss Becker’s son.”

Della smiled.  “It’s nice to meet you, Randall.’

Randall could barely take his worried eyes off his mother long enough to acknowledge Mrs. Crawford.

“Nice to meet you, too, Ma’am.”

Doctor Wallace stood in short order.  “She’s a very sick young woman.  We can only offer her what we’ve offered the others.  A clean bed, warm broth, cold cloths in an attempt to reduce the fever, and quinine.”

“Quinine!”  Came a cry from the front of the room.  “Not for the likes of her!  You’re not taking quinine away from my family in order to–”

Heath drew his gun as he whipped around to face the speaker.   Men stood in stunned surprise and women cried out with fright while covering their children with their bodies.

Heath ignored the upset he’d caused.  “She’ll get what she needs just like everyone else in this town!  If you try to keep it from her you’ll answer to me.”

“Son.”  Abraham reached out and placed a hand on Heath’s wrist.  “Son, now that won’t be necessary.  You just put the gun away and I’ll handle things from here.”

Heath glared at the doctor until he dropped his hand.

“Don’t assume it won’t be necessary just because you’ve never experienced the ugly side of people. I been a lotta places and seen a lotta things, and people are people no matter where you go.  Miss Becker needs help, that’s all that matters to me.  Who she is or what she’s done shouldn’t make a difference when she’s in need of medical care.”

“And it doesn’t.  At least not to me.”  Abraham cocked an eyebrow at the stranger that he just now recognized as being the man he’d found in the dessert outside of town.  “After all, I stopped to help you, didn’t I?  A man I know nothing about.”

Heath stared at the doctor a long moment, then slowly reholstered his gun.

“Yeah.   Yeah, I guess you did.  Or so I’ve been told.”

Monica arrived on the heels of the excitement carrying a pan of cold water and a cloth.  She sat down on the edge of Josie’s cot and began sponging the woman’s face.

“And you were told right,” the nurse said to Heath. “Doctor Wallace, this is Morgan Lee.  Mr. Lee, this is Doctor Abraham Wallace.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Lee. I’m glad to see you’re up and about.  Monica told me you were doing better.”

“I am.”

“You don’t seem very pleased about that fact.”

Heath simply shrugged under the doctor’s scrutiny.

“Maybe I just don’t like being in a church full of sick people.”

“Ah…I see.  Scared of getting the disease I take it?”

“No, I’m not scared. Got no reason to be.  Already had it.”

“Oh, then maybe–”

“Doctor, just take care of Miss Becker please.”

Monica looked up at Abraham and stage-whispered,  “Mr. Lee’s not much for talking about himself, Doctor.”

 

“Well now, I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with a man who keeps his own counsel.”

The doctor turned to his patient, forgetting all about the stranger behind him with the fast gun.

***** 

Chapter 25

At seven o’clock that night Monica urged Doctor Wallace and Heath to go home.

“I’ll be stayin’ here tonight, Doctor.  You need to rest.”

“But–”

“Now, now.  No protesting from you.  I’ve got plenty of help.  I don’t need another pair of hands just getting in my way. Besides, Tess will have supper waiting, and you know how crabby she gets when her cooking isn’t given proper attention by two hungry men.”

Abraham smiled at Monica’s words, then looked around the church.  She was right, plenty of the town’s people who were healthy were on hand to help those who weren’t.

Heath had taken Randall home so Orra could feed him supper, then walked back to the church with both the woman and the boy.  Orra was now tending to Josie while Randall sat on the floor beside her.  Monica saw Heath’s eyes travel to the blond child.

“I’ll take care of Randall, Mr. Lee.  I’ll make him a pallet right here beside his mama.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate it.”

When Randall realized his friend was leaving he jumped to his feet and wrapped his arms around Heath’s waist.

“Thank you for fightin’ for my ma, Morgan.  No one’s ever spoke up for her before ‘cept me.”

Heath knelt down and ran a hand through Randall’s hair.

“You’re a good boy, Randall.  Don’t you ever let anyone tell you different now, ya’ hear.  Speakin’ up for your ma is the right thing to do.  I spoke up for my mama many a time when I was no bigger than you.  Earned a few black eyes for it, but that never mattered none to me.”

As Heath stood Josie beckoned him over with a weak hand.

“Thank you, Mr. Lee.  I appreciate all you’ve done for us today.  The clothes for Randall, the food, bringing me here, being a friend to my son, looking past…looking past who I am.”

“There’s no need to thank me, ma’am.  And I don’t need to look past anything.  When I look at you all I see is a hard working woman who loves her son very much and is doing the best job she possibly can to raise him right.  That’s nothing to be ashamed of, Josie.”

“Lots of others won’t agree with you on that.”

Heath smiled.  “There have been a number of people who haven’t agreed with my view on things over the years, a few more don’t make much difference to me one way or another.”

Josie coughed as she grasped Heath’s hand.  “Thank you.  Thank you so much.”

Doctor Wallace stood by silently observing this unusual exchange.  When Heath stood the older man walked with him through the church and out the front doors.  As they made their way to Abraham’s house the doctor said, “So I take it you’re not Randall’s father?”

“What makes you ask that?”

“Well, from the rumors I heard today some of the town’s folks are speculating on it.”

Heath’s disgust shown from his eyes.  “Just because I gave Randall and his mama the respect they deserve simply for being the good people they are, doesn’t make me the boy’s father, or his mother’s lover.”

“I know that, it’s just–”

“Doctor, if you had to ask then you don’t know a damn thing.”  And with that Heath stalked off.

Abraham shook his head and smiled.  “For a quiet one he’s sure not afraid to speak his mind when riled.”

By the time Abraham had washed his hands and changed in to a fresh white shirt Heath was already seated at the table.  Tess and the doctor sat down together.  Heath stared at his plate as Tess said grace, then accepted the platter of fried chicken she passed him.

“You don’t believe in thanking the Lord for your food, Mr. Morgan Lee?  And don’t give me that look. I saw you sittin’ there with your eyes wide open scowlin’ at the table all angry like as though you got a bone to pick with God.  So do you?”

“Ma’am?”

“Do you have a bone to pick with God?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Hummmf.  I know a lie when I hear one, Mr. Morgan Lee.  What about you, Doctor?  Do you think Mr. Morgan Lee just might have himself all upset over something he’s blaming God for?”

“Don’t know, Tess,” Abraham said as he dug into the fried chicken.  This was one benefit to being in human form again, reaping enjoyment from good cooking.  “If Mr. Lee says no, then I suppose he means no.”

“Well, that’s just like you men.  You always stick together.  And say, Doctor, take a long hard look at Mr. Morgan Lee for me.”

Abraham glanced at Tess.  “What?”

“Look at Mr. Morgan Lee.  Go on, do it.”

Heath wondered what the woman was up to.  He was feeling pretty good for a change.  He hoped he didn’t look like he was running a fever or something.  The last thing he wanted was to be put back in bed.

Abraham did as Tess instructed and studied Heath from across the table.

“So?  What do you see?”

“Well, now…I guess I see a young man who’s a bit on the thin side, who’s been sick recently, and by sick I mean long before he came to us, so he probably had no business being on the trail to begin with, who might be in need of a shave and hair cut unless, of course, this is what his normally favors.  If so, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Kinda makes a person think of George Custer, doesn’t it, Tess?”

Heath resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

Great.  Here we go again.

      “No, no, no,” Tess scolded.  “That’s not what I mean.  Take a goooood look at our guest.  Does he look like a Morgan to you?  Or a Lee?”

“Tess, he looks like he looks.  Sure, I suppose he looks like a Morgan Lee about as much as I look like an Abraham Wallace.  Why the fuss?”

Tess gave a heavy sigh and tilted her face heavenward.  Lord how she hated having to guide new employees through their first assignments.

“Never mind,” Tess dismissed with disgust that was plain to hear. “Just eat your supper.”

“That’s what I aim to do.  This is good, Tess.  Very good. Reminds me of the Southern food another cook I had used to make.”

Heath was grateful the doctor was more interested in eating than carrying on a conversation with him.  But just by looking at the man Heath could tell he was exhausted.  No doubt the long hours tending to the sick were taking their toll on him.  As he watched Abraham reach for his fourth piece of chicken and third helping of mashed potatoes Heath was amazed that someone so slight of build could eat so much.   The man’s appetite made him think of Nick, though Heath didn’t allow himself to dwell on the comparison for long.

When supper was over Tess shooed the men from her kitchen. Before either one of them had time to decide what part of the house they wanted to retreat to, she placed a hand in the center of their backs and pushed them toward the front porch.

“You both go on out there and sit a spell.  The sun’s goin’ down now and the night air has a cool breeze to it.”

“But, Tess,” the doctor protested,  “I was thinking of just going right on to bed.  I’m worn out and could really use a good night’s…”

“Doctor, you know as well as I do that there’s nothin’ more ornery to the digestion than goin’ to bed on a full stomach.  I ain’t gonna have either of you comin’ to me in two hours and tellin’ me my good cookin’ is churnin’ around in your bellies.  No, now you and Mr. Morgan Lee visit for a while.”

Doctor Wallace couldn’t imagine having much to visit about with this quiet stranger whom he’d managed to get angry without intending to, anymore than Heath could imagine having much to say to the small town doctor he shared nothing in common with.  But because it was wiser to comply with Tess’s orders rather than defy her, the men stepped onto the front porch and sat in the rocking chairs.  They could vaguely hear Tess humming What A Friend We Have In Jesus as she went about washing dishes.

Doctor Wallace pulled a pipe out of the front pocket of his shirt.  He struck a match against a leg of his chair and lit the bowl.  He took three longs puffs, then pulled the pipe out of his mouth.

“That woman never stops her humming.  She knows more hymns than I think I’ve learned in a life time.”

Heath said nothing as he slowly pushed the rocker back and forth with his feet.  His mind drifted in odd directions, first to Hannah.  Tess’s humming and the sounds of the dishes clattering in the background made him think of Hannah. He pictured Jarrod’s face next.  It took him a moment to figure out why his oldest brother came to mind, but then he knew.  The pipe tobacco Doctor Wallace favored. It was the exact same tobacco Jarrod favored. Heath was willing to bet on it.

“What kinda tobacco is that?”

The doctor took his pipe out of his mouth and looked at his companion. “Pardon me?”

“Tobacco?  What kind are you using?”

“Dunstan Vanilla.”

A slight smile touched the corners of Heath’s mouth.  He was right.  Dunstan Vanilla.  Just what Jarrod always used.  Just what Jarrod had at one time told him Tom Barkley always used.

“Why?”  The doctor asked. “Do you smoke?”

“No.  Not the pipe.  Cigars every so often.  A cigarette now and again, though more when I was in the army than anything else.”

“Where’d you serve?”

“Spent most of my time as a sharp shooter with the 17th Regiment in Tennessee during the war.”

“The war?”

“Yep.”

“If you don’t mind me saying, you look a little young to have served in the war.”

“I reckon I was.  Or at least in years.  Fifteen when I enlisted.”

“Young in years?  What do you mean by that?  Fifteen’s young no matter how you look at it.”

Heath glanced at the doctor.  “I started working when I was six years old.  Did a lot of different jobs, met a lot of different people.  When you start that young by the time you’re fifteen you’re practically an old man.”

“I suppose.  What had you working at such a tender age?  If you don’t mind my asking that is.”

Heath gave the man a vague answer as was typical for him.  “We needed the money.”

Again Heath thought of Jarrod when the doctor wouldn’t let the subject drop without probing further.

“What did your father do?  Was he laid up?”

Heath gave a mirthless laugh.  “Yeah, he was laid up all right.  In another town.  With his wife and children.”

“Oh.  Oh, I see.  I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No.  Not if you couldn’t handle the answer.”

“What makes you think I can’t handle the answer?”

“Doctor, I’ve been judged all my life based on the sins of my father.  Like little Randall Becker, I wasn’t welcome most places when I was a kid.  You see, like Randall, I was the town bastard.  But my father…well you can bet your last dollar on the fact that he was welcomed everywhere he went.  You can bet your last dollar on the fact that he never had to crawl in a mine when he was six years old, or sixty years old for that matter, in order to set explosives just so he could bring home a dollar a day to his mama.”

Doctor Wallace shook his head.  He thought of his past life and how that was one thing he’d expressively forbid.  He’d never allowed anyone under the age of sixteen to work for any of his operations.  A six-year old child.  Six years old and crawling down a mineshaft with dynamite in his small hands.  The doctor thought of his own sons at that same age and could hardly imagine such thing.

“I can see you don’t approve.”

Abraham looked at the man sitting kitty-corner to him.  “No, I don’t approve.  A child that young going into a mine for what…a dollar a day?  Of course I don’t approve.”

“Doctor, sometimes that one dollar a day made the difference between whether or not we had food in the house.”

Abraham mulled over Heath’s words, then gave a thoughtful nod.  “Yes.  Yes, I suppose it did.”

The two men kept their peace for a few minutes, Abraham puffing on his pipe and Heath silently berating himself for bringing up his past.  The first gray haze of darkness had begun to fall when Abraham spoke again.

“And your mother?”

Heath was startled out of his own thoughts.  “What?”

“Your mother?  What did she do to earn a living?”

“Near about anything she had to.  Cooked at a cafe, washed clothes for miners, did their mending, cleaned houses for rich people, whatever earned us a few bucks.”

“And school?  Did you go to school?”

“Why do you ask?  Are you assuming just ‘cause I was the town bastard. I was also the town idiot?”

Abraham threw his head back and laughed.

Heath scowled.  “What’s so funny?”

“Mr. Lee, for a quiet man you’ve got a temper, no doubt about it.  And you also tend to jump to unwarranted conclusions. You remind me of one of my sons in that regard.  But to answer your question, no, of course I don’t think you were the town idiot.  I’m simply asking if you were able to go to school because you mentioned working when you were just six.”

Heath looked down at his boots; embarrassed he’d let his temper get the best of him.  That was usually Nick’s department, though occasionally Heath was an even match for his brother in that area.

“Yeah, I went to school.  My mama was big on education.  Or at least I went until I was thirteen.  Not long after that I dropped out.”

“And your mother?”

“What about her?”

“Is she–”

“She’s dead.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need to be.  People die.  You’re a doctor.  No doubt you know that better than anyone.  She had a hard life.  Mama..she had a hard life.”

“How long ago?”

“Be five years in October.”

“So that’s why you identify so strongly with Josie Becker and her son.”

Heath felt the anger rise again.

“I don’t identify with anyone.  Miss Becker needed someone in Heaven to stand up for her.  It’s too bad it took a stranger to do just that.”

“Yes,” Abraham nodded, his stock in this unusual young man rising another notch.  “Yes, you’re right.  It is.”

Abraham shifted in his chair.  He studied his companion in the fading light.  Morgan Lee’s face revealed little, but his eyes…the doctor thought of his long-deceased father.  Like Abraham’s father, Mr. Lee’s pale blue eyes held so many thoughts, and words, and feelings left unspoken.  The old man changed the subject.

“What I said in the kitchen earlier is true, isn’t it?  You’ve been sick recently.”

Heath looked at Abraham but refused to say anything.

“Oh, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I already know.  The fever you had, the congestion in your chest, the cough, the fact that your clothes were hanging off of you…you’re recovering from diphtheria, aren’t you?”

Abraham wasn’t surprised when his visitor didn’t answer again.  He allowed the man his silence while smiling his triumph to himself.

Ah…I’ve finally figured it out.  I finally know the purpose of this assignment.  I bet this poor young man lost a wife and children to the epidemic.  God wants me to help him see that though the pain and loss are fresh right now, life does go on.  That there’s more for him out there in the years to come.  I know that as well as anyone. I buried a child. My marriage suffered a rocky road or two.  I had my share of business failures. Did things…did something I was ashamed of later. Because of all that I started over several times in my life.

      Feeling every bit like Abraham, the wise father of many, Doctor Wallace leaned forward and patted Heath’s knee.

“Son, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Loss?”

“By the looks of you I can tell you’re grieving.  I know a diphtheria epidemic costs many lives.  Who did you lose?”

Heath was furious at this nosy old man and his patronizing manner.  He stood so abruptly his rocking chair flew into the wall of the house.

“Who did I lose?  I lost a good portion of a town, Doctor!  One hundred and thirty-five people are dead because of me!”

“Because of you?”

“Yes, because of me.  Because I infected them!”

“Oh now, son, you can’t blame yourself–”

“Quit calling me that!  I’m not your son!  I’m Tom Barkley’s bastard, that’s who I am!  And believe me, the people of Stockton, California don’t ever plan on letting me forget it!”

The screen door slammed as Heath stomped into the house.  Abraham’s chair stopped rocking as his pipe slipped from his hand.  It landed with a soft ‘thump’ on the floor of the porch.

Tess walked out of the house with one last backward glance at the angry man who’d flown by.

“Land sakes, you look like you’ve seen a ghost, Abraham.  What’s got Mr. Morgan Lee so riled that he grabbed a clean shirt and high tailed it out the back door?”

“I…”  the doctor swallowed hard before regaining his composure.  “I don’t know, Tess.  But you were right about one thing.  Our visitor isn’t a Morgan, or a Lee.”

“Who is he then?”

“Barkley.”  Abraham looked out over his rose garden, refusing to meet Tess’s eyes for fear his sins were written all over his face.  “His name is Heath Barkley.”

Tess already knew that, of course, but all she said as she walked back into the house was, “I told you he didn’t look like no Morgan Lee.  Didn’t I tell you that?  No siree, I knew he wasn’t no Morgan, nor no Lee either.”

And now Abraham knew it, too.

*****

Chapter 26

Heath passed a restless night in the livery stable’s haymow.  He’d slept worse places so the accommodations weren’t what kept him awake, but rather it was his past.  The past he couldn’t seem to get away from even in a place called Heaven. All it took was one epidemic in a small Nevada town, an unwed woman and her son, and one nosy old doctor to enable all Heath was trying to run from to catch up with him.

Heath sat on a bale of hay and exchanged his green shirt for a brown one.

This is exactly why I didn’t want to be in a town. This is exactly why I wanted to work on a ranch.  On a ranch everyone’s too busy to be worryin’ about where the new guy came from.  As long as you do your job no one cares who you are.  On a ranch I can be anyone I want to be. The minute the quarantine is lifted from this town I’m gonna get on Charger and ride outta here.  I’ll head farther north.  Maybe into Idaho territory like I was thinkin’ the other day. 

      A voice from below broke into Heath’s thoughts.

“Hey up there!  Hey, Mr. Morgan Lee, breakfast is ready!”

      Heath looked down the ladder to see Tess.

“Well, come on with you.  I ain’t got all day.  Gotta open the cafe at eleven, you know.”

“Tess, never mind about breakfast.  I’m fine.”

“Don’t you be tellin’ Tess never mind ‘bout no breakfast.  Get yourself down here and get over to my kitchen ‘fore I take my wooden spoon to your skinny behind.”

“Tess–”

“Now, Mr. Morgan Lee, I’ve just about had me enough of your back talk.”

Heath sighed and climbed down the ladder carrying his dirty shirt.  For goodness sake, but would this old black woman give Victoria a run for her money.  As Heath passed Tess he said,  “I imagine you heard from Doctor Wallace that my name isn’t Morgan Lee.  It’s Barkley.  Heath Barkley.”

Tess grinned.  “Yes, the doctor did mention you’re one of them California Barkleys, but I been callin’ you Mr. Morgan Lee for so long now it’s kinda grown on me.”

Heath sighed as he allowed the woman to lead him to the doctor’s house.  Well, his mama always did say no good came from lying.  And now he supposed he was going to have to pay for that misdeed by having Tess call him Mr. Morgan Lee for the rest of his stay in Heaven.

Tess seemed to sense Heath’s need for silence that morning.  She said not a word when she put a plate of eggs and bacon in front of him, nor did she make any comments while he went about eating them.

When he was finished he thanked her for the meal like he had the previous day.

“No need to thank me.  I enjoy cookin’ for a hungry man.  And I just want you to know I don’t plan on holdin’ my tongue like this through every meal I serve you.  But this morning…well this morning I could tell you needed to be alone with your thoughts, Mr. Morgan Lee.”

Heath gave the woman the endearing half smile his family was so familiar with. “Yes, Ma’am.  Thank you for respecting that.”

The cowboy walked to the back bedroom to clean up.  He got his saddlebags from the closet and laid them on the bed that had been his.  He dug for his razor and shaving cream.  He had no intention of shaving his beard off, but he was going to trim it up a little so it stayed neat and didn’t grow past his chin thereby making him look like an old mountain man. As Heath pulled out the razor his hand encountered something else.  He knew what it was long before he brought it into view.

The previous September Eugene and his English bride, Anna, came to the States so Anna could meet the Barkley family.  Victoria had hosted a lavish reception for the couple, and it was prior to the start of that party that this photo had been taken.

Heath smiled a little as he looked at it.  Victoria sat in a chair with Anna and Audra seated on either side of her.  The four men were lined up behind the women and turned slightly to the right for the benefit of the camera.  Heath remembered that day well.  Nick complained loudly about having to be in a suit a full hour before the party was to start, while Audra ran between Heath and Nick fixing their ties.  It took her a few minutes to realize that she’d no more than get Heath presentable than Nick would purposely knock his tie askew.  Heath did the same to his brother meaning that poor Audra was in tither over what the two of them could possibly be doing that left their ties hanging crooked at their necks.  It wasn’t until she caught Nick with his fingers on the string of Heath’s tie that she discovered she was once again being teased by the two pranksters.  She’d tried to sound stern while giving them a lecture, but they were laughing so hard that she finally threw her hands up and called, “Mother!  I know of two boys who need a tanning with your wooden spoon.”

“Good memories?”

Heath swiveled, startled by the voice behind him.  Since he hadn’t seen   Doctor Wallace at the breakfast table he assumed the man was at the church tending to the sick.

The old man was leaning against the doorframe watching Heath.  Heath tossed the picture on the bed, picked up his razor and shaving cream, and walked over to the washstand.

Abraham waited for Heath to speak.  When he didn’t the doctor entered the room and crossed to the bed.  He picked up the photograph.

“You mind if I look at it?”

Using the mirror, Heath eyed the man without turning as he went about trimming his beard.

“Guess not.”

Abraham studied the picture a long time.  “Who are these people?”

“I said I didn’t mind you lookin’ at it, I didn’t say I was gonna answer any questions.”

The ever-persistent doctor carried the picture to Heath’s side.  He pointed at Heath’s image.

“This must be you.”

Heath’s eyes slid to the photograph as he lifted his face to shave his neck.     “Yep.”

“Without all that hair on your face you’re quite a handsome fellow.”

Heath didn’t deem the doctor’s comment worth a response.

“Looks like this was some type of family celebration.”

“My younger brother’s wedding reception.”

Abraham cocked an eyebrow.  “Younger brother?”

“Okay.  Half brother.”

“That’s not what I meant.  It’s just that based on our conversation last night I assumed you didn’t know your father’s family.  But that is who these people are, am I correct?”

“Yeah.”

Abraham pointed to Jarrod’s face.  “So who’s this?”

Heath sighed.  He could tell the man wasn’t going to leave until his questions were answered.  Did old age give people the right to be rude and inquire about things that were none of their business?

“My oldest brother Jarrod.”

“Ah.  Jarrod Barkley.  I’ve heard of him.  Supposed to be a crackerjack attorney they say.”

Heath couldn’t keep the pride out of his voice when he said,  “The best there is.”

“And this?”  Abraham said as he pointed to Eugene.

“That’s Eugene.  The woman in front of him is his wife Anna.”

“What’s he do?”

“He’s a professor at a college in London among other things.”

“Smart young man then I take it.”

“Mighty smart.”

“And this?”

Heath glanced down as he used a towel to wipe his face dry.  “Audra.  My little sister.”

“Pretty lady.”

“Yep.”

“She’s got a twinkle in her eye that tells me she might be a handful at times.”

Heath thought of the impulsive nineteen-year old girl who had come to his Stockton hotel room three years earlier with the intention of making a pass at him in order to test his claim that he was Tom Barkley’s son.

“Oh, she can be a handful when she sets her mind to it, there’s no doubt about that. But she’s fun, too.”

“Oh?  Are you two close?”

“We like a lotta the same things.  Horses, riding, card games, checkers–”

“So that means yes?”

“Yeah.  I reckon it does.”

Abraham pointed to the picture again.  “And this strapping fellow?”

“That’s Nick.  He runs the ranch.”

“And what do you do?”

“Me?”

“Yes.  What’s your job on the Barkley ranch?”

“I’m in charge of mine operations, timber operations, and horse breeding.”

“Sounds like a lot of responsibility.  Do you and this Nick get along well?”

Heath wanted to say, “What difference does it make to you?”  but remembering that he did owe this man something for the care and shelter he’d given him forced Heath to hold his tongue.

“Yeah.  We get along fine.”

“Good friends?”

Yeah.  Yeah…real good friends.”

Abraham’s finger pointed to Victoria last.  If Heath noticed the tremor to the old man’s hand he didn’t comment on it.

“That’s Victoria Barkley,” Heath said as if everyone should know a fine woman when they set eyes on her.  “She’s my moth…my stepmother.”

“You started to say mother.  Is that what you call her?”

“Why do you ask?”  Heath’s eyes flashed as he grabbed the picture from Abraham’s hands and laid it face down on the washstand.  “Don’t you think I have the right?”

Heath’s anger didn’t bother the doctor in the slightest.

“I think what you call Victoria Barkley is between you and she.  I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business.”

“All right then.  Yes.  I call her mother.  And that’s a tribute to the wonderful woman she is.  After all, I’m not her son; remember?  I’m her husband’s bastard.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“Why not?  It’s true.”

“Why can’t you just call yourself Tom Barkley’s son and leave it at that?”

“Because he never asked me to.”

Abraham’s gaze pinned Heath to the wall.

“Did he even know about you?  Prior to his death…he is dead, isn’t he?  I’m assuming so since he’s not in the picture.”

“Yeah, he’s dead.  Been dead nine years.”

“So did he know about you?”

Heath turned away, but not before Abraham saw him shake his head no.

“Then how can you blame a dead man for–”

Heath brushed by the man on his way out the door.

“I can blame a dead man for a lot of things, Doctor Wallace.  A lot of things you’ll never understand unless you know what it’s like to grow up dirt poor, only to find out later that your father’s the richest man in the state of California.”

“Heath…”

The doctor’s voice caused Heath to stop just as he was about to step into the parlor.

“Son, I can tell you love your family a lot.”

“How I feel about my family is none of your business.”

“Do they know where you are?”

“No.  And don’t go gettin’ any ideas because I don’t want them to.”

“Don’t you think Victoria Barkley might be worried about you?”

“I…”

When Heath didn’t say anymore Abraham knew the answer.

“You know she’s worried about you. You know she’s worried about you and you know she loves you.  I can see it in your eyes.  You do a good job of hiding your feelings, Heath, unless someone takes the time to look into your eyes.”

Heath had been told that before on many occasions, but only by one person.  Victoria.

The cowboy started out the door.

“Heath,” the doctor beckoned in a soft, conciliatory tone that made the blond man think of Jarrod.  “Are you trying to run from your past?  Or somewhere, deep inside yourself, does the little boy still live who’s searching for his father?”

Heath whipped around.  He shoved two fingers into his chest.

“I killed a hundred and thirty-five people, Doctor!  A hundred and thirty-five people that included friends and neighbors.  I’m not running from anything, and I sure as hell ain’t searchin’ for a dead man! I’m just…I’m starting over.  That’s what I’m doing is starting over.”

If Heath had stayed in the room long enough Abraham would have told him he sounded like he was trying to convince himself of that last fact.  But Heath didn’t stay in the room, or the house. Abraham heard the front screen door slam, then the front gate do the same seconds later.

With shaking hands Abraham turned the Barkley family photo over.  He stood there gazing at it a long time.  He wiped at a tear that ran a crooked path down one cheek.  He’d forgotten how it felt to cry.  He’d forgotten how it felt to hurt for one of your children.  He’d forgotten how it felt to want to protect that child from the cruelties the world so readily inflicted. Now something new was added to those feelings. Guilt.  The feeling of guilt that threatened to drown Abraham because this boy had suffered for his father’s foolish actions.

The man walked over and sat the picture on top of the dresser.  He reached out two fingers and brushed them over Heath’s smiling image.

“I’m sorry, son.  I’m so sorry.”

The doctor turned when he felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder. He looked into a pair of soft brown eyes, and in that moment realized his mentor had known the truth all along.

“I can’t tell him, can I, Tess?   I can’t tell him who I really am.”

“You know the rules.  Who we were when we walked this earth in human form can never be revealed.”

“Then what can I do?  How do I help my son?”

“You pray for guidance, Abraham.  Angel or not, you do what any man in your situation would.  You pray for guidance.”

Abraham nodded as Tess left the room. When he exited the house twenty minutes later his joints were stiff from kneeling, but he had prayed.  Oh, how he had prayed.

*****

 Chapter 27

Heath halted his hammer in mid-swing when he felt small arms encircle his waist from behind.  He set his tool on the wide ledge of a horse stall and turned around.  Randall didn’t say anything as he hugged Heath.  He simply clung to the man as though that contact could chase away the sounds of the sick and dying that had filled the church all night long.

Heath crouched to the dirt floor of the livery stable and returned the hug.  He felt Randall snuggle into his neck.  When the boy showed no signs of wanting to break the embrace Heath gently pulled him away and held him at arm’s length.

“Randall?  Are you all right?  Is your mother–”

The boy brushed a shirtsleeve over his eyes.  He didn’t want his friend to see him cry.

“I’m fine.  Ma…Ma’s real sick but she’s fine, too.  I…I’m just a little scared I guess.  Some people…some people died last night, Morgan.”

Heath didn’t bother to tell the boy his true name. As a matter of fact, he had no intention of telling anyone else in Heaven who he really was.

“It’s okay to be scared, Randall.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you it isn’t.  The only time fear is wrong is when it keeps you from doing the right thing.”

Randall wasn’t sure what his friend meant by that, but it didn’t matter.  He thought maybe this was how a father talked to a son, and it made him feel good inside.

“I’ll take care of Charger.  Then I’ll come back and help you with your work like I did yesterday.”

“You sure you don’t want to be with your ma?”

“Orra’s with her.  She promised me she’d stay with Ma until I’m done here.  We need the money, Morgan.  Especially with Ma being sick.  I can’t afford to have Mr. Thurmond fire me ‘cause I ain’t showin’ up for work.”

The boy was so young, Heath thought. So young to be shouldering so much responsibility and worry.  He looked into Randall’s face and once again saw his own.  His heart ached for the hard life he knew Randall was destined to have simply because there was no father in his home.

Heath patted the boy on the back.  “Don’t you be worrying about Mr. Thurmond.  If the time comes that your ma needs you then I want you by her side.”

“But–”

“I’ll make it right with Mr. Thurmond if I have to.  Let me take care of a few things for you, son.”

Randall couldn’t keep from smiling.  Morgan had called him son and told him he’d make things right with Mr. Thurmond.  Though he’d never met his father, Randall knew this was exactly what a man did for a boy he loved.

“Thanks, Morgan.  I really appreciate it.”

“No need to thank me.”  Heath tousled the boy’s hair.  “Now you go on.  Charger’s waiting for you in the corral.”

Heath watched the child scamper through the barn.  He called after him. “Randall?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you have breakfast?”

“Yep!  Monica told me to go by Doc Wallace’s house.  Tess fed me.”

Heath nodded his satisfaction at hearing his young helper had been provided with a morning meal.  “Good.”

The blond man didn’t quite understand the smile of pure devotion he saw on Randall’s face right before the boy turned around again and ran for the corral.

*****

The day passed in similar fashion to the one that preceded it.  Randall worked with Heath all morning, then Heath took the boy to A Little Bit Of Heaven for lunch.  When their work at the livery stable came to an end late that afternoon Heath walked Randall to the church. Heath stopped at the bottom of the steps only to have Randall tug on his hand.

“Come on, Morgan.  Come inside and say hi to my ma.”

Heath looked up at the white double doors. He had no desire to visit the inside of this makeshift infirmary again.  As a matter of fact he was happy to isolate himself at the livery stable where very little activity occurred just as Jasper had promised.

“No…no, I’ve got some other things I need to do.  You tell your ma and Orra hi for me.  I’ll–”

Before Heath could finish he felt a hand come to rest between his shoulder blades.

“Ah, just who I was looking for.  Two strong men to be of service this evening.”

Heath and Randall turned around to see Doctor Wallace behind them.

“I need buckets of cold water brought in from the well.  And then a kettle of soup needs to be carried from Tess’s cafe.  After that, you can sit with your ma, Randall, and help see to her needs.  And you, Mr. Bark–”

“The name’s Lee,” Heath said in a voice that dared the old man to challenge him.

“Yes…well uh, Mr. Lee…and you, Mr. Lee, can speak with Monica regarding what assistance you can give her.”

“I’m not planning on giving her any–.”

Heath was interrupted once again as empty buckets were placed in his hands and in Randall’s.

“Run along now, boys.  Hurry!  We need that water.”

Randall raced for the well at the far end of the churchyard.

“Come on, Morgan!  I bet I can fill my buckets faster than you can fill yours!”

Heath scowled at the doctor.

“Look, Doctor Wallace, I grateful to you for givin’ me a place to stay and food to eat until this quarantine passes.  And believe me, before I leave I’ll pay you whatever room and board you want to charge me.  But I’d appreciate it if you quit interfering in my personal life, and quit trying to manipulate me into doing things I’d rather not.”

The old man lifted an amused eyebrow.  “Take it from one who knows, Heath Barkley.  Sometimes we all need to be reminded of our ‘personal lives’ as you put it, and sometimes we all need to be manipulated into doing things we’d rather not.”

Just like a father might do to his son, Abraham patted Heath on the back while giving final instructions.

“Now go on.  Fill your buckets and bring them inside.  We need that water, and Randall needs a friend.”

It wasn’t until after Heath was halfway to the well, and Doctor Wallace had disappeared inside the church, that the cowboy wondered what it was about this annoying old man that caused him to so readily follow his orders.

*****

The last time Heath could recall a night lasting so long was when his mother died.  Though three different times he thought of fleeing the church by slipping out the side door, before he got the chance Monica was by his side pressing him into service.  Heath tried to block out the harsh coughs that sounded like the bark of a fog horn, the frantic wheezing that made Heath think of a boy he’d served with in the Army who had something called asthma, and the choking; the terrible choking that left its victim exhausted and breathless.

Heath watched throughout that endless night as people bathed their family members with cold water, or tried to get a sick child to sip some broth. He saw a man bend his brother over his knees and pound on his back, while another brother encouraged the ill sibling to cough up phlegm. At those times Heath thought of his family.  He relived his own diphtheria bout with a clarity that had previously been missing.  No longer were the fragmented images in Heath’s mind dreams brought on by fever, instead he saw Jarrod and Nick working together to try to get him to breathe.  He felt Nick hitting his back and heard Jarrod telling him to cough.

      “Go ahead, Heath, cough.  Cough it up!  No, don’t swallow it cough it up.  I’ve got a towel in my hands.  It’s right here by your mouth.  Go ahead and spit everything out, I’ll take care of the rest.”

A sister spooning broth into her brother’s mouth brought back memories of Audra crying when he was too delirious to do what she asked of him.  And the fear in a mother’s eyes as she bent over her son, only to offer him a brave smile when he looked up at her, made Heath think of all the times throughout his illness when he’d seen the same fear, and then the same smile, on Victoria’s face.

Heath never quit observing the people around him as they offered never-ending devotion to their sick family members.  In an odd way, it was like seeing what his own family went through for him when he was so ill.  For him. Heath Thomson Barkley.  Their half brother.  Victoria Barkley’s stepson.  Yet you’d never know that by the selfless care they’d given him.  By the sleepless nights they’d endured on his behalf.  By the way they’d rejoiced when he was finally on the road to recovery.  And how had he repaid them for their love?  By riding away from the ranch with no intention of ever returning.

Just when Heath was certain that decision to leave had been a hasty one, twelve month old Samuel Crawford struggled for a final breath of air, flailed his small fists, and then died in his mother’s arms.  In that moment, while Della Crawford wailed for her baby and Frank Crawford sobbed into Monica’s shoulder, all Heath could think was;

One hundred and thirty-five people.  One hundred and thirty five people are dead because of me. 

      It was three o’clock in the morning when Heath fled the church. But no matter how far he ran, he could still hear Della’s cries.

And Harland Whitcomb’s damning words as spoken in Stockton’s graveyard so many days before.

*****

 Chapter 28

Unbeknownst to Victoria Barkley, there was one other item Heath kept in the wooden box that forever connected him to those he loved.  Aside from Leah’s Bible, the toy train, Rachel’s sonnet, and Grandfather Thomson’s pocket watch, the box also contained a letter Victoria had written Heath the first time he’d had reason to be absent from the Barkley ranch for more than a few days.  He’d been living with his new family for eight months when he went to Texas on an extended horse-buying trip.  The now-cherished letter arrived while he was staying at the home of a wealthy rancher who was an old friend of Tom’s.

Heath sat on his bed in Doctor Wallace’s room, reading that letter in the pre-dawn darkness by the soft glow of the kerosene lamp.  The cowboy didn’t allow himself to contemplate why he turned to Victoria’s words for comfort.   Especially now, when he was working so hard to put his past behind him.  He simply knew he needed her near, and this was the only way to satisfy that need.

 

 

Dearest Heath,

           The ranch isn’t the same without you. I look forward to your return with much anticipation, as do your brothers and sister.  Nick says with you away he now has to do the work of three men.  In other words his own work, plus all the work you accomplished in a day’s time. Jarrod misses the quiet conversations you two so often share, and your skill at the billiard table.  He now teases Nick by telling him he’s not a decent match.  And, of course, Audra misses the evening checker games the two of you regularly engage in.  Last night she told Nick he was never to send you on a trip of this length again.  As for me, I simply miss you for all the many reasons a mother misses one of her children when that child is far from home.  Though I’m not a talented poetess by any means, I’m adding a little something to this letter that I hope conveys my feelings regarding your absence from home and hearth.

 I Said A Prayer For You Today

              I said a prayer for you today and know God must have heard.
              I felt the answer in my heart although He never spoke a word.
              I didn’t ask for wealth or fame, I knew you wouldn’t mind.
              I asked Him to send treasures of a far more lasting kind.
             I asked that He’d be near you at the start of each new day.
              To grant you health and blessings, and friends to share the way.
              I asked for happiness for you in all things great and small,
              but it was for His loving care I prayed the most of all.

    Take care of yourself, son.

All my love,

Mother    

     

Heath wasn’t sure how long he sat reading and rereading Victoria’s letter on that dark morning of little Samuel Crawford’s death.  Nor was he aware of Abraham Wallace silently observing him from the doorway.  A rooster was crowing somewhere in the distance when Heath finally stretched his weary body out on the bed.  The sleeping cowboy never stirred as Abraham gently slid the letter from his fingers.  The doctor read the letter twice before returning it to Heath’s hands.  He walked out of the room without Heath ever knowing he was there.

******

Nothing had really changed on the Barkley ranch since Heath left six weeks earlier, yet so much seemed different.  At least to Victoria and her family.

Jarrod was quiet and appeared lost in deep thought each evening.  Victoria had no doubt he was trying to decide if they should begin looking for Heath, and if so, where to start.

Nick, on the other hand, was far from quiet.  He had little control over his famous temper on most days, a fact that sent the ranch hands scurrying in every available direction when the jingle of Nick’s spurs signaled his approach.  Victoria knew Nick didn’t mean to take his foul mood out on the men.  She realized that in some ways Nick was mourning the loss of his brother, partner, and friend.  She knew Nick had a lot of mixed emotions about Heath’s departure ranging from understanding, to sorrow, to anger.  She often wondered if Nick would ever be able to reconcile all those feelings should Heath not return.

Audra was the only one in the household who still spoke openly of Heath on a regular basis. If they were having something for supper that Heath especially liked she’d comment on it.  If a foal was born she knew Heath would want to be there to see, she’d make sure to mention it at the supper table.  When the family Border collie, Lucy, lost a fight with a skunk Audra said, “Do you remember last year when Heath got between Lucy and that skunk she had cornered?  No matter how many baths he took, he stunk for two weeks straight.”

That was the night Nick brought his sister to tears. He pounded his fist on the dining room table and shouted,   “Would you stop it!  Every single day it’s ‘Heath this!’ and ‘Heath that!’  Heath isn’t here, dammit!  He’s not here so there’s no point in bringing his name up every chance you get.  It won’t bring him back, Audra!  It sure as hell won’t bring him back!”

Nick threw his napkin down and stomped for the door.  The windows were still rattling from its slam as Audra burst into tears and fled up the back stairs.

Jarrod looked from one departing sibling to another, then arched an eyebrow at his mother.  “Which one do you want me to talk to?”

“Nick.  I have a feeling he needs a brother right now.”

Jarrod stood and walked to the end of the table.  He kissed his mother on the cheek before heading to the door.

“Nick it is.  I’ll leave Audra to you.   I imagine she needs a mother right now as much as Nick needs a brother.”

As Jarrod walked away that night Victoria whispered,  “You’re wrong, son.  Audra needs a brother, too.  Unfortunately, at this particular moment, there’s not enough of you to go around.”

And that’s how Victoria’s summer progressed.  The only bright spots were the occasional letters from Eugene and Anna.  Victoria had decided not to tell Gene about Heath’s departure for the time being.  If Heath didn’t return, then of course there would come a day when Eugene and Anna had to know what had transpired.  If Heath did return…well, that was one advantage to living on the other side of the ocean.  You were spared the day-to-day family happenings that evoked everything from joy, to stress, to worry, to grief.

Victoria spent another night in restless sleep.  Her dreams had been littered with fragmented images of Heath.  For some reason, even while asleep, she felt he needed her.  She felt as though he wanted her near.  When Victoria awoke shortly after sunrise she was tired and ill at ease.  She slipped out of bed and crossed to the window that overlooked her rose garden.  She stood staring down at the blooming flowers until she heard the rest of her household begin to stir.  She turned around to retrieve clothes from her closet.  As she passed her dresser she spotted an envelope propped against the mirror.  Her name was written clearly in a compact, slanted print she hadn’t seen in nine years now. But how could that be? With a trembling hand Victoria plucked up the envelope and opened the flap.  She unfolded the letter she found inside, and with pounding heart, began to read.

 

     My Victoria,

         Rest assured Heath is safe and in good health.  Though I could not guide him in life, it is my job to guide him now.  I’m sorry, I do not know if he is meant to return to you or not.  But then, I’m not sure anyone knows that but Heath.  I do know he loves his family with all the love his soul has to hold.  I pray that thought brings you peace.  Early this morning I watched as Heath read and reread the letter you sent him while he was staying at Rex Gardner’s ranch.  Only I saw the tear that came to his eyes at your words.  I will do my best to help this precious son of mine, whom I know has grown to become your son, too.  I thank you for the love you have given him.  I, better than anyone, know what a lucky man he is for having a place in your heart.

 

Victoria didn’t have to pull out the stack of Tom’s letters she kept in her nightstand.  She knew without a doubt the handwriting on this letter would match perfectly with the handwriting on every letter Tom had sent her throughout their courtship and marriage.  And he’d never opened those letters with anything other than the greeting, ‘My Victoria.’

Victoria read the mystery letter through four times before finally tucking it in a far corner of her third dresser drawer beneath a stack of shirts.  She had no logical explanation for the letter or its arrival, but she’d lived long enough to have witnessed a few miracles in her day.  Perhaps this was another one.

The woman didn’t mention the letter to her children, though they must have noticed something different about her demeanor at the breakfast table that morning.  When the meal ended Jarrod asked her if she was all right.

“All right?”

Jarrod’s eyes flicked to his brother and sister before returning to Victoria.

“You seem…” the lawyer stopped there.  For one of the few times in his adult life Jarrod was at a loss for words.

“At peace?”  Victoria asked.

“Yes.  That’s it.  At peace.”

“I suppose I am at peace, children.”  With that the woman stood and headed for her garden.  “I have it on good authority that we can all be at peace now.”

Before any of the Barkley offspring could question their mother further, she walked out the French doors and into her garden.

*****

Chapter 29

The next two days in Heaven, Nevada brought frequent visits from the Angel Of Death.  Try as he might, Heath couldn’t ignore what was happening around him.  He reported to work at Mr. Thurmond’s livery stable each morning at eight.  By eight-thirty Randall arrived to take care of Charger and then help Heath in any way he could.  As things got worse at Jasper’s house Heath and Randall saw less and less of their boss.  On the third afternoon he stopped by to pay Heath the back wages he owed him.  The blond man immediately knew something was wrong.  Jasper’s eyes were bloodshot, and gray beard stubble tracked his face.  His ever-ready smile was missing as he reached into his wallet.

“Sorry I haven’t been around for a few days, Morgan.  I appreciate the way you’ve been keeping the place going for me.  And the work you’ve done.  You’ve got better carpentry skills than any man I’ve run across.”

“Thank you for saying so, Sir.”  Heath took the nine dollars Jasper handed him.  “If you don’t mind me asking, are things okay at home?”

Jasper broke eye contact at Heath’s question and stared off into a far corner of the stable.

“No…I…my wife…she passed on this morning.  And my grandson…Benji…he died early this afternoon.  I…I…” the man turned so Heath couldn’t see the tears running down his face.  “It’s just been a hard day.”

It took Heath a moment to find his voice.

“I understand.  And I’m sorry.  Very sorry for your losses.”

“I know you are, son.  Thank you.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No…no.  I don’t reckon there’s anything anyone can do.  Death is a part of life.  Or so the preacher tells me.  Problem is, no matter how old we get, we never seem to accept that fact.”

Heath watched as Jasper shuffled out the open double doors, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

Randall raced in from the corral at the sight of his boss.  “Mr. Thurmond!  Mr. Thurmond!”

Heath snared the boy by his arm.  “Don’t bother Mr. Thurmond now, Randall.”

“But why?”

“He…he’s going through a bad time.  He just needs to be left alone for a while.”

When Randall looked up at Heath all the cowboy saw were two huge blue eyes filled with utter trust.

“Did something happen to Mrs. Thurmond?  Did she die?”

Heath swallowed hard then crouched down so he was eye level with the boy.

“Yes, Randall, Mrs. Thurmond died.”

At Heath’s words tears flowed down Randall’s cheeks.

“She was so nice.  Always so nice to me.  If she knew…knew me and Ma were going through a rough patch, she’d always make sure we had something to eat.  Mrs. Thurmond never told us she was the one havin’ food sent over from the general store, but Ma knew it was her.”

“Mrs. Thurmond sounds like a good woman.”

“She was, Morgan.  She was a right fine woman.”

Heath allowed the boy to mourn his boss’s wife, then reached out and placed his hands on Randall’s shoulders.

“Son, I have something else to tell you that’s going to be hard for you to hear.”

“What?”

“Benji…Randall, Benji died this afternoon, too.”

Despite the deaths he’d witnessed this week Randall’s young mind couldn’t comprehend the loss of his eight year old friend.  He struggled to break free from Heath’s hold.

“No, Morgan!  No!  I…I was just playing with him the other day.  Kick-the-can.  We were playing kick-the-can.  And then we played a trick on his little sister Doris.  We told her some cow turds we found were chocolates.  She almost ate ‘em, too, and Benji laughed and laughed.  And me and Benji and Paul were supposed to go fishing this weekend and…and…and…”  Randall wasn’t able to finish his sentence as his tears turned to heaving sobs.  He threw himself into Heath’s chest and cried.

The cowboy embraced the child.  Heath had no words to offer, but simply held Randall close until his tears stopped several long minutes later.  The boy swiped a shirtsleeve across his eyes before reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a handkerchief.  He blew his nose, returned the hankie to his pocket, then looked to Heath for answers.

“Why, Morgan?  Why does God make life so hard sometimes?”

Heath picked Randall up and carried him to a hay bale.  The blond man sat down on the bale and rested his young friend sideways on his lap.

“I wish I knew the answer to that, Randall, but I don’t.  All I can tell you is I’m sorry you’re hurting so badly for Mrs. Thurmond and Benji.  I know you’re not going to believe me when I say this, but as each day goes by the hurt will lessen a little until the good memories you have of Mrs. Thurmond and Benji make you smile instead of cry.”

“Did that happen to you?  I mean did someone die that you loved, and even though at first it made you cry, now you smile when you think about them?”

“Yes, that happened to me.”

“With who?”

“My mama and my Aunt Rachel.”

“But at first, right after they died, was it hard to smile?”

“Yes.  It was very hard to smile right after they died.”

“How long did it take ‘fore you was smiling again?”

“I don’t rightly know.  With my mama, it seems like a long, long time.  I guess a person doesn’t really remember when the day comes that the pain isn’t so sharp it feels like a needle piercing your heart.  You just look back on it years later and know that’s what happened.”

Randall leaned his upper body into Heath’s chest.  He liked the feeling of strength and security he got from being held within the confines of the blond man’s arms.  It wasn’t quite the same feeling as the one he got when his mother held him. That was a softer, gentler feeling.  One that was full of love, but one that also brought out the boy’s need to protect her.   But with Morgan it was different. This time it was Randall who felt protected.

“Morgan, can I ask you another question?”

Heath looked down at the pale blond head snuggled into his shirt collar.

“I reckon so.”

“Are you gonna stay around here after the quarantine is lifted?”

“I wasn’t plannin’ on it.  Why?”

“I was just wondering.  If my ma…well if she dies…”

“Randall, don’t talk like that.”

“But Mrs. Thurmond died, and Benji died, and little Samuel Crawford died, and a lot of other people have died, so it’s possible, isn’t it?  It’s possible my ma could die, too.”

Heath took a deep breath before answering the boy.  He wanted to lie to the child.  God how he wanted to lie.  But he recalled how his family had lied to him during his illness and how angry it had made him once he discovered the truth.  It was strange, now that the shoe was on the other foot he couldn’t say he blamed them for what they did.  If nothing else, maybe he understood it a little better.  For hope was what humans cling to when the world is full of nothing but dark despair, and to take away someone’s hope is like taking away their reason for living.

“Morgan?”  Randall’s soft voice interrupted Heath’s musing.  “Ma could die, too, couldn’t she?”

Heath tightened his hold on the boy before he answered.

“Yes, Randall.  Yes. Before this is all over your ma could die, too.”

Randall didn’t start crying again like Heath fully expected him to.  Instead he lifted his face so he could look into Heath’s eyes.

“Can we pray, Morgan?  Can we ask God to spare my ma?”

Again Heath wondered how many times his own family had prayed, asking God to spare him when he was at his sickest.

“I’ll tell you what, son, I’m a bit rusty where praying’s concerned.  But while we sit here together let’s each, in our own way, ask God to watch over your ma.”

Randall nodded.  He closed his eyes, clasped his hands, and bowed his head just as Orra had taught him.  His lips moved with a silent, heart-felt plea he sent straight to heaven.

Just like he promised Randall he would, Heath prayed, too.  First he asked God to allow Josie Becker to live to raise her boy.  Then he asked God to watch over his family and to somehow let them know that he loved them and that he was safe.

Five minutes later, when Heath and Randall stood to return to work, Heath had no way of knowing that the latter part of his prayer had already been answered.

*****

By that night three more of the Crawford children were dead.  Heath could barely stand to see the empty cots as he walked into the church.  The oldest child, a girl by the name of Abigail, was still living, as was a four-year old boy named Martin.  But by looking at them Heath doubted they’d last another two days themselves.

What’s the purpose to this, Lord?  Why do you allow a man and woman to have a family, only to take that family from them in a few short years?  I don’t understand.  I wish I did, but I don’t.

      Heath was startled by the hand he felt on his shoulder.  He turned to see Abraham behind him.  As though he could read Heath’s mind, the doctor said, “It’s hard to understand, isn’t it?”

“What’s hard to understand?”

“Why God takes some and spares others.  Why little children always seem to be the first to go.”

“Yeah…yeah, it’s real hard to understand.”

“And you’re angry about that.”

Heath whipped around so he was facing the man.  “Of course I’m angry about it!”  He lowered his voice when he remembered where he was.  What was it about this old man that he seemed to know all of Heath’s thoughts and feelings as if they were his own?  It was as though they were connected in some spooky way.  Like he’d sometimes imagined he might be connected to his father because of how often he’d been told by Victoria and his siblings that he possessed so many of Tom Barkley’s traits.

“Look, Doctor Wallace, whenever we get into one of these discussions it always ends in no good so let’s just skip it for tonight.”

Abraham shot Heath a crooked grin.  “No good, huh?  And here I thought our discussions were quite productive.”

“How so?”

“Well, each time we have one I get to know you that much better.”

“And that’s productive?”

“To me it is.”

Heath shook his head at the man.  If the old codger was missing his own children that much then he should contact them.  Heath didn’t plan on being a substitute son just because he was handy.  The blond man changed the subject.

“How’s Miss Becker doing?”

Abraham looked past Heath to the cot where the feverish Josie lay.  Orra sat by her side sponging her face with cold water while Randall slept on the floor curled up in a blanket Monica had given him.

“She’s not doing good.  Not good at all.  But with this disease…well, who knows?  She may pull through just fine, but then again she may not live to see another day.  Even a doctor is hard pressed to be able to make such predictions.  I do know one thing, however.”

“What’s that?”

“If we don’t get another shipment of quinine, and get it soon, a lot more people will lose their lives than I originally thought.”

Heath closed his eyes.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  Ever since he’d come to Heaven it felt like God was forcing him to relive what he’d rather forget.

“Son?”  Abraham laid a hand on Heath’s arm.  “Heath…Morgan, are you all right?”

“Yeah.”  Heath opened his eyes.  “Yeah, I’m fine.”

The blond man tried to block out the coughs and moans that floated to his ears as he mulled over what he’d been told.

“How much quinine do you need?”

“As much as I can get.”

“Wire Stockton.”

“Pardon?”

“Stockton, California.  Send a wire to Doctor Jacob Sheridan.  I’m willing to bet he’s got a large supply left.”

“That’s all good and well, but the people in Heaven aren’t wealthy folks.  And me…I’m by far not a wealthy man either.  You don’t get rich when your patients pay you with eggs or a side of beef.  You eat good, but you don’t get rich.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do.”

“So therefore we’d have no way of paying this Doctor Sheridan for the medicine.”

“I’ll pay for it.  You just have to do me one favor.”

“What’s that?”

“You send the wire to Jake, but you don’t tell him who gave you his name.”

“All right, but what about the payment?  How do I tell him he’ll get paid?”

“Instruct him to go to the Stockton National Bank as soon as it opens on Monday morning.  The money will be waiting for him there.”

“How?”

“You let me worry about that.  Just tell him that as soon as he has the money in hand he can ship the quinine by stagecoach.  I’ll meet the coach outside of town.”

“All right.  If you say so.  But, son, wouldn’t it be easier if you just wired your family and asked them to get the money to the doctor…”

“No!  I don’t want my family involved. This is a business deal between you and me.  Just us.  Do you understand that?”

“Business deal?  I hate to tell you this, Mr. Barkley. . . or, Mr. Lee, or whatever you prefer to call yourself, but if this is how you do business then you’ll never be a wealthy man.”

“Wealth means nothing to me, Doctor.  I grew up with no more than Randall Becker has, and somehow, I survived.  When I first went out on my own I was lucky on some days to have two dollars to my name.  Yes, money has come my way since I became a member of the Barkley family, but truthfully, if it was all gone tomorrow I could go on without mourning its loss.  The money doesn’t matter in the slightest.”

Before Abraham could say anymore Heath walked away from him.  He watched as the young man knelt by Josie’s side.  Like he’d told the blond minutes earlier, each time they had a discussion he got to know Heath better and better.

And understood him more and more.

And saw in him a man any father would be proud to call son.

*The poem I Said A Prayer For You Today was not written by the author of this story, but was found in a catalog that specializes in religious items.  No author’s name was given.

*****

Chapter 30

     Heath got to the post office long before Abraham the next morning.  In the tiny town of Heaven the postmaster also served as the telegraph operator.  It came as no surprise to Heath that this person was none other than Tess.

     Through convoluted channels that traveled from east, to south, to north, to west, Heath sent a wire to the head teller in Stockton.  The young woman was the bank president’s daughter and the only female he employed.  Heath had dated Laura Doyle on a number of occasions, and though both had mutually agreed a marriage between them wasn’t in their future, they remained good friends.  Heath knew he could count on the woman to keep his confidence.  When Jake Sheridan arrived to pick up the money for the quinine she wouldn’t reveal whose account it had been withdrawn from.

     As Tess wrote down Heath’s instructions she peered at him over the Ben Franklin glasses she had perched on the end of her nose.  “If I was a betting woman I’d say you’re not wantin’ Miss Laura Doyle to know where this wire is coming from.”

     “What difference does it make?”

     “None to me.  But if you want my opinion it’s a foolish waste of your money to send it to Boston, then to St. Louis, then to Houston, then to Chicago, and finally to Stockton.  Why it’s bouncin’ around more than a ping pong ball hit by Hulk Hogan.”

     Heath had no idea what a ping pong ball was, nor who Hulk Hogan was, but he didn’t really care either.  Just another one of Tess’s odd expressions most likely.

     “Didn’t ask for your opinion.  And it’s my money, I’ll spend it any way I see fit.”

     “Mr. Morgan Lee, you are stubborn, there’s no doubt about that.  But hiding from whatever is your trying to escape will do you no good.”

     “It won’t, huh?”

     “No, it won’t.  ‘Cause no matter how far you go, baby, God will always know where you’re at.”

     Heath made no reply the woman as he picked his hat up off the counter and walked into the morning sunshine.  Nonetheless, he couldn’t stop his thoughts.

     Believe me, Tess, if I’ve learned anything since coming to Heaven, it’s that there’s no hiding from God.

    *****

    Burton Hughs and John McClafferty met behind the livery stable after the sun set.  The two men who had tried to prevent Heath from bringing Josie Becker into the church kept their voices low despite the fact that Heaven’s streets were deserted.

     “What’d you drag me all the way out here for?”  McClafferty asked.

     Burton peered into the darkness.  When he could detect no movement from anywhere close by he spoke.

     “I heard Doc Wallace and that Lee guy talkin’.  Seems Mr. Lee is gonna be meeting a stagecoach out by Miller’s Pass Tuesday afternoon.”

     “So?”

     “He’s gonna be picking up a shipment of quinine.”

     “Thank God.  Now maybe my girls will have a chance.”

     “Yeah, maybe.  But then again, maybe not.”

     “Whatta ya’ mean?”

     “You know how Doc Wallace operates; share and share alike.  Well, if you want my opinion someone needs to change that motto of his.”

     “Change it?”

     “Look, Johnny, your kids are sick, right?”

     “Right.”

     “And so are mine.  Right?”

     “Right.”

     “And so are the children of a lot of other law abiding Christian citizens of this town.  But then there’s those like that Becker woman, and them Cooper kids, and the Widow Hawkins, and them Injuns out on the reservation.  You know damn good and well Wallace is gonna insist all them no-good-for-nothin’ yahoos get some of that quinine, too.  And the next thing you know, we’ll be runnin’ low on it again and good people will have died.”

     John nodded his head at Burton’s words.  Josie Becker had been an unwed mother at sixteen and had never corrected her sin by marrying her son’s father. Stace Cooper was a bank robber who was serving time in the state penitentiary, and who had no doubt passed his thieving ways onto his eleven children.  The Widow Hawkins wasn’t really a widow at all, but rather a forty-year old single woman who earned her living by inviting men to spend the night in her bed.  And as far as the Indians went on the Paiute Reservation, Burton was correct.  Abraham Wallace was offering them medical care during this epidemic as well.  There was no way John McClafferty was going to stand by and watch his little girls die just so some blood thirsty Injun could be saved.

     “So what do we do?”  John asked his friend.

     “We let Lee pick up that quinine, but after the stagecoach leaves we arrange a little ambush.  Once we’ve got the medicine we’ll be in charge of who gets it.”  Burton smiled.  “We might even turn ourselves a bit of a profit.”

     “How so?”

     “Well, once our families are better we can sell what’s left over to those who can pay our price.  And, Johnny old pal, our price just might be kinda high.”

     “But what about Doc Wallace and the sheriff?”

     “What are ya’, some kinda chicken?    Everyone knows Doc Wallace is as mellow as a little lamb.  The old guy don’t even own a gun.  And the sheriff…come on, Johnny, don’t tell me you’re afraid of a fat old nigger woman.”

     John mulled over Burton’s words, then a slow grin spread across his freckled face.  He put an arm around his buddy’s shoulders as they walked back to the church.

     “Burton Hughs, I like your style.  I do like your style.”

*****

Chapter 31

     On Tuesday afternoon Heath hitched two horses to a wagon at Thurmond’s Livery Stable.  Jasper and Abraham laid a well-padded mattress in the wagon’s bed, then added three blankets.

     “This should make the ride less bumpy,” Abraham said.

     Heath glanced into the bed and nodded his approval as he stored a rope under the wagon’s seat.  He knew the quinine bottles would arrive in wooden crates, but how well they’d be packed he couldn’t guess.  The last thing he wanted to do was arrive back in Heaven only to find spilled medicine dotting a trail behind him.

     The blond man climbed up on the wagon’s seat.  He’d be making this trip alone.  Abraham was needed at the church and Jasper was needed by his family, as was every able-bodied man in Heaven.  That didn’t bother Heath.  He knew where he was going and besides, Jasper was a bit too talkative for his liking, and Abraham…well Abraham seemed to know his deepest thoughts and feelings without even trying.  Better to be alone than to have the old doctor bombarding him with fatherly advice as though he had that right.

     Abraham and Jasper watched until Heath disappeared around the corner at the end of Main Street.  Heath was so lost in his own thoughts that he never felt the slight dip of the wagon’s bed, nor was he aware of the boy who slithered under the blankets.

*****

     When Heath reached Miller’s Pass he parked the wagon under two trees so the horses could get some relief from the late afternoon sun.  He retrieved a canteen from beneath the wagon’s seat and allowed the horses to drink, then took a long swallow himself.  He choked and grabbed for his gun when a blond head popped up from the bed.

     “Hi, Morgan!”

     “Randall!  Randall, what the hel…heck are you doing here?”  Heath slid his gun back in the holster and walked around to the side of the wagon.  He held out one arm and lifted the red-faced boy to the ground.

     “I came to help you.”

     Before Heath would allow the child to speak further he made him drink some water, then led him over to the shade of the trees.  He sat in the sand and pulled Randall down next to him, then made him drink again.  When Heath was satisfied the boy wasn’t overheated he said, “All right.  What’s this about you comin’ to help me?”

     “I had to, Morgan.  I just had to.”

     “Why?”

     “Because my ma needs that medicine and there’s nothing else I can do for her. Nothing.  Ma’s so sick, and Orra said all I can do now is pray, but I gotta do more than pray, Morgan.  I just got to!”

     Heath nodded his understanding.  He knew how helpless the child must be feeling.  And he knew from personal experience when a person felt helpless they sometimes did desperate things in order to appease their conscience whether that was justified or not.

     “So just how do you plan on helping me?”

     “I heard Doc Wallace and Mr. Thurmond say you have to be careful so none of the bottles of medicine get broken.  I figured if I ride in the back of the wagon and hang onto the crates we’ll get every one of them bottles back to Heaven without a drop being spilled.”

     Heath couldn’t argue with the boy on that point.  As a matter of fact it was good thinking on the eight year old’s part.

     “But what about Orra?  Won’t she be wondering where you’re at?”

     “Naw. She’ll just think I’m workin’ at the livery.”

     “Then what about Mr. Thurmond?”

     “Naw.  He’ll just think I’m with my ma and Orra.”

     Heath smiled.  “So I guess that means you’ve got it all figured out, huh?”

     “Yep.  I guess that’s what it means.  But you can whip me for this later if you want to, Morgan.  After we get back to Heaven.  If you want to tan my hide you can.”

     Heath thought it was strange that Randall was actually volunteering for a whipping.  And that he seemed light hearted about the subject.

     “No.  I don’t plan on doing that.  If your ma thinks punishment is necessary for this stunt then she’ll have to dish it out once she’s well again.”

     “Okay.  But you know if you decide you need to do it in her place I understand.  ‘Cause see…” Randall leaned into Heath’s chest and played with the button on the cuff of his shirt.  “Well, it’s kinda like what a father might have to do to his son.  So it would be fine with me if you had to whip me…to teach me a lesson and all.”

     Heath placed two fingers under Randall’s chin and forced the boy to make eye contact with him.  Gently he said, “Randall, I’m not your father.”

     “I know, but–”

     Before the child could finish his sentence a stagecoach thundered over the horizon.  The subject of Randall’s paternity was forgotten as both man and boy jumped to their feet.

*****

     Heath didn’t know the stagecoach driver for which he was grateful.  And since Jarrod and Nick didn’t hop out of the stage, or come riding up behind it, he knew Laura Doyle kept his secret and hadn’t revealed to Jake who was paying for the quinine.

     Four wooden crates were transferred from the stagecoach to Jasper Thurmond’s wagon.  Heath placed the crates on the mattress and packed them together as tight as he could with the aid of the blankets.  He reached for the rope he’d thrown under the wagon’s seat.  When his hand encountered more rope than he thought possible he bent and took a look.  Instead of one rope, there were three. Heath thought a moment then shrugged his shoulders.  Maybe Jasper had added the additional ropes without Heath being aware of it.

     Better safe than sorry I guess.

     The cowboy took just one rope for the time being and went about securing the crates in place.  When he finished he lifted Randall into the bed.  The boy got on his knees and put his arms around the crates as though he was cradling a baby.

     Heath waved his thanks to the stagecoach driver then climbed onto the wagon seat.  He slapped the horses lightly with the reins.  The animals moved forward, keeping a slow and gentle pace as dictated by their driver.

     As he headed back toward Heaven Heath would turn around every few minutes to make certain Randall was doing all right.  The perpetual smile on the boy’s face told Heath all he needed to know.  The sun was starting to paint the western sky pale pink, and the oppressive heat of the day beginning to recede when they reached the halfway point.  Heath stopped the wagon to rest the horses and allow Randall to get out and stretch.  He lifted the boy to the ground and once again gave him water. When Randall had his fill Heath watered the horses, then took a drink himself.

     Heath smiled as Randall scampered for a large group of boulders far taller and wider than Heath himself with an, “I gotta pee!”  tossed over his shoulder.  The boy disappeared behind the rocks while Heath moved to the wagon’s bed.  He stored the canteen then checked his cargo.  The crates were tightly packed and the rope still secure.  The blond man nodded, satisfied that the quinine would arrive in Heaven unscathed.

     The pounding of horses hooves brought Heath’s head up.  He started to reach for his revolver, but stopped when he recognized the riders.

     Wonder what Hughs and McClafferty are doin’ out here?  Doc Wallace must have sent them to meet me and see if I need any help.  Or maybe by now someone noticed Randall was missing and they’re out lookin’ for him.  But why would these two volunteer for the job?  They’ve made it no secret that they think Randall’s nothing but the town bastard, certainly not worth their time or effort. And they’ve hated my guts since the day I carried Josie into the church. 

     Before Heath had time to further ponder the men’s arrival they were climbing off their horses.  The pair smiled as they approached the cowboy.

     “Howdy, Morgan.”

     “Hey there, Mr. Lee.”

     “Hughs,” Heath nodded.  “McClafferty.  What brings you two out this way?”

     The two men exchanged smiles as Burton spoke.

     “Well, see here, Morgan, it’s like this.”  With that the fat man drew his gun.  His partner did the same.

     Burton held his left hand out.  “Give me that there fancy revolver nice and slow like.”

     Heath’s eyes danced from one man to the other.  Neither one of them was a match for him physically, but of course their ability with their fists made little difference when they had the advantage of holding loaded weapons in their hands.

     “Come on, Lee, the revolver!   Now!”

     Heath didn’t dare look toward the rocks no more than six feet away that concealed Randall.  He prayed the boy had the good sense to stay hidden.  As Burton jutted his gun toward Heath’s belly the blond man slowly removed from his holster the revolver Jarrod had given him as a birthday gift and handed it to the pudgy man.

     “Good,” Hughs praised while sticking the gun in the waistband of his pants.  “That’s real cooperative of you.”

     “Look, fellas, if it’s cash you’re lookin’ for you’re plumb outta luck ‘cause I’m not carrying any.”

     “Now that’s just too darn bad, ‘cause a little spendin’ money woulda’ sweetened this here deal, but no, Lee, it ain’t exactly cash we’re after,” Burton said.  “Or at least not yet.  Now step away from that wagon.”

     “What?”

     “You heard me.  Step away from that wagon.”

     “But–”

     “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Mr. Good Samaritan.  You’ve gotta get this medicine back to Heaven.”

     “Then if you know that why are you trying to stop me?”

     Hughs looked at his accomplice.  “So, Johnny, ya’ think we should fill the man in.”

     “Why not?”

     “Okay.”  Hughs turned to Heath.  “See, Mr. Lee, it’s like this.  You’re a stranger to Heaven, and me and Johnny here just plain don’t cotton to ya’.  Ya’ don’t understand how things are done in our town and you think you can just ride in and change the rules.  Well, you can’t.  There’s folks who is deserving of this medicine, and there’s folks who ain’t.  And me and Johnny will be the ones who decide who is and who isn’t, not you.”

     “At what price?”

     “Huh?”

     “Price, Hughs.  I asked at what price?”

     The robbers exchanged looks that clearly spoke of their shock at Heath’s insight.

     “So that’s it?  You plan on taking whatever amount of medicine you need for your own families, then selling the rest to those who can afford to pay whatever outrageous price you set for it, while at the same time keeping it from anyone you deem unworthy of it, or from anyone who can’t afford what you’re demanding.”

     Burton smiled.  “I’ll give ya’ this, Mr. Lee, ya’ ain’t no dummy.  And hell, why should we hide our intentions from you anyway.  After all, this is a free country.  The United States of America.  And ‘cause we live in these here United States, The Declaration Of Independence says we can do what we want.”

     “I don’t recall The Declaration Of Independence stating that stealing is a legal act.”

     “A legal act, huh?  Gosh darn it, Mr. Lee, but don’t you sound like one of them there Boston lawyers.  Yes, sir, you surely do. But since you ain’t my lawyer I don’t give a flyin’ fig about your opinion one way or another.”  Burton waved his gun at Heath.  “Now git.  Git over there by them rocks and sit your butt down.”  Hughs didn’t take his eyes off Heath as he said to his partner, “Git the ropes outta your saddle bags, Johnny.”

     Heath didn’t have to be told to know he was going to be hog tied and left in the desert for whatever fates awaited him.

     “You’ll never get away with this,” Heath warned as he walked toward the rocks.  “Someone’s bound to come lookin’ for me.”

     Hughs laughed.  “Mr. Lee, you really give yourself too much credit.  You’re a stranger in Heaven, remember?  And we’re in the middle of an epidemic.  Do you honestly think anyone’s got the time to worry about your behind?  Besides, thanks to Johnny’s quick thinkin’ we got that covered.”

     “How?”

     “We’re just gonna say we rode out here to meet you, ya’ know, to be helpful like, and all we found was an abandoned wagon loaded down with medicine.  How are me and Johnny supposed to know what happened to ya’?  Maybe you decided to head on back to wherever it was ya’ came from.  Or maybe the law is lookin’ for you so ya’ hightailed it while the gettin’ was good.  Or maybe you ran across some bandits who done ya’ in and hid your body.  Me and Johnny, we got lots of ideas about what might have happened to you.  By the time we finish tellin’ the folks our theories ain’t no one gonna worry about puttin’ out the effort to look for you.”

     “It hasn’t crossed your mind that some of your fellow town’s people, like Doctor Wallace for instance, will put two and two together and realize what you and McClafferty had planned all along when you start selling the quinine?”

     “I can’t say I’m frettin’ over it if that’s what you’re askin’.  What’s that old coot gonna do about it – have that fat nigger woman sheriff-housekeeper of his arrest me?”

     Hughs broke into hysterical laughter at that thought as McClafferty trotted over with the rope.  When the portly man regained control of himself he ordered Heath to turn around and cross his wrists behind his back.  Heath felt the rough horsehair rope against his skin, and out of the corner of his eye saw John walking toward the wagon.  If he had a chance to gain his freedom it would have to be taken now.

     Randall Becker’s thoughts mirrored Heath’s as he crept up the back of a boulder.  The boy had just been rebuttoning his pants when Mr. Hughs and Mr. McClafferty arrived.   Mr. Hughs was always so mean to Randall and his mother.  He’s always said nasty things to them whenever he passed them on the street, which was why Randall chose to remain behind the rocks.  He’d let Mr. Hughs and Mr. McClafferty discuss whatever business they needed to with Morgan, then come out after they rode away.  Only they didn’t ride away, and soon Randall realized they were out to cause trouble for not only Morgan, but for everyone in Heaven.

     Randall’s palms were sweating so bad he was afraid he’d lose his grip.  As he stayed in a low crouch like a panther and climbed ever higher he sent up a silent prayer.

     Please, God, let me be brave.  Let me be brave like Morgan. 

     When the boy got to the top of the rock he was eight feet above Burton Hughs.  He saw Mr. Hughs moving to wrap a rope around Morgan’s wrists, and saw that Mr. McClafferty’s back was to them as he walked toward the wagon.

     Now’s my chance!  Please, God, please. 

     Randall let out a blood curdling war cry like he thought an Indian might do as he jumped onto Burton Hughs back.  He covered the fat man’s eyes with his hands and hung on for dear life.

     Heath dived for the gun Burton dropped as the man spun around in blind circles.  McClafferty swiveled and pointed his pistol at Heath’s head.  At that moment Heath thought his life was over.  He’d never get to Burton’s gun before a bullet seared a path through his brain.  He saw McClafferty squeeze the trigger, but heard no sound and felt no impact of hot lead.  McClafferty pulled the trigger again and again, but still nothing happened.

     Heath scrambled to his feet and rammed his right shoulder into John’s mid-section.  As Heath suspected the man was no match for him when it came to a fistfight.  Three well-placed punches had McClafferty on his knees clutching his stomach.  An upper cut to his jaw left him toppled in the sand, groaning and dazed.

     If Heath wasn’t so concerned for Randall’s safety he would have laughed at the spectacle going on behind him.  Burton Hughs flapped his arms in the air like a fat chicken, causing his and McClafferty’s horses to bolt in the direction of Heaven.  The big man cussed and hollered as he turned wild circles while trying to toss Randall from his back.

     Just as the man lost his balance Heath was at his side.  He plucked Randall from Burton’s back and set him on his feet.  Like he’d done with McClafferty, Heath quickly incapacitated the doughy Burton Hughs.

     Heath retrieved his revolver from Hughs’ waistband and pointed it at the fat man while keeping one eye on McClafferty.

     “On your feet, Hughs.  Head for the wagon and be quick about it!”

     Burton groaned as he staggered to his feet.  The world was still spinning in crazy circles as he weaved toward the wagon.

     Heath kept his attention on his captives as he said, “Randall, pick up that rope Mr. Hughs dropped, then run over to the wagon.  You’ll find more rope underneath the seat.”

     “Okay, Morgan!”

     The boy scrambled to do what Heath asked of him.  As Heath and Burton came abreast of McClafferty Heath gave him a poke in the stomach with the toe of his right boot.

     “Get up, John.”

     McClafferty rolled to his knees and cradled his stomach.  He moaned and whined, “I can’t.”

     Heath had no sympathy for these two.  “Then crawl,” he ordered.

     Randall had to bite back his laughter as he watched Mr. McClafferty crawl to the rear of the wagon.  Heath made Hughs climb in while John McClafferty collapsed face down in the sand.  The blond man took the rope from Randall while handing his gun to his young friend.

     “You keep that pointed at these two criminals while I tie ‘em up.  If they make one wrong move, shoot ‘em.”

     Randall’s mouth hung open in awe of the responsibility Heath had given him.  He straightened his shoulders and jutted his chest forward while aiming Heath’s revolver at Hughs and McClafferty.

     “Yes, sir!  I’ll do that, sir.”

     Heath hid his smile while he bound Burton’s hands and feet.  He had no concern about Randall needing to use the gun.  These two out-of-shape shopkeepers weren’t going anywhere.

     Once Heath had Hughs trussed up in the back of the wagon he turned his attention to McClafferty.  The man moaned and remained doubled over in the middle as Heath hauled him to his feet. In a minute’s time John was in the same hog-tied condition as his friend.

     Heath dragged both men forward until their bodies rested against the crates of quinine.

     “Well, gentlemen, I didn’t figure on being able to give the medicine quite this secure of a ride, but I sure do appreciate you offerin’ to help like this.”

     Hughs spouted a string of expletives at Heath while McClafferty simply groaned.  Heath laughed as he jumped off the back of the wagon.  He allowed Randall to keep his gun while they walked to the wagon’s seat.  He swung the boy up.

     “Now, Randall, you sit sideways and keep an eye on those two.  If they do anything fishy–”

     “I know.  Shoot ‘em.”

     Heath winked at the boy as he climbed up beside him.  “That’s right.  Shoot ‘em.”

     Heath used the reins to urge the impatient horses into motion.  With four crates of quinine, one eight-year old boy, and two bumbling robbers in tow, he headed for Heaven.

*****

Part 6

Chapter 32

It seemed to Heath as though every healthy man, woman, and child was gathered outside Heaven’s church when he reined the horses to a halt. Questions were shouted from all directions as one by one the citizens took notice of the trussed up Burton Hughs and John McClafferty. Randall was quickly caught up in the town’s excitement. Before Heath could stop him the tale of their adventure poured from the eight year old’s mouth. Everyone listened with rapt attention as the boy told of how he snuck onto the wagon, and how he and Morgan carefully loaded the quinine, and how when they were halfway home Mr. Hughs and Mr. McClafferty showed up and tried to take the quinine for themselves.

“And they were going to sell it,” Randall told his audience. “They were going to use it for their own families, and not give it to some others who need it like my ma just ‘cause they don’t like her, and then they were gonna sell what was left over to whoever could pay their price. But I jumped on Mr. Hughs back, and Morgan fought Mr. McClafferty. Mr. McClafferty tried to shoot Morgan, but there wasn’t no bullets in his gun.”

Tess winked at Monica as they stood with Abraham on the very fringe of the crowd. “That old ‘takin’ the bullets outta of the bad guy’s gun’ trick works every time, Angel Girl.”

“And stowing the extra rope under the wagon seat wasn’t a bad idea either,” Monica said as she and Tess focused back on Randall’s words.

“So Morgan rammed his shoulder into Mr. McClafferty and punched him over and over until Mr. McClafferty was rollin’ in the sand and cryin’ like a baby. Then Morgan fought Mr. Hughs while I hung onto Mr. Hughs’ back. By the time it was all over Morgan had both of ‘em tied up in the wagon and I rode home just like this, orking’ Morgan’s gun right at ‘em.”

With that Heath reached out and carefully slid his gun from Randall’s hands. He holstered it as animated conversation filled the air.

“Hang those two, that’s what I say!” One man shouted.

“Hanging’s too good for them!” Another man cried. “They were going to keep that medicine from our families! Medicine that Doc Wallace says Mr. Lee bought with his own money for all of us to use.”

“Tar and feather ‘em, then run ‘em out of town!” came another suggestion.

“I know one thing,” a woman declared, “no quinine should be given to the families of either one of these two scoundrels. They were going to keep it from us, so now let’s keep it from them!”

A united cry rose from the crowd as everyone shouted their agreement to the woman’s words.

Before Abraham and Tess could intervene to talk sense into the enraged mob Heath rose. He stood up on the wagon seat so his voice would carry to those surrounding him. When the crowd quieted he spoke at the volume that was normal for him, just as if he was talking to his family in the Barkley parlor.

“Though I had no intention of Doctor Wallace telling any of you I purchased the quinine, that’s a fact. I didn’t buy it to be thanked, or to be repaid, or to be called a hero. I bought it because you need it. I bought it because you have sick children, husbands, wives, parents, sisters, brothers, and friends. In order for them to have a chance at getting well quinine is a necessity. I’m a stranger to Heaven so I don’t know you folks. How you live, who you are, who your parents are, what good or bad any of you has done means nothing to me. Mr. Hughs and Mr. McClafferty thought they could regulate who received this medicine. Now you all think you can do the same thing by denying their children use of it. Well, you can’t. At least not and live with yourselves a week or two on down the road. Don’t punish innocent children for the sins of their fathers. Don’t punish Randall’s mother because she doesn’t have a husband. Don’t punish anyone simply because their ways differ from yours, or because their skin color isn’t the same as yours, or because they don’t speak the same language you do. That’s not how God wants people in a place called Heaven to conduct themselves. I reckon since I bought this medicine it’s mine. And if it’s mine it’s up to me to say how it’s gonna be used. But I’m not going to do that. I don’t need it. I’m not sick, nor do I have a sick wife or children. Like I said before, I’m just a stranger passin’ through. It’s up to you folks to decide how this quinine will be distributed. I hope, for all of your sakes, you make the right choices.”

Heath wasn’t accustomed to public speaking, and as all eyes continued to gaze upon him long after he was done talking he felt his face begin to flush. In an effort to hide the feeling of self-consciousness that threatened to overwhelm him, Heath jumped from the wagon. That act caused the crowd to shift its focus as he hoped it would. While two men untied Heath’s captives and led them to the jail, two others began to unload the quinine. Heath lifted Randall to the ground. The boy hugged Heath’s waist for a long moment, then ran into the church to check on his mother.

All Heath could think of was how good it would feel to wash up with cool water, put on a clean shirt, eat whatever meal Tess had waiting for him, and then collapse into bed. He walked away from the crowd and headed toward Doctor Wallace’s house. He stopped and turned when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“That was quite a speech you just gave,” Abraham said.

Heath shrugged. “Just said what those people needed to hear. What they do now is up to them.”

“Oh, I have a feeling they’ll do the right thing. Thanks to you that is.”

“No need to thank me,” Heath replied as he resumed his journey to the house.

Abraham fell in step beside him. When they came to the front gate the old man put a hand on it and held it closed, thus preventing Heath from going any farther.

“Heath, whether you think so or not, there is a need to thank you. As you said, you’re a stranger here. You don’t owe this town or its people anything. Yet you spent your own money, and risked your life, to get medicine to them.”

Heath started to speak but Abraham held up an age-spotted hand. He straightened the shoulders slumped with fatigue and looked the cowboy in the eyes.

“I have a strong feeling that if your father was alive he’d tell you you’re a good man, Heath Barkley. He’d tell you he’s proud of you. He’d tell you how sorry he is that you’ve been forced to bear the burden of his mistakes. But most of all, I have a feeling your father would tell you he loves you.”

Heath stared at the old man a long time. He finally lifted one shoulder in an indifferent shrug.

“Yeah, I reckon he might say all those things. But then again, he might not say any of ‘em. And since he’s dead I guess I’ll never know, will I?”

Heath removed Abraham’s hand from the gate. He walked the flower-lined path to the house and disappeared inside.

Abraham remained on the sidewalk long after darkness enveloped him. As he turned to follow his son he whispered, “I wish you could know, Heath. Oh, son, how I wish you could know.”

*****

Chapter 33

Based on his own recent experiences, Heath was well aware that quinine didn’t bring with it a guarantee that every sick person in Heaven would recover.

Within twenty-four hours of Heath’s return from Miller’s Pass a dozen people died. Heath was helping Orra and Randall tend to Josie when Martin Crawford passed away in his father’s arms, and was still present eight hours later when the only remaining Crawford child, Abigail, succumbed to the deadly diphtheria.

Heath wouldn’t allow himself to dwell on the soul-wrenching pain he knew Della and Frank must be feeling as he focused on tending to Josie with a renewed vengeance. Randall sat by his mother’s side holding her hand. The boy’s face was pale and drawn. Each time another death occurred he looked to Heath for comfort. When Abigail died Randall released his mother and crawled into Heath’s lap. Though he shed no tears, the eight year old buried his face in Heath’s chest and stayed wrapped within the comfort of the man’s arms until he finally fell into a fitful sleep.

It was four-thirty on Thursday morning when Heath had no choice but to wake Randall who was slumbering on his pallet next to Josie’s cot. Heath gave the boy’s shoulder a gentle shake.

“Randall,…Randall, wake up.”

The child opened his eyes. It took him a moment to get his bearings, but when he remembered where he was and why he hiked himself up on one elbow.

“Ma?”

“Randall,…son,…” Heath was forced to swallow the lump in his throat before he could continue, “Randall, it’s time,…it’s time for you to say goodbye to your mother.”

Tears took away some of the bright blue of Randall’s eyes. His lower lip quivered as he attempted to protest the finality of Heath’s words. “But the quinine is here. Just give her more of it, Morgan. She’ll be fine if she gets more. I know she will.”

“Randall, we talked about this after Abigail died. Remember, I told you the quinine helps reduce the fever, but it’s not a cure for the disease. There is no cure, son. You know that. I…I’m sorry. If I could change any of this for you I would. If I could do anything to save your ma I would. But, Randall, I don’t have that power and neither do you. Last night Pastor Andrew helped you ask God to do what was best for your mother. This morning God has made His decision. He wants your mother with Him, Randall. But He’s giving you time to say goodbye and to tell her you love her. God gave me that time with my mama when she died, and all these years later it’s a memory I still carry in my heart. You have to be brave now for your ma and let her know that you’ll be all right. Let her know you’ll always love her and that she’ll always be a part of you. She needs to hear that, son, before she starts her journey to God.”

Later Heath would wonder where his words came from. This was the second time in two days the normally reserved man spoke eloquently and from the depths of his soul, and in so doing influenced the actions of others. Nick would never believe it possible. Heath doubted the rest of his family would either.

Heath helped Randall climb out from beneath his blanket and get on his feet. The boy kept a tight grip on Heath’s hand as they walked together to Josie’s bed. The eight year old seemed unsure of himself as he approached his mother’s side. Heath was forced to pry Randall’s fingers from his hand, then encouraged the boy to sit on the side of the cot.

Though Della and Frank Crawford now had no reason to spend their days in the church-turned-infirmary, they had come back shortly after burying Abigail and stayed through the night to offer whatever help they could. Della moved away from Josie to allow Randall to take her place. Orra sat on the other side of her friend, humming a quiet hymn while wiping Josie’s forehead with a cold cloth.

When she sensed the presence of her child Josie’s red-rimmed eyes slowly opened. She lifted a weak hand and cupped the left side of Randall’s face.

Repeated coughing spasms made it hard for the woman to talk. With shallow, gasping breaths she told her son how strong she needed him to be, what a good, honest man she expected him to become, how she’d always be with him no matter how far away she was, and then over and over again, she told him how much she loved him.

Silent tears ran down Randall’s cheeks. When his mother was too sick to talk any more he rested his head on her collar bone. He stroked her face with his finger tips while he said his good-byes.

“I promise I’ll be the man you want me to, Ma. I’ll never forget you. Not ever. Morgan told me,…he told me you’ll always be a part of me and I know that’s true. No matter where I go, I’ll be thinking of you. I’ll always do the kinds of things that I know would make you proud of me. I love you so much, Mama. I love you so much.”

Tears prevented Randall from saying anything else. Josie’s glazed eyes traveled to those around her. She smiled at her friend Orra, the old black woman who had been a mother to her and a grandmother to her son. She then looked to those who had helped her in recent days without passing judgment; Monica, Pastor Andrew, Doctor Wallace, Della and Frank Crawford. Her gaze finally stopped on the man she knew as Morgan Lee.

“Please, Mr. Lee,” Josie whispered, “please take care of Randall for me. You’re his friend. Please,…please see to it that he has a good future. A family. I,…I know it’s a lot to ask,…and this is going to sound strange, but right now,…at this very moment,…God is telling me you’re the man for the job.”

Heath didn’t think twice before making his reply. “I’ll take care of him. I promise.”

The smile that formed on Josie’s pale face at Heath’s words could only be described as one of utter peace and contentment. She said no more. She turned her head so she and Randall were face to face. She kissed her son’s brow and told him one last time that she loved him. She lapsed into unconsciousness the moment the words left her lips. For the next fifteen minutes the only sounds Josie Becker made were those of desperate gasps for air. When she died Randall was still resting his head between the hollow of her neck and shoulder, while Orra held her hand. Randall appeared to accept his mother’s death with an inner calm far beyond his years until he was gently lifted from her body by Pastor Andrew and given to Heath. The boy wrapped his arms around Heath’s neck and his legs around Heath’s waist. He buried his face in the cowboy’s shirt collar and gave into his grief with heavy sobs he couldn’t control or abate.

Heath didn’t say anything as he carried Randall out of the building and into the dampness of the early morning dawn. He walked back and forth in the church yard with the crying boy while rubbing one hand up and down Randall’s back. He said no more than, “I know, son, I know” in reply to all the grief-stricken thoughts Randall voiced.

“I miss her so much, Morgan.”

“I’m all alone now, Morgan. I ain’t got no one.”

“I loved her, Morgan. I loved her more than I ever loved anyone in my whole life.”

“I don’t want her to be dead, Morgan. I wish I would have made her better.”

And Heath did know, because these were the same things he’d felt when his own mother died. He then thought of how that tragedy paved a path to a new life and family. Could his mother, while on her death bed, instinctively have known that by directing him to the newspaper article about Tom Barkley he would begin a sorrow-driven anger-filled quest that would ultimately end with joy? Could she have somehow known he’d come to be embraced by his father’s family in every sense of the word, and with their love and acceptance blossom to the man he was today? Could Leah Thomson have known those things the same way Josie Becker claimed to know that Heath was the man to find Randall a family? Could God have spoken to Leah? Is that why she revealed to Heath who his father was just moments before she passed away?

Heath pondered these things as he walked with Randall until long after the sun came up. When he could tell the boy had fallen asleep on his shoulder Heath carried him to Doctor Wallace’s house. Heath laid Randall on the bed he used without waking him, then crossed to the dresser. Why he’d never returned the Barkley family photo to his saddle bags Heath didn’t know. This was where Doctor Wallace had set it the morning Heath stormed from the house, and this was where it had remained.

Heath stood studying each face in the photograph as though committing them to memory. He turned when Tess entered the room and poured fresh water into the bowl on the washstand. In deference to the sleeping Randall she kept her voice low as she spoke.

“You clean up now, Mr. Morgan Lee. Breakfast is ready.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Heath replied as he walked to the washstand.

Tess pointed to the picture. “That’s a fine looking family you got there. Mighty fine. I imagine they’re beside themselves with worry, wonderin’ where you’re at and all.”

Heath did nothing more than shrug one shoulder as he began to wash his hands and face.

“I wouldn’t be shruggin’ my shoulders like that if I was you, Mr. Morgan Lee, as though you ain’t got a care in the world. Tess knows better, she does. You don’t look like the kinda man who takes a loving family for granted. As a matter of fact your eyes have told me orking’ but a sorrowful story since the day you came here. Only I can’t help you work through your heartache, baby, ‘cause I ain’t your mama. Or your sister. Or one of your brothers. But those people,…well old Tess has a feeling those people can.” The woman’s eyes shifted to Randall. She studied the dried tears she saw on his face. “Here you are, runnin’ away from the exact same thing little Randall wants most in this world. People to call his own. A place to call home. A woman,…a woman who might not be his mother by birth, but who he can grow to love and respect in the same way he loved and respected Josie.”

Tess watched as Heath began trimming his beard. He refused to meet her eyes, just like he refused to reply to her words. She finally shook her head and turned for the kitchen.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re a stubborn man, Mr. Morgan Lee. You refuse to see what’s yours for the taking, while at the same time hurting so much inside because you no longer have it.”

Tess’s words echoed in Heath’s head long after she left the room. Before he joined her at the breakfast table he removed the picture from the dresser and put it back where it belonged, deep inside his saddle bags.

*****

Chapter 34

Josette Nadine Becker was laid to rest in Heaven’s cemetery at eleven o’clock on Friday morning. Aside from Heath and Randall, those in attendance included Monica, Tess, Doctor Wallace, Frank and Della Crawford, Orra, and Jasper Thurmond. Pastor Andrew preached the service that didn’t dwell on death, but rather spoke of everlasting life and the joyous home Josie now had with God. Though Heath wasn’t exactly certain what opinions he held regarding life after death, he was grateful to the minister for his positive words. If nothing else an eight year old boy could walk away from his mother’s grave with the hope of one day being reunited with her.

Upon saying his final good-byes to Josie, Randall walked hand in hand with Heath out of the graveyard. Heath stopped their progress when he was hailed from behind. Frank and Della hurried to catch up to him.

“Mr. Lee, my wife and I would like to take you and Randall to lunch.”

Heath looked at the pair with clear puzzlement on his face.

“We’d like to speak with both of you if we may,” Della said. She paused, then added, “About Randall’s future.”

Heath felt the grip Randall had on his hand tighten. He smiled down at the boy in an attempt to assure him no decisions would be made Randall himself didn’t approve of.

“That’s all right with me if it’s all right with Randall.”

Randall looked from one adult to the other. He hadn’t known the Crawfords prior to the epidemic hitting. They rented a small ranch at the far outskirts of town. Their children hadn’t attended Heaven’s school house, but rather the Cross Junction school which was nearer to their home.

The boy thought a long time before finally nodding his consent. Despite their own worries, Mr. and Mrs. Crawford had been kind to Randall from the day Morgan had carried his mother into the church. Mrs. Crawford was always asking him if he’d eaten, and if he’d gotten enough sleep, and once, when he’d woken up in the middle of the night scared from a bad dream, Mr. Crawford had lifted him from his pallet and rocked him back and forth in his lap until the memories of the bad dream faded. Randall wasn’t sure what the Crawfords were going to say, but he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to hear them out.

Frank and Della led the way to A Little Bit Of Heaven. Heath shook his head in amazement when he saw Tess working behind the counter. Just minutes before she’d been at Josie’s funeral. How the woman could have changed clothes so quickly and gotten the cafe open was beyond him.

No other patrons were in the restaurant as Frank led the entourage to a table that sat four. As usual for Heath and Randall when they visited A Little Bit Of Heaven, they didn’t receive menus, though Heath noticed Frank and Della did.

By now; however, Heath knew better than to argue this point with Tess. She wasted no time in taking the Crawfords’ orders, then scribbled something down she intended to be for her remaining two guests.

Frank and Della attempted to make small talk until the food arrived. The conversation was painfully one-sided as the normally exuberant Randall suddenly turned shy. As for Heath, well he never had excelled at small talk so their efforts were lost on him, too. He supposed they were wondering what had happened to the man who could influence the thinking of an entire town with a few well-spoken words.

Fortunately the Crawfords didn’t have to wonder for long. The hot food Tess brought caused everyone to relax and focus on their lunch. It wasn’t until dessert was served that Frank Crawford brought up the reason for this invitation. He waited until everyone had taken a bite of blueberry pie, then began.

“Mr. Lee, my wife and I heard what Miss Becker asked of you yesterday morning in regards to finding a home for Randall.”

Heath eyed the couple, then nodded his head.

“Well, we’d like to be the people who provide him with that home.”

“I see.”

Della glanced at her husband, then took over the conversation. “We won’t lie to you or Randall and say this decision isn’t partly based on the fact that we’ve so recently lost,…lost our own children. We,…ever since the day we married all Frank and I really wanted was a family. A house filled with little ones. For a time,…well for a time we had that.”

“Don’t you think it’s a bit soon to be deciding to take another child into your home?” Heath asked. “I don’t mean to sound cruel, but Randall won’t be a replacement for the children you lost. Randall can be no one other than who he is. If your invitation is based on nothing more than trying to mold him into being Samuel, or Martin, or Clarence, or Warren, then I’ll have to say no. That’s not fair to either one of you, or to the memories of your deceased children. But most of all it’s not fair to Randall.”

“Oh, no. No,” Della assured with tears in her eyes, “that’s not our intention at all. In the past week we’ve come to know and love Randall for the boy he is. We love him for the sweet, good-hearted child he is, and for how hard he worked to make a life for himself and his mother. For the devotion he showed towards her and those he loved. Randall,…” Della smiled at the boy before turning her attention back to Heath. “Randall has no parents now, just like Frank and I have no children. We just thought,…well perhaps you’re correct, Mr. Lee, and we have been somewhat impulsive, but we thought this would be a fitting arrangement,…a happy arrangement, for all concerned.”

When Heath made no comment Frank spoke.

“We’re going back to Illinois as soon as we can pack up our home.”

“Illinois?” Heath questioned.

“Where Della and I are from. A small town in the north central part of the state called Dixon. It’s a beautiful little place. Absolutely beautiful. Right in the heart of farming country and built on the Rock River. Our families still live there. If Randall agrees to join us he’ll have more aunts, uncles and cousins than he’ll be able to keep track of.”

“That’s all good and well, but what about the boy’s future?” Heath asked.

“After my father received my wire about our children’s,…passings, he wired back begging me and Della to return home. He owns the hardware store in Dixon, but he’s reaching an age where running the business is too much for him on his own. I have six sisters, but no brothers. It was always my father’s dream that I’d take over the business when the time came. Unfortunately for him it was my dream to come west and try my hand at ranching. But Della and I have talked it over. After what’s happened here in Heaven,…well you’ll understand when I say we need a fresh start. The store has a nice-sized house attached to the back of it that’s been empty for years. My parents are going to give it a good cleaning and some fresh paint so it’ll be ready for me and Della to move into the day we arrive. And ready for Randall, too, if he’d like to come with us that is. He’ll have his own bedroom and attend school with his cousins. Once we’re settled we’ll start adoption procedures so that legally Randall will be ours and we’ll be his.”

Randall looked from the Crawfords to Heath. Heath could tell the boy was far from ready to make a decision. Not that Heath could blame him. He was far from ready to make a decision either.

Della and Frank seemed to sense there was nothing more they could say one way or another that would influence the final outcome of their proposal. The remainder of their dessert was eaten in silence. Frank insisted on paying for everyone’s food when the meal drew to a close. The Crawfords walked outside with Heath and Randall.

“Della and I will be staying here in town until the quarantine’s lifted. We’ll be over at the church, helping out in any way we can.” Frank looked down at Randall and smiled. “We’d feel blessed if you’d join us on our trip to Illinois, Randall. We’d feel blessed if you decide to become a member of our family. But if you don’t both Della and I understand. There will be no hard feelings, but rather we’ll wish you the best of luck in whatever it is you choose to do.”

Randall’s, “Thank you, Sir,” was spoken so softly the adults had to strain to hear it.

Della reached out and ran a hand down the boy’s cheek. “Your mother did a wonderful job of raising you for the first eight years of your life. Now I’d like to finish that job if you’d let me. But as Frank said, if you make another choice that you think will be better for yourself I’ll rejoice in your decision, for only you know what’s in your heart.”

Randall and Heath watched the Crawfords walk to the church. Randall didn’t say anything when he turned and headed for Mr. Thurmond’s livery. Heath followed him, not at all surprised that this was where the boy would choose to go to do his thinking.

The eight year old didn’t stop until he came to the corral that held Charger. He climbed up on the fence and sat down on the top rail. Heath followed suit. They both petted Charger when he came over to nuzzle Heath’s neck. When the horse grew weary of their undivided attention, and complete silence, he wandered away as if to say, “If the two of you can’t carry on a decent conversation I’ll go look for amusement elsewhere.”

Ten more minutes passed before Randall let out a heavy sigh. He squinted into the afternoon sun and stared across the corral at Charger.

“I’m not sure what I should do, Morgan.”

“No, I don’t reckon you are. Decisions that involve a lot of uncertainty, like the one you’re faced with, are never easy to make.”

“I don’t know any other place but Heaven. This is my home.”

“That’s true. But in time, home can become a place that right now seems distant and scary.”

“I suppose. Ever since Ma died I’ve been thinking a lot about who I might live with.”

“And?”

“Well, there’s really only a few people in Heaven who have ever been nice to me and might be willing to take me in.”

“Who would that be?”

“Orra for one. ‘Ceptin’ she’s old and has a hard time makin’ ends meet just for herself. She works for Mrs. Michelson, the dressmaker, but she doesn’t earn a lot of money. I guess she and I could get along okay together just like me and my ma did, but,…”

Randall let his sentence end there, nonetheless Heath could guess at his unspoken thoughts. It was quite likely Orra wouldn’t live long enough to raise him to adulthood and then where would that leave him?

“Mr. Thurmond,…he might take me in. Especially if I work for my keep. But he’s been busy orking’ to raise his grandkids ever since his son-in-law died so maybe he won’t want another mouth to feed.”

Heath had already mulled over the possibility of Randall staying with Jasper Thurmond. The boy made a point Heath hadn’t thought of, that Jasper had his hands full playing the part of father to his daughter’s children. The one thing Heath had thought of was that like Orra, Jasper was pushing seventy years old. If he passed away before Randall was grown then what would happen to the boy?

The pair sat in silence for a long time before Randall voiced another idea. “I,…there was one other person I was thinking of who might take me in.”

Heath looked down at the boy. “Who?”

“You, Morgan. Maybe I could live with you, huh?”

Heath saw the hope in the child’s eyes. A hope he didn’t want to dash because he’d had the exact same thought himself. If he was returning to the Barkley ranch the decision to take Randall with him would be an easy one. He knew his family would welcome the child with open arms. Victoria and Audra would provide the maternal influences Randall needed, Jarrod and Nick would grow to become cherished uncles, while Heath himself took on the role of father. Yes, if he was returning to the ranch it would be so simple and straight forward. But he wasn’t returning to the ranch, at least not to the Barkley ranch. Instead he would be leaving Heaven to look for a job. Heath had worked as a wrangler for too many years not to have seen what happens to children of single fathers who are forced to move every six months when the work runs low and the head of the household is once again unemployed. He had also seen first-hand the negative effects of a single father working fourteen hours a day while his children were left alone in a rented house in town. Invariably the children got into trouble because the home was without adult supervision and the guiding hand of a mother. That was no life for Randall. His life had already been hard enough. He deserved a family and a place to call home.

Heath put an arm around Randall and pulled him close.

“Randall, there’s nothing I’d like more than to bring you with me when I leave Heaven. But the fact of the matter is, I’m not a married man. I can’t provide you with the kind of love and guidance Frank and Della can simply because with them, you’ll have both a father and a mother.”

“But Ma raised me by herself and she did okay.”

“You’re right, son, she did. She did a fine job of raising you by herself. But it wasn’t an easy job, was it?”

Randall thought of how many times he’d heard his mother crying because they didn’t have enough money to buy food, or because Randall needed new shoes and she couldn’t afford the expense, or because someone had called her or her son a nasty name.

“No. No, I guess it wasn’t easy.”

“That’s because raising a child is hard work. It takes the combined efforts of two parents. Of course, not all of us are lucky enough to have a father in our lives, and that doesn’t make us bad people. But it does mean that the job left to our mothers is that much more difficult.”

Randall looked up at Heath. “You mean you were like me when you were a boy, Morgan? You didn’t have a pa?”

“No, Randall, I didn’t have a pa. Or at least not in the sense that I ever got to meet the man.”

“So after your ma died you had no one, just like I got no one?”

“That’s right. Or so I thought anyway. But like you, after my mama died I did get a chance at having a new family. A chance I took.”

“Did someone adopt you, like Mr. and Mrs. Crawford want to adopt me?”

Heath smiled. He supposed that in many ways, someone had adopted him. Certainly he’d felt that way the day his legal name change had gone through and he was henceforth known as Heath Morgan Thomson Barkley.

“Yes, someone adopted me.”

“And were you happy living with your new family?”

“Very happy.”

“Then why’d you leave?”

“Because it,…it was time for me to move on. But keep in mind I was considerably older than eight when I made that decision. I was a grown man. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a wonderful family, or that I don’t love them very much. They were good to me, Randall. Real good. I wouldn’t trade them, or the times I had with them, for all the money in the world.”

“So you think I should live with Mr. and Mrs. Crawford? Let them adopt me and become their boy?”

“That’s your decision, son. I can’t make it for you. All I’m saying is that sometimes we gotta take a chance in order for our lives to get better.”

Randall gave his head a slow nod. “I’d like to think about it for a while. I have to talk to Orra first, then,…well after that maybe I’ll know what to do.”

“I understand. And I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Crawford will, too. Besides, until the quarantine is lifted no one’s leaving Heaven.”

Randall jumped off the fence and went over to Charger. As he petted the horse’s nose he looked at Heath.

“Morgan, can I tell you something even if you’re not gonna like what I have to say?”

“I reckon.”

“If you have such a good family, and you love them so much, and they love you, then I think when you can leave Heaven you should go back to them. It don’t seem right somehow, a person not being with his family. I’d give anything to be with my ma again, and here you just up and walked away from the folks that was yours.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that.”

“Orra says life is only as complicated as we make it.”

Heath sighed. He knew from his experiences with Hannah there was no use arguing with the logic of an old black woman who could quote scriptures from sun up to sun set.

The cowboy climbed off the fence and headed for the stable. “I’ve got work to do. I still don’t have all those stalls rebuilt for Mr. Thurmond.”

Within minutes Randall joined Heath. They passed the afternoon in silence, each lost in their own thoughts about what the future held.

*****

Chapter 35

Four days later the epidemic had run its course and Doctor Wallace lifted the quarantine. By that time Randall had made his decision. He’d spent a good portion of each day with Della and Frank Crawford. As he got to know them better he became increasingly comfortable with the thought of leaving Heaven for a place called Dixon, Illinois. He spoke with Orra at length about the choices he faced. As much as the old woman loved Randall and wanted to keep him with her, like Heath she realized her age would quite likely prevent her from raising the boy to manhood. Besides, a child needed both a mother and a father. The Bible said it was so, therefore in Orra’s mind the decision was an easy one.

It took Frank and Della two days to pack their belongings in a covered wagon. The man they rented their ranch from was buying their livestock. Other than a few mementos the couple wanted as reminders of Abigail, Clarence, Warren, Martin, Penelope, and Samuel, they packed their children’s toys and clothes into crates and asked Doctor Wallace to give the items to the boys and girls on the Indian reservation.

Heath helped Randall pack his own belongings for the trip. The boy didn’t have much, just a few sets of pants and shirts, socks, and underclothes. Heath had a feeling Della Crawford would quickly remedy that meager situation. Like the Crawfords were doing, Orra was going to donate Josie’s clothes and kitchen utensils to the Indian reservation. Randall’s keepsakes of Josette Becker were limited to a cameo broach, a picture of his mother and himself that had been taken when Randall was five, and a book of fairy tales he recalled Josie reading to him each evening when he was a small boy. As Heath helped the boy pack Randall hung his head to hide his tears.

“I wish I had more things of my ma’s to take with me, Morgan. But we were poor. This is all we had besides our clothes and pots and pans.”

Heath sat down on the bed in Randall’s tiny room and lifted the boy to his lap.

“There’s no shame in being poor, Randall. You and your ma lived an honorable life. That’s all anyone can ask of themselves no matter how much or how little money they have. I don’t have any more than you do in terms of keepsakes that belonged to my mama. But what I do have is her memory. And I know that much of who I am today is because of her and what I learned at her knee. That’s something that can’t ever get lost, or stolen, or be taken away from me. Just like your memories of your ma can’t ever be taken from you. And some day, when you have children of your own, you’ll tell them about your ma, and let them hold her broach, and read them stories from the same book she used to read to you, and show them this picture of the two of you together. It’s through these things that they’ll come to know their grandmother.”

Randall wiped his tears with the sleeve of his shirt. “If I ever have a daughter I’m gonna name her Josette.”

Heath nodded his understanding. “And if I ever have a daughter I’m gonna name her Leah.”

“Was that your ma’s name?”

“Yes, it was.”

“It’s pretty. Just as pretty as Josette.”

“I reckon you’re right about that.” Heath lifted the boy to the floor. “Now come on, let’s finish up here so you’re ready when Frank and Della come to get you.”

By the time the covered wagon stopped in front of Josie Becker’s home a small crowd had gathered to say goodbye to Randall. Mr. Thurmond was there with his daughter and her children. Though Mrs. Thurmond and Benji had been taken by the deadly diphtheria, Jasper knew how fortunate he was that Eunice and her eight remaining children had been spared. Paul, Jasper’s ten year old grandson, and Randall tried hard to act like men as they said goodbye. With lots of promises to write they parted with a firm handshake.

A handshake wouldn’t do for Jasper. He hugged Randall and told the boy he’d never find another stable hand as skilled or as dedicated.

Tess, Monica, Doctor Wallace, and Pastor Andrew took their turns at saying goodbye to Randall next. When the boy stepped into Orra’s arms it’s all the old woman could do not to snatch him up and run away with him. She kept her tears in check while bending to hug him.

“You be a good boy for Mr. and Mrs. Crawford now, you hear? You write to Orra every chance you get. Mrs. Michelson said she’d read your letters to me and write you back the words I say. You make your ma proud, Randall.”

“I will, Orra,” Randall promised through his tears. He hugged the frail old lady as tight as he dared. “I’ll never forget you. I’ll tell my children all about you.”

Orra laughed. “Let’s hope that day be some ways in the future. But you do that, honey. You tell your childrens about Orra when the time comes.” The black woman broke their embrace. She cupped Randall’s face in her hands and looked into his tear-filled eyes. “May the Lord bless you and keep you all the days of your life, Randall Owen Becker.”

The last goodbye was the hardest. Without a moment’s hesitation Randall launched himself at Heath. The cowboy picked the child up, and just like Randall had done the day his mother died, he wrapped his arms and legs around his friend as though he couldn’t bear for them to be separated. In a quiet voice Randall said through his tears, “I’m scared, Morgan. I wanna go with you.”

Heath walked far enough away from everyone so they couldn’t overhear his conversation with the boy. “I know you’re scared, but remember what I said a few days back. Decisions that involve uncertainty are scary, but that’s normal. You’ve gotta be willing to take a chance on something good.”

“Like you were when you joined your new family and they adopted you?”

“Yes. Just like I was.”

“And were you scared?”

“Very scared. But it turned out I had no reason to be. And somehow, I gotta feeling you don’t have a reason to be scared either. I think Frank and Della are gonna be a good parents to you, Randall, and you a good son to them. I truly believe you’ll be happy once you get settled in your new home. Frank gave me the address you’ll be livin’ at in Dixon. As soon as I’ve got a job and an address of my own I’ll write to you. If you ever need me, no matter what the reason, you’ll be able to get in contact with me and I’ll come to you.”

Randall lifted his head from Heath’s shoulder so he could look him in the eye. “Really? You’ll travel all the way to Illinois for me if I ask you to?”

“Yes. I’ll travel all the way to Illinois if you ask me to. But I want you to make me a promise.”

“What’s that?”

“You give yourself a chance to adjust to your new life. Speaking from experience I can tell you it won’t always be easy at first. You’ll have to get used to new traditions, new customs, new rules, and you’ll forever be forgettin’ some cousin’s name.”

Randall giggled at that remark.

“But it’s worth the effort, son. It’s worth every ounce of effort you can give if the trade-off is living with folks who love you and care about you as if you were their own.”

“Like you do, Morgan? Or at least like you did before you left your family?”

“Yeah. Yeah,….just like I did.”

Randall gave Heath one final, long hug. He hid his face in Heath’s neck as he whispered, “I love you, Morgan.”

Heath held the boy close. “I love you, too, Randall.” Heath loosened Randall’s grip and stood him on his feet. Hand in hand they walked to the covered wagon.

One last round of good-byes was said. Frank Crawford shook Heath’s hand. “We’ll take good care of Randall, Mr. Lee. Della and I already think of him as our son.”

“I can see that. Just be patient with him and keep in mind what’s old habit to you is new to him.”

“You sound like the voice of experience.”

Heath smiled, but said no more than, “I am.”

Della stepped forward to give Heath a hug. “Thank you, Mr. Lee. For everything. I won’t let you down in regards to your promise to Josie.”

“Be a good mother to him,” Heath said softly, while thinking of Victoria Barkley and all she’d come to mean to him. “All I ask is that you love Randall as if he were your own child.”

“I will. I promise.”

Frank helped Della climb on the wagon’s seat, then swung Randall up next to her. Frank joined his family and picked up the horses’ reins. Good-byes were called back and forth as the wagon headed down Heaven’s main street. Randall scrambled behind Della to peer around the wagon’s cover. He continued to wave until Frank turned east and the wagon could no longer be seen as it headed out of Heaven toward Illinois.

An odd feeling of tranquility washed over Heath as he stood amongst these people who had loved Randall, and were now shedding silent tears over his departure. For some reason he knew he was making the right decision by sending the boy with the Crawfords. Heath had no doubt now that God had spoken to his mother on her deathbed and through Leah, had pointed him in the direction of the Barkley ranch. He had no doubt, either, that God had spoken to Josie Becker when He told her Heath was the right man for the job of finding Randall a home.

If Randall grew to be half as content and happy with his new family as Heath was when he lived with the Barkleys, then the boy was bound to have the good life he so richly deserved.

Now it was time for those gathered around to say goodbye to Heath. Charger was saddled and tied to a hitching post. Everything belonging to Heath that had been in Doctor Wallace’s house was packed in the cowboy’s saddle bags. His canteens were full of fresh water and Tess had made him enough food to last for a week.

Jasper shook Heath’s hand and thanked him for his hard work.

“Sure you don’t wanna consider stayin’ in Heaven and working at the livery for me? With Randall gone I can sure use the help. Especially come Saturday nights.”

“Thanks for the offer, Mr. Thurmond, but no. It’s time I move on.”

Orra gave Heath a hug and thanked him for his kindness to both Josie and Randall. As she’d done with the boy, she took Heath’s face between her wrinkled hands and said, “May the Lord bless you and keep you all the days of your life, Mr. Lee.”

Pastor Andrew said his good-byes, then Monica stepped up to hug her patient.

“I don’t know where it is you’re going, Mr. Lee, but I hope you find what you’re looking for when you get there.” She tugged on the sleeve of his brown shirt. “And that color looks quite dapper on you if I do say so myself. Especially with that fine tan vest you’re wearing.”

Heath didn’t have time to blush before Tess was standing in front of him with her hands firmly planted on her hips.

“Mr. Morgan Lee, if you want Tess’s advice you won’t be goin’ nowhere but right back to wherever it was you came from. But you never were one for takin’ my advice so I’ll just keep my big old mouth shut and say goodbye. You take care of yourself, Mr. Morgan Lee. And the next time you pass through Heaven you stop and have a piece of Tess’s apple pie.”

“I’ll do that, Tess. Thank you.”

When Tess moved aside to make room for the doctor Heath reached into his wallet. He retrieved twenty-five dollars and held it out to the man.

“What’s this for?”

“Room and board, plus the new clothes and medical care. I appreciate all you did for me.”

Abraham refused the cash. “Put that away. You don’t owe me anything though I thank you for the offer.”

“No, I want you to have it. I don’t take charity, Doctor Wallace.”

Abraham thought a moment, then said, “I’ll tell you what, let’s call it even.

You purchased the quinine, and in trade I gave you a place to stay, food to eat, and clean clothes to wear.”

By now Heath had come to realize Abraham Wallace had a stubborn streak as strong as his own. He knew there was no point in arguing with the man, and with a nod of his head acknowledged his agreement to Abraham’s proposal.

Heath was shocked when the doctor grabbed him and pulled him to his chest. For a small man the old guy possessed a powerful hug. Abraham held onto Heath until the cowboy had no choice but to hug him back. Right before the doctor released him Heath heard the man whisper, “Your father would be so proud of you, Heath Barkley, and don’t you ever think any different.”

Abraham turned away from Heath when their hug came to an end. Heath shook his head at what he deemed to be the sentimental ways of an old man who was missing his long-grown and far-scattered children.

Heath settled his cowboy hat more firmly on his long curls then swung up to Charger’s back. He paid no attention to the fact that Abraham never turned to join with the others in waving goodbye to him.

Heath urged Charger to follow the same path the Crawfords had taken minutes before. Rather than turn east, however, he kept heading north with Idaho Territory in mind.

When Heath was too far away to clearly see Abraham’s face, the doctor turned around. He wiped at the tears streaming down his cheeks. He watched his son ride out of Heaven, surprised to discover once again that angels cry.

*****

Chapter 36

Heath made camp that night twelve miles outside of Heaven. He woke with the sun. He built up the fire, started the coffee, then saw to Charger’s needs. As he bent to grab the handle of the coffee pot he heard something rattle in his vest pocket. He sat his cup down on a nearby boulder and fished into the small pocket with his fingers. Heath’s brow knit in puzzlement as he pulled into view two gold cufflinks and a folded piece of paper. His confusion grew when he realized the links formed the shape of the capital letter B, and had a slash running through them that mirrored the Barkley brand.

Heath turned the cufflinks over and over in his palm. These were no cheap pieces of jewelry. By their weight alone he knew they were solid gold and had to have been custom made.

Heath unfolded the paper next, assuming this was the only way he would find an answer to the origin behind the items he held. The answer was there, but what it revealed left the man in stunned shock.

 

My Precious Son;

I do not know how to say this other than by arriving right at the point. The man you knew in Heaven as Abraham Wallace was your father, Thomas Barkley.

I am that man. Or at least I was when I walked this earth in human form. There are many things I cannot explain, and are only for you to understand when the day comes your life reaches its natural end and you join me in God’s house. Suffice it to say angels must earn their keep, too, and when I was sent to Heaven, Nevada I did not know my mission would bring me face to face with the son I had never met. Once that event occurred, I naively assumed my job was to help you face all you were running away from, and to direct you back to your brothers, sister, and the wonderful woman you so lovingly think of as Mother. Instead; however, I found I really didn’t have a job at all, other than that of getting to know my boy Heath. It’s a mission I will forever be grateful to God for.

I told you that if your father was given the opportunity, he’d have some important things to say to you. Though the opportunity is only allowed in the form of this letter, I want you to know the sentiments come directly from my heart.

You’re a good man, Heath Barkley.

I’m so very proud of you.

I wish words could convey how sorry I am that, since childhood, you’ve been forced to bear the burden of my transgressions. If I could change that in any way believe me, Heath, I would.

I love you.

Until we meet again, take care of yourself. Allow yourself the pleasure of the long, happy life you so justly deserve. If I have the right to ask anything of you, it’s that you return to the ranch where you are needed, wanted, and loved. Let your family help you through all the pain you hide deep within your soul. There is no other way, son. There never will be.

Like all my children, Heath, you will forever be in my heart and on my mind.

Love,

Your Father, Thomas Barkley

Heath never recalled breaking camp as fast as he did that morning. He shoved the cufflinks and letter back in his pocket, doused the fire, packed up his gear and jumped on Charger. If the horse wondered why they were headed back in the direction from which they’d just come he didn’t show it. He simply ran at the full gallop Heath urged from him, racing for that dusty desert town called Heaven.

*****

Heaven’s streets were quiet as Heath halted Charger in front of Doctor Wallace’s house. He looped the reins over the picket fence and ran through the gate. He didn’t stop until he’d burst through the front door and was standing in the middle of the desolate parlor. Where there had once been furniture there was now nothing but empty space. Heath flew to the bedroom he’d shared with the doctor and found it in the same condition. A quick examination of the kitchen and the back bedroom Monica and Tess had used also found them void of anything that would indicate just one day earlier four people had resided here.

Heath charged into the afternoon sunshine and ran for the doctor’s office next door. He’d never been in this building before, but he assumed it was the next logical place to look for the old man. And when Heath found him, well when he found Abraham Wallace he was going to smash his head for pulling such a cruel joke as easily as he’d smash a rotten pumpkin.

The medical office was set up like almost every other medical office Heath had ever visited in his lifetime. He entered into an outer room that, like the doctor’s house, was empty of the chairs and sofa it must have held at one time. It took the cowboy’s eyes a moment to adjust to his dim surroundings. The shades had been pulled at all the windows and were doing an effective job of keeping out any light.

Heath swung open the door that led to the examination room. Again, it was empty. No table, no glass medicine cabinet, no sink, no bed, no nothing.

He can run, but he can’t hide.

Heath stomped back to the outer room. If he had to search all of Heaven for Abraham Wallace he would.

A powerful light glowing from a far corner of the office caused Heath to throw his arm up over his eyes. It took a moment for him to adjust to its brightness. At first he thought someone must have come in behind him and raised one of the shades. Perhaps Tess was here to do some cleaning.

Tess. Good. If anyone knows where Wallace is it’ll be her.

When the blond man dropped his arm he did, in fact, see Tess. Only not in quite the form he expected.

The black woman was dressed in a long white robe. Her salt and pepper hair was no longer pulled up under a gingham scarf, but rather hung loosely past her shoulders. The golden light Heath had seen wasn’t coming from an open window shade, but appeared to be coming from Tess herself. And rather than standing with her feet on the floor, she hung suspended halfway up the wall.

Heath blinked twice. If he didn’t known better he would have sworn his fever had returned and that he was hallucinating. Tess smiled at him in a maternal sort of way. Her words alone indicated that she somehow knew just what he was thinking.

“No, Mr. Morgan Lee, you’re not hallucinating.”

“But,…

Tess spread her arms. The sleeves of her gown hung long and full as though they were a part of the robe itself. “I’m an angel, sent by God.”

When Heath made no reply Tess laughed. “Well now, I can’t say your silence surprises me. Ever since you were a little boy you’ve used silence to face what you don’t understand or what hurts you. But silence isn’t always your friend, baby, and I think you know that. So now, ask Tess whatever questions come to mind.”

Heath thought a moment before speaking. He supposed if he had a lick of sense he’d be afraid of this strange apparition that looked like Tess, but for some reason he wasn’t.

“What is this place?”

“Just what you think it is. Heaven, Nevada.”

“So it’s real?”

“Of course it’s real, as is everything you experienced while staying here. You were sick when the doctor found you. The town was in the middle of a diphtheria epidemic. When all was said and done you played a large and important role in helping Heaven’s citizens get well, and in finding little Randall Becker a home.”

“What about the angels?”

“What about us?”

“Of all the people I encountered which ones were like you?”

“Like me?”

“Yes.”

“You mean a grumpy old black woman?”

At any other time Heath might have smiled at Tess’s remark, but right now he was too intent on getting answers.

“No. I mean who else was an angel?”

“Oh. Well, let’s see, the list is a short one this mission. There was me, and Monica, and Andrew,…and I believe you know who else.”

“Doctor Wallace?”

“Yes, Doctor Wallace.”

“Can I see him. The doctor?”

“No, baby, I’m afraid not. It’s against the rules.”

“What’s against the rules?”

“For angels to tell their earthly family members who they are should they encounter them. That’s what made this mission especially difficult for Thomas once he discovered who you were. He wanted to tell you, – to speak with you about your relationship as father and son, but it wasn’t allowed.”

Heath thought of the letter in his pocket. He wondered if his father would be in trouble for having written it. Again, Tess seemed to read his thoughts. She smiled, “Don’t you worry none about your daddy. He’s a Barkley through and through, which means he’s willing to take a risk if he thinks the end result is worth it. And believe me, Mr. Morgan Lee, he more than thinks the end result is worth it.”

Heath stood there a long time before finally giving a slow nod of his head.

“You go now,” Tess ordered.

“Go where?”

“Home. Back to the place you treasure, and to the people who love you. You can go on being Morgan Lee on the outside if you want to, but no matter how far you run, on the inside you’ll always be Heath Barkley. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, or to apologize for. God loves all his children, Heath, regardless of what circumstances brought them into this world. Just like Thomas Barkley loves all his children. Keep that love in your heart for all the rest of your days. You’ve been given a great gift that isn’t revealed to many.”

“You mean the knowledge that there’s life after death?”

“Yes. That and the fact that a man you never met while he walked this earth was able to tell you all you needed to hear. Now be at peace with yourself once and for all. If you continue to try to run from your past then you’re like a dog chasin’ after its own tail. Your past will always be a part of you. There’s nothing you, or anyone else, can do to change that. Therefore; take Tess’s advice and search for your future. Start that search on the Barkley Ranch. That’s where your future is, Mr. Morgan Lee. That’s where you’ll find it.”

Heath studied the angel for what seemed like minutes, then smiled. “Barkley. The name is Heath Barkley.”

Tess laughed.

“You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to hear you say that. Now go on with you. Git. There’s a woman who remembers you in her prayers every night, thinks of you every minute of every day, and anxiously awaits your return. You don’t want to disappoint her, do you?”

“No, I reckon I don’t. Thanks, Tess. For everything.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank God, baby. Thank God.”

Heath nodded, then turned for the door. He paused when his hand touched the knob. He looked over at Tess and said, “Can you do me one favor?”

“Sure, baby. What?”

“Can you tell my father,…can you tell him that I love him?”

“I surely can, Mr. Heath Barkley. I surely can.”

And with that promise Tess disappeared.

A few minutes later Heath rode out of Heaven. This time instead of heading north, he turned Charger west toward Stockton. And he also did what Tess told him to. He thanked God.

*****

Chapter 37

It was three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-August when Heath rode through the front gates of the Barkley Ranch. He pulled back on Charger’s reins causing the horse to obey his master’s signal and halt.

Heath sat perched in the saddle, taking a silent minute to study all that lay before him. The beauty of this ranch never ceased to amaze him, but it had been a long time since he’d stopped to appreciate it. A wave of homesickness washed over him as his eyes slowly took in the bright red buildings, immaculate yard, and the big white house with its tall pillars. He recalled how imposing and intimidating that house had seemed when he’d first arrived. It had been a good many years since he’d felt nervous at the thought of approaching the mansion, but today that uneasiness was back as strong as it had been almost four years ago. He had no idea whether he’d be welcomed with open arms or told to get the hell off Barkley land. Heath couldn’t say he’d blame anyone if the latter won out over the former. After all, an ungrateful man had ridden away from here two months ago when his family had committed no other crime but rally together to save his life and then protect his health while he recovered. He had no right to expect his siblings or stepmother to forgive him, especially when you took into account all they’d done just to keep him alive when he was so ill.

For a brief second Heath almost turned Charger around and fled the ranch for points unknown. But then he thought of the letter in his vest pocket. He’d read that missive many times on the trip home. By memory Heath replayed Tom Barkley’s words in his mind.

Until we meet again, take care of yourself. Allow yourself the pleasure of the long, happy life you so justly deserve. If I have the right to ask anything of you, it’s that you return to the ranch where you are needed, wanted, and loved. Let your family help you through all the pain you hide deep within your soul. There is no other way, son. There never will be.

Heath wasn’t certain if any of Tom’s words would prove to be correct, but for his father’s sake he had to try. Tom told Heath he was proud of him. Heath had dreamed of hearing those words from his father ever since he was small boy. There was no way he’d disappoint the man now. Yes, Tom Barkley was dead. But somehow Heath knew his father would be watching this drama unfold.

If Heath was told to leave the Barkley ranch he’d at least be able to say he’d done what his father had asked of him by returning home.

The cowboy wiped his damp palms on his tan jeans. He took a deep breath and plunked his heels into Charger’s sides. The horse moved forward, following the familiar path to the barn.

At first Heath thought it was odd that he didn’t encounter anyone; not a family member, not a hired hand, not Silas, not even the faithful border collie Lucy. But then he recalled what time of the month it was and knew all the men save for Ciego and two others were out on round-up in preparation for the September cattle drive to San Diego. Even Jarrod would be participating. Each August the lawyer cleared his docket so he could spend this two week time period working along side his brothers. And Audra would be absent from the house, too, if tradition held true. Ever since she was fifteen, and tried to insist that she also get to participate in the round-up, she went to Denver during this event. The trip had been Victoria’s idea in an effort to keep the then teenage Audra out of harm’s way. Though Heath had been told Audra vehemently protested that first visit to Victoria’s sister’s home, and had to be put on the train with a resounding swat to her rear end, she’d grown to look forward to those two weeks in Denver each year while cherishing the time she spent with her cousins, Patricia and Loretta.

“When I’m with Patricia and Loretta it’s just like being with the sisters I never had,” Heath had heard Audra say on more than one occasion.

While thinking of his sister yet, the cowboy dismounted Charger and led the animal into the barn. He wasn’t surprised to see the buckboard missing. Even with Audra away Silas would still deliver supplies to the Mission Orphanage just like he did each Tuesday. Only this time Jessybell would be riding beside Silas, something she did whenever Audra wasn’t available to take her usual spot on the wagon seat next to the old black house servant.

Heath took the halter, saddle and blanket off Charger. He hung the halter from a hook outside Charger’s stall and hoisted the saddle and blanket over a railing. Heath placed his bedroll, canteen, rifle, and saddle bags on the barn floor by his feet, then wiped Charger down before getting out a curry brush. Even if Heath was asked to leave, Charger needed a chance to rest and eat before they started on another long journey.

The thirty minutes Heath spent in the barn went by without interruption. That fact didn’t surprise him now that he knew neither Nick nor Audra were on the premises. No doubt Ciego was using Nick’s absence to his advantage and was taking a nice long nap under a secluded shade tree. As far as the other two unnamed hired hands went who most likely remained behind to keep an eye on the ranch, Heath assumed they were off somewhere completing chores Nick had left on a list for them. That could involve anything from fixing fences, to rebuilding a line shack, to running errands in Stockton. The only requirement would be that they return to the ranch prior to night fall.

When Charger’s needs had been met Heath bent down and picked up his gear. He put his canteen and saddle bags over his left shoulder while carrying his bedroll under his right arm and his rifle in his hand. The cowboy paused as he stepped out of the barn and faced the house. He took a deep breath, then started walking in that familiar gait that always reminded his siblings and stepmother of Tom Barkley.

Heath entered the house without making a sound. Just as silently he shut the front door. He paused in the foyer, taking in the sights and smells that told his heart he was home.

The man risked a glance into the parlor. There was no sign of Victoria, nor any sign that she’d been in there recently in the form of a book left behind on a table. He stuck his head in the study, it was empty as well.

Heath crossed the foyer and looked in the sewing room. Again, there was no sign of life. Though he didn’t expect to find his mother in the gun room, he searched there, too, but to no avail.

The dusty cowboy retraced his steps to the foyer and climbed the stairs. He paused in the doorway of his room. The neatly made bed, the open curtains, the chair angled outward in the far corner, all spoke of a comfortable haven awaiting his return. Even the cougar statue still sat on his dresser.

If nothing else it doesn’t look like anyone is stayin’ in here. God knows the first thing a person with a lick of sense would do is shove that statue in the closet.

Heath entered the room, setting his bedroll and rifle on the table. He hung his saddle bags, canteen, gun belt and hat on the rack behind the door. He felt funny doing all these things after having been away for two months, as though he was a rude visitor who just assumed he should go ahead and make himself at home without being invited to do so first. Heath gave a small shrug of his shoulders.

Well, I suppose if I’m no longer welcome I’ll find out soon enough. I’ll have to come back here anyway to pack up the rest of my clothes and grab my winter coat from the closet. From what I hear the weather up Idaho way can get pretty cold come January.

The cowboy ran a nervous hand through his tangle of curly red-gold hair, then stepped into the hallway. He headed for Victoria’s room. Since she wasn’t downstairs maybe he’d find her napping.

The door was open that led to the master bedroom. Heath had a clear view of the bed and could see it was devoid of an occupant. He reached a hand in and knocked on the door. When he received no answer he called softly, “Mother?,… Mother?”

Again, there was no answer prompting Heath to move on. Each bedroom he came to was empty, as was the big attic. The man kept his footsteps light as he walked down the stairs that led to the kitchen. If Victoria was in there he didn’t want to scare her. Nor did he want to get shot if she heard his boots on the wood and assumed an intruder was in the house.

In the end the caution Heath exercised wasn’t necessary. The kitchen was as empty and lonesome as every other room in the house.

Heath did a quick check of the back hall that held Silas and Jessybell’s quarters, then headed for the dining room. Once again there was no sign of Victoria. Since he had seen his mother’s horse Misty Girl, stabled in the barn he could only think of two possibilities regarding her whereabouts.

She either went with Silas and Jessybell to the orphanage, or she went with Audra to Denver. I might as well go outside and see what chores need doing. If nothing else I can start makin’ up for the work I haven’t been around to do until someone comes home and tells me to hightail it outta here.

It was when Heath walked through the parlor that he finally caught sight of her. Through the big French doors that faced the rose garden he spotted Victoria on her knees amongst the roses with her back to the house.

Only the faint sound of the latch catching could be heard when Heath opened and closed the French doors. He walked across the veranda as quietly as he’d traversed the back stairs just minutes earlier. His boots made no sound in the soft grass.

Victoria wiped her hands on the thighs of her navy dungarees, then pulled another weed. She supposed not many women of her standing would be found on their knees, wearing what most considered to be men’s clothing while getting their hands dirty digging in a flower garden, but she didn’t care. As all of her children were well-aware, Victoria Barkley didn’t worry about the opinions of others. She loved toiling in the many gardens that surrounded the house she and Tom built. She doubted anything would ever change that, or at least not change it until the day came she was too old and feeble to push herself off her knees. She allowed a small smile to play on her lips.

Ah, but by then perhaps I’ll have a passel of grandchildren who will help Grandma get up.

The sun warmed Victoria’s back in the same sort of comforting way the thought of grandchildren warmed her heart. Her thoughts were so distant she didn’t realize she had company until the man’s shadow fell across her.

Victoria jumped to her feet and swiveled all in one motion. Her heart hammered in her chest as she looked up at the tall stranger with the red beard and long hair.

Why was I so foolish as to be out here alone without a gun? Silas and Jessybell are at the orphanage and won’t be back for hours. Dan and Mike are off somewhere doing some chore for Nick, and who knows where Ciego is.

The afternoon sun glared in Victoria’s eyes, obscuring her visitor’s face. She squinted while calling forth her firmest tone.

“We’re not hiring right now, young man. Our crews are full.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I was hopin’ you’d hold my job open for me.”

That voice! That voice only belonged to one person! A mother knew her child’s voice no matter how long they’d been separated.

“Heath! Oh, Heath!”

Victoria’s reaction caught Heath by such surprise he almost didn’t catch her when she threw herself into his arms. He’d been expecting a number of possible responses to his sudden appearance ranging from stone-cold indifference to outright fury. He had to admit this was one response he hadn’t pondered, though not because he hadn’t thought it possible, but rather because he knew he couldn’t stand the gut-wrenching hurt he’d feel if a welcome of some sort didn’t come to pass.

Heath didn’t think he’d ever hugged anyone for as long as he hugged Victoria Barkley that afternoon. He couldn’t put all he was feeling into words, but then with this woman he’d never had to. Like his own mother, she always seemed to know.

The range of Victoria’s emotions astounded them both. As she clung to Heath she laughed, then cried, then laughed, then cried again. When she was finally able to stand without his support she took a step back. She reached up and cupped his face, running her hand over his full beard, then over the soft curls of the hair that almost rested on his shoulders.

“It’s red,” was all she could think to say which sounded pitiful to her ears. She should be saying, “I love you,” or “I’ve missed you,” or “I’m so happy you’re home,” but instead the only comment she could force out of her tight throat was about his hair.

Heath seemed to understand because he pulled her to his chest again. She felt his strong arms encircled her, and felt the kiss he placed on top of her head. She thought she heard tears in his voice when he whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t, sweetheart,” she said as she hugged him back. “Please don’t apologize. It’s not necessary. I understand. We all understand. I’m just so happy you came back.”

Victoria had to listen hard to hear his quiet words.

“I’m happy I came back, too, Mother. And that you were here waiting.”

She squeezed him around his lean middle one last time, then looked up into his face.

“Where have you been?”

Heath smiled that half-grin she loved so much, and saw his eyes twinkle in a teasing sort of way.

“In Heaven.”

Victoria cocked an eyebrow. It was all she could do to keep from placing her hand on Heath’s forehead to see if he was running a temperature.

“Where did you say you’ve been?”

“In Heaven. Heaven, Nevada.” He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out the cufflinks and letter. He grasped her right hand and placed them within her palm. He took her other hand and led her toward the swing that hung on the veranda.

“It’s a long story. One that I think is best told with both of us sitting down.”

Victoria gasped as she looked down at the cufflinks. The cufflinks she’d given to Tom the Christmas prior to his death. The cufflinks he’d been buried wearing.

“Yes, Heath,” she whispered. “Yes. I believe we need to sit down.” She turned her gaze back to her son. “These were your father’s.”

Victoria wasn’t certain if she was shocked or not when Heath merely nodded and said, “I know.”

*****

Victoria was surprised to see the light coming from Heath’s room at eleven o’clock that night. She knew he’d had a long day of travel, and then a long homecoming with first her, and later with Silas and Jessybell. When he finally went up to take a hot bath at nine-thirty and then go to bed, she assumed he’d be asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The woman knocked softly on the closed door. She heard the quiet, “Come in, Mother,” through the thick wood.

Victoria smiled as she entered the room to see Heath sitting barefoot on the side of the bed, dressed in clean jeans and wearing a brown shirt that he hadn’t bothered to button. His wooden treasure box was sitting open on the bed beside him.

“How did you know it was me?”

Heath tossed his mother a grin. “Who else would it be?”

Victoria gathered her pink robe close to her body and sat down next to her son. She wasn’t surprised to see him rereading the letter she’d given him hours earlier.

My Dearest Victoria,

Rest assured Heath is safe and in good health. Though I could not guide him in life, it is my job to guide him now. I’m sorry, I do not know if he is meant to return to you or not. But then, I’m not sure anyone knows that but Heath. I do know he loves his family far more than he’ll ever admit. I pray that thought brings you peace. Early this morning I watched as Heath read and reread the letter you sent him while he was staying at Rex Gardner’s ranch. Only I saw the tear that came to his eye at your words. I will do my best to help this precious son of mine, whom I know has grown to become your son, too. I thank you for the love you have given him. I, better than anyone, know what a lucky man he is for having a place in your heart.

Victoria thought back to the afternoon hours she and Heath had spent on the porch swing. His story had started in a place called Heaven with a woman named Monica, and a woman named Tess, a little boy named Randall, and a man who called himself Abraham Wallace. Heath had left nothing out as he chronicled the events that happened during his stay. He’d occasionally pause in an effort to gauge Victoria’s reaction to some of the more outlandish parts of his tale, but each time that happened all she did was pat his arm and say, “Continue, please. Tell me the rest.”

By the time Heath reached the point that he encountered Tess in Doctor Wallace’s office he half expected Victoria to declare he needed to spend some time in a home for the feeble minded. But to his amazement she never even blinked.

It wasn’t until the end of Heath’s story that Victoria read the letter he’d given her. She then excused herself, saying she’d be right back. When she returned she had a letter of her own that she handed to him.

“Go ahead,” she encouraged. “Read it.”

When Heath finished reading the letter Victoria had found on her dresser that morning several weeks in the past, she held up the cufflinks he’d handed her before they sat down.

“I gave these to your father the last Christmas he was alive. They were custom made by a jeweler in San Francisco. Tom was buried wearing them.”

And with that Victoria placed the cufflinks in Heath’s hand and closed his fingers around their expensive gold.

“They’re yours now, son.”

“No,…I,….I can’t keep them. How they came to be in my possession ,…well I suppose most people,…heck, probably everyone, will think I’m nuts if I even attempt to explain it. But regardless, if they belong to anyone then they belong to Jarrod, or Nick, or Gene. You decide. I don’t care who you give them to.”

“But it’s already been decided.”

“Pardon?”

“Your father gave them to you, Heath. Therefore, in my mind it’s already been decided who these cufflinks belong to. Whether or not you ever wear them is your choice. Whether or not you ever share this story, and these letters, with your brothers and sister is your choice as well.”

“So you believe me?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

Heath shrugged as he gently pushed the old swing back and forth with nothing more but the force of his boot heels against the surface of the porch.

“I don’t know. Because it sounds crazy I reckon.”

“I reckon it does,” Victoria smiled while adopting her stepson’s speech patterns. “But I’m old enough to know that the Lord works in mysterious ways. And I’m old enough to know that when you rode out of here two months ago, sick in body and sick in spirit, you needed something more than I could give you. You needed something more than your brothers and sister could give you. I prayed every night that someone would help you find your way, that someone would help you come to terms with all that was haunting you, even if that meant I never saw you again. Your story, and these two letters, and the cufflinks, are all the evidence I need to know God does answer a mother’s heartfelt plea for her child’s safety.”

In place of a reply, Heath put an arm around Victoria and pulled her close. They sat together like that on the swing, not exchanging another word, until Silas and Jessybell arrived home at six o’clock.

Victoria watched now as Heath put the cufflinks in his box. He held out to Victoria the letter Tom had written her.

“Sure you don’t want this?”

“No. I gave it to you. I want you to keep it along with the letter your father put in your vest pocket.”

Heath nodded, then put both pieces of paper in the box atop another envelope. Victoria smiled when she recognized her own handwriting.

“Until I read the letter your father left for me, I never realized you kept the letter I wrote you when you were staying at Rex Gardner’s ranch.”

It took a moment for Heath to form a response. “It meant a lot to me – that letter and the poem. I hadn’t been living here very long then, and I guess I really couldn’t imagine that any of you missed me. Your letter,…well your letter helped me see for the first time since I arrived that I had a family. I…I was missing all of you as much as your letter told me all of you were missing me. It was a good feeling to know that,….well, to know that I wasn’t just someone you thought you were obligated to take in because I was your husband’s son, but that I was someone you wanted here.”

The tears that formed behind Victoria’s eyes prevented her from saying anything. Like he’d done on the porch swing, Heath pulled her to his side.

“I’m sorry about the things I said before I left. I realize now how much all of you did for me while I was sick. I realize now what a toll those couple weeks took on all of you. I realize now you only had my best interest in mind when you didn’t tell me I had diphtheria, or that I had carried it here, or that Billy, and Jeb, and the others had died. If I could go back and change how I reacted to all that I would. But, I hope you understand when I say I’ve got a feelin’ I just had to go to a place called Heaven in order to come to peace with everything that happened.”

“Based on what you told me this afternoon, Heath, I’ve got a feeling you had to go to a place called Heaven, too. As a matter of fact I don’t think you had a choice. I truly believe God sent you there.”

Victoria felt Heath smile against the top of her head. He gave her a strong squeeze and said, “My father’s right, you know. I am a lucky man for having a place in your heart.”

Victoria placed a hand in the middle of her son’s chest. She doubted she’d ever spoken more truthful words when she replied, “And I’m a lucky woman for having a place in yours. I’m one very lucky woman, Mr. Morgan Lee.”

Heath threw his head back and laughed. Victoria didn’t know when the last time was she’d heard him laugh like that, but she did know it had been far too long.

As Heath’s laughter filled the room Victoria looked to the ceiling. Silently she prayed, Thank you, Lord. And, Tom,…thank you as well. Thank you so much for getting your son home to me. I’ll take care of him now, Tom. I promise I’ll take care of him now.

*****

Part 7

Chapter 38

Over the course of the next two weeks Heath’s remaining family members straggled home.  Audra was the first to arrive.  Heath took the buggy into town to meet her train.  It was his first trip to Stockton since his return, and to say he was nervous was an understatement.  But he felt this was something he had to face and then put behind him.

The reaction of the people in Stockton who recognized this bearded, curly headed man as Heath Barkley was nothing like Heath expected.  Everyone he encountered who had grown to be his friend since he’d first arrived still treated him with nothing but kindness.  Those who hadn’t liked him previously simply because he was Tom Barkley’s bastard kid, still treated him with indifference or downright disdain.  But not a soul said anything about the epidemic, or those that had passed away because of it, and for that Heath was thankful.  He quickly came to the conclusion that his family had told no one he was away, and got the impression from most people who stopped to talk to him that they assumed he’d been on the ranch recuperating from his illness.  Based on what Dan, Mike and Ciego had said when they’d greeted him, he knew the ranch hands had been told he’d gone to visit some old friends since Doctor Sheridan wasn’t allowing him to do any work.  Whether all the Barkley hired hands fully believed that or not Heath didn’t know, but he was grateful to his family for keeping the reason behind his departure private.

Heath was leaning against the buggy with his cowboy hat pulled low across his brow when the train pulled into the station late that afternoon.  He watched the passengers disembark one by one.  Through the train’s window he could see Audra moving down the aisle wearing a blue dress and matching hat.  He walked forward and stood waiting at the end of metal steps.  When he reached out a hand he knew by the look on her face she didn’t recognize him.  He dropped his head so all she could see was the top of his hat.  His posture muffled his quiet words.

“I’m here to pick you up, Miss Barkley.”

“Oh.  You must be new at the ranch,”  Audra said as she took Heath’s hand and stepped off the last stair.  “Did my mother hire you?”

“You might say that.”  Heath released Audra’s hand and took her valise from her.  He walked to the buggy, Audra trailing along behind. “Actually, I used to work for your family, but I’ve been away a couple months.”

“Away?”

Heath put the valise in the back of the buggy, took his hat off and turned around.  “Yeah, Sis.  I’ve been away.”

“Heath!”  Audra’s reaction as recognition dawned was no different than her mother’s had been.  She launched herself into Heath’s arms.  “Heath!  Oh my God, Heath, it’s really you!  It’s really you!”

Heath held Audra while she sobbed.  He kissed her forehead, told her he was sorry and pleaded with her to stop crying, which only made her cry harder.

By the time she pulled away from Heath the front of his shirt was soaked with her tears.  She asked him no questions about where he had been, but only said in a firm voice that sounded like her mother’s, “You’d better be home to stay, Heath Barkley.”

Heath smiled as he put his hat back on. “I am, little sister.  I am.”

Heath collected the rest of Audra’s luggage, then helped her climb into the buggy.  When he was settled beside Audra she studied him in profile, then ran a hand up and down the sleeve of his green shirt.

“I can’t say for certain I’m overly fond of the beard and long hair, though I do envy you the beautiful curls.”

Heath blushed just like his sister knew he would.  She laughed, then looped her arm through his as he slapped the horses with the reins and headed for home with Audra still chatting away beside him.

“But the green shirt looks quite handsome on you.  The color brings out the red in your hair and beard.  I dare say some woman has had a hand in changing your style, Mr. Barkley.”

Heath thought of his recent days spent in Heaven and the women he’d met there from Monica, to Tess, to Josie Becker, to Orra, to Della Crawford.  He looked at his sister and smiled.

“I reckon you’re right, Sis.  As a matter of fact several women have probably had a hand in changing my style.  You and Mother included.”

“Is it a change for the better, Heath?  One that makes you feel good inside?”

Heath saw the worry in Audra’s eyes, as though she feared he’d disappear again.  He turned sideways and kissed her temple.

“Yes, Audra, it’s a change that makes me feel good inside.”

Audra leaned into her big brother.  “I’m glad.  Because those are the best kind.”

Heath spent the rest of the drive listening to Audra tell about her visit in Denver.  As much as he normally craved silence, today he treasured his sister’s voice.  After all, there had been a time when he never thought he’d hear it again.

*****

A lone rider approached the gates of the Barkley ranch.  Jingo trotted through them and headed toward the barn.  Jarrod had come in two days ahead of Nick and the rest of the men.  He needed to return to his office on Thursday, the same day the wranglers on the round-up were expected to arrive.

Jarrod had just finished seeing to Jingo’s needs when he heard someone come in the barn.  He turned around, his eyes widening as he looked into the man’s face.  Unlike his mother and sister, there was no lack of recognition on Jarrod’s part.  The man standing before him with the red beard and shaggy hair was the spitting image of Tom Barkley’s brother Thor, in his younger and wilder days.

Heath stopped when he was standing in front of Jarrod.  His oldest sibling didn’t cry out his name like Victoria and Audra had done, nor did he launch himself into Heath’s arms.  He simply stepped forward, laid both of his hands on Heath’s shoulders, looked him right in the eye, smiled and said, “Welcome home, Brother Heath.”

Jarrod’s quiet greeting was so like the lawyer.  He didn’t make a fuss, or  embarrass Heath with an emotional display, or ask him a million questions about where he’d been.  Jarrod simply voiced his feelings in a tone that spoke of nothing but open sincerity.  It was the same tone Jarrod had used that January day when he’d welcomed this new younger brother to the Barkley family.

Heath copied Jarrod’s body language.  He placed his own hands on his brother’s shoulders and smiled.  “Thanks, Jarrod.  You don’t know how much that means to me.”

Jarrod cocked a teasing eyebrow.  “Oh, I have a feeling I do.”     It was then that the lawyer pulled his brother to his chest.  “Come here, you.”

The men shared a long hug before walking together to the house.  Heath had overcome another hurtle within his family circle, but he wasn’t fooling himself.  The most difficult obstacle was yet to come, – he still had to face Nick.

*****

Chapter 39

Nick Barkley was one of the last men to enter the ranch yard on Thursday afternoon.  Lucy trotted along beside him until she caught sight of the barn.  She took off at a run then, headed for her water dish and the bed Audra had long ago fashioned for her using a peach crate and some old blankets.

Smart dog.

The cowboy climbed off Coco with an audible groan. The older Nick got the more aches and pains he arrived home with after a few weeks on the range. Nick laid a hand against the small of his back and watched as the tubby Ciego waddled toward him wearing a grin wider than the brim of his sombrero.

“Ah, Senor Nick!  Welcome home!  Welcome home.  Here, let me see to Coco.  You go in your fine house, put your tired feet up, smoke a good cigar, take a hot bath,….”

Nick frowned at the Mexican.  “Ciego, what’s going on?”

“What do you mean, senor, what is going on?  Nothing is going on.  No, nothing.  Nothing at all.”

“Ciego, when you’re this eager to see me relax, and this eager to work, then I know something is wrong.”

“No, no, Senor Nick.  Nothing is wrong.  Nothing that I know of anyway.  Perhaps your mama has a little surprise for you in the house, I am thinking.  Yes,  perhaps she has something special waiting to welcome you home.”

“Something special to welcome me home?  What the hell are you talking about?”

Ciego shrugged his shoulders as he led Coco to the barn.  “I do not know, senor.  After all, how could I?  I am but a simple stable boy, si`?”

“Simple stable boy my eye,”  Nick mumbled as he watched Ciego disappear within the barn.  “You’re craftier than an old fox, amigo.  That’s why you manage to get away with what you do and still be employed here.”

Nick shook his head over the oddity of Ciego actually volunteering to do some work, then turned for the house.  He was halfway there when Silas poked his head out of the chicken coop.

“Hello, Mr. Nick!”  The black man gave a huge, prolonged wave. “Welcome back!”

“Thanks, Silas.”

The house servant stood in the doorway of the coop studying Nick and wearing a smile that lit up his entire face.  The smile didn’t fade as Nick passed by, causing the cowboy to glance over his shoulder twice before finally smiling back.

I wonder what’s gotten into him?  He hates collecting eggs, and now he’s acting like it’s his favorite job. 

Nick brushed trail dust from his vest and shirt as he walked toward the house.  He took off his hat and thumped it against the legs of pants in an effort to remove the dust from them as well.

“Thaz right,”  Jessybell said with broom in hand as Nick climbed the veranda steps.  “You git all that there dust off ‘fore you go enterin’ my clean house.”

“Well that’s a fine how-do-you-do for a man who’s been gone almost three weeks,”  Nick grumbled.

Jessybell lifted  her broom and with hard, swift strokes began sweeping Nick’s pants.  “Don’t you be a othingg’ and a othing’ at Jessybell.  You be doin’ dat and you won’t be othingg’ of your surprise.”

“Surprise?  What surprise?”

The black woman circled around Nick with her broom, its bristles brushing  over his clothing from top to bottom.  “Surprise?  What you othing’ about, surprise?”

“I didn’t say it, you did!  Ouch!”  Nick jumped forward as a bristle poked him in the rear end.

The woman swatted Nick’s behind with the broom.  “Go on with you now, you about as clean as Jessybell can git you.”

Nick turned around.  “What surprise?”

With the aid of her broom the black woman shooed Nick across the veranda.

“Go on, now.  Git.  Git in the house.  Your mama and Miz Audra is waitin’.”

“But what sur,…”

“I don’t know what you othing’ about, Mr. Nick.  You’re hearin’ must not be so good.  I didn’t say othing’ about no surprise.  You just git.  Go on, git.”

Nick ran for the house before the broom could swat him again.

 They’ve all lost their minds.

 The man entered the quiet house and crossed to the foyer table.  He tossed his hat on its marble top.  His gloves and gun belt quickly followed. If there was some sort of surprise waiting it sure wasn’t evident in the deserted rooms he could see from where he stood.

 “Mother!  Audra!  I’m home!  Mother!  Audra!”

 The Barkley women bustled in from two different directions.  Victoria came from the sewing room while Audra entered from the kitchen.  Nick accepted the kisses he received on each cheek and returned them in kind.

 Once the initial greetings were finished Nick asked,  “So what’s new around here?”

 The man frowned at the small smiles that passed between the two women.  If he wasn’t mistaken there was something conspiratorial in nature about them.

 “What?”  The man asked.  “What’s going on?”

Victoria linked an arm through her son’s right elbow.  “Nothing.  Absolutely nothing. Can’t your mother and sister simply be happy that you’re home?”

Audra copied her mother’s body language by slipping her arm through Nick’s left elbow.

“Yes.  Can’t we just be happy to see you?”

“You can be as happy as you want as far as I’m concerned.  But something’s going on.”

“Why, Nick dear, whatever do you mean?”

 “First Ciego just about gives himself a heart attack running to my side in order to take Coco from me, then Silas is standing in the doorway of the chicken coop grinning like he’s having the time of his life doing a job we all know he hates, and then Jessybell was talking about a surprise while she chased me inside with her broom.”

“Maybe they’re just happy to see you, too,”  Audra suggested.

“Yes, Nick, I’m sure that’s what it is,”  Victoria agreed as she and her daughter steered Nick toward the kitchen.  “Now I bet you’d like a sandwich to hold you over until dinner.”

“And a piece of the cherry pie I just took out of the oven,”  Audra added.

Nick still thought his mother and sister seemed awfully secretive about something, and awfully happy, but he allowed them to lead him to the kitchen.

Forty-five minutes later the cowboy had all but forgotten how strange he thought everyone had been acting when he first arrived.  After three weeks of sleeping on the ground at night and being in the saddle all day he enjoyed the endless pampering his mother and sister freely offered.   They sat with him at the kitchen table while he ate.  Nick told the women the various highlights of the round up, then listened while Audra spoke about her time in Denver with their aunt and cousins.  When his sister was finished Nick looked at the Barkley matriarch.

“And how about you, Mother?  What did you do while all your children were away?”

Victoria’s answer was vague and void of details.

“A little of this and a little of that.”

“I suppose you enjoyed having the house to yourself for a few weeks.”

“Oh,…I had my share of visitors.”

“Really?  Who?”

There it was again.  That smile that matched the smile on Audra’s face that told Nick the women were keeping something from him.

“Just,…visitors.  Neighbors, friends,…people such as that.”  Victoria rose and began clearing Nick’s dirty dishes from the table.  “Now why don’t you go up and get a hot bath, then take a nap if you’d like one.  I expect to see all my children gathered in the dining room promptly at seven this evening.”

“Having all your children around the table wouldn’t have something to do with the surprise Jessybell mentioned, would it?”

Victoria refused to turn around and meet Nick’s eyes.  “I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about, Nicholas.”

Nick looked from his mother to Audra.  All his sister did was give an innocent shrug of her shoulders.

When the cowboy finally reached the conclusion that the women weren’t going to say anything further on this subject, he pushed his chair back and headed for the stairs.

“I don’t care what the two of you say, something’s going on around here.”

Nick pretended not to hear the feminine giggles coming from the kitchen as he climbed the back stairs to his room.

*****

The dark headed man looked longingly at his big bed.  If his clothes weren’t so dirty he’d simply lay right down on it and take that nap his mother mentioned.  But after three weeks with no hot water he knew a bath was the first order of business.

Nick crossed to his closet and pulled out a shirt and pair of pants.  It was as he was headed to his dresser for socks and undershorts that he saw it.  The cougar statue.  It took a moment for the meaning of that statue sitting atop his dresser to register with Nick.  But when its meaning did penetrate his brain he felt like he’d been struck by a bolt of lightening.

Heath!  Heath is home! 

Nick tossed his clothes in the direction of the bed as he shot from the room.

“Heath!  Heath!”

Nick never felt his feet hit the stairs as he flew to the foyer.

“Heath!  Heath!”

The cowboy wasn’t surprised to see his mother and sister waiting for him.  Victoria held out his hat while Audra held out his gun belt.

“Where is he?”

“In the south pasture,” Victoria said as Nick shoved his hat on his head.

“Don’t hurt him,”  Audra warned as her brother buckled his gun belt around his waist.

“Hurt him?”  Fire flashed from Nick’s eyes.  “Oh, I’m gonna hurt him all right.  That boy’s gonna get what he has coming.”

With that Nick ran out the door.

Audra turned to Victoria. The worry was plain to see on her young face.  “I was only teasing him, Mother.  You don’t think he’ll really hurt Heath, do you?”

“No, sweetheart, I don’t think he’ll really hurt Heath.  But in the event they have one of their brotherly scuffles, which just might happen before Nick throws his arms around Heath and hugs the life out of him, we’d better roll some bandages and get out my Godfrey’s liniment.”

Audra nodded as the two women headed up the stairs to the bathroom.

 “Good idea, Mother.  Good idea.”

*****

Heath didn’t have to turn around to know Nick was home.  The pounding of horse’s hooves approaching from behind told the blond man it was now time to pay the piper.

Nick reined Coco to a halt twenty feet from where Heath was working on a section of fence.  He climbed off the horse and tied him to one of the railings.

Heath went right on pounding a nail into a loose board as though Nick wasn’t even there.

“Put that hammer down, boy.  I wanna talk to you.”

Nick hadn’t called Heath ‘boy’ since the evening three years earlier when Heath had lost his temper at the supper table over that derogatory term.  But now Heath allowed his brother to use the phrase freely, knowing that from Nick’s point of view he deserved it and probably worse.

Heath did as his brother requested and put his hammer down.  He took his handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his face and beard.  He repocketed the handkerchief before turning to face his older sibling.

The blond man didn’t move as the unsmiling Nick advanced on him.  He held his ground even when the toes of Nick’s boots were within a half an inch of touching the toes of his own boots.

Heath felt Nick’s eyes rake over him in a way that took him back to the night he’d confronted all three of his brothers about his parentage. When he saw Nick’s right arm begin to raise Heath steeled himself for the punch  he was certain would send him sprawling, and resisted the urge to squeeze his eyes shut.

But the punch never came.

Nick grabbed his brother, hooking his arm around Heath’s neck.  Like Victoria had predicted, they scuffled like two little boys trying to get the best of one another in a wrestling match.  Heath’s hat was knocked off his head as Nick spun him around and around, all the while fending off the harmless punches Heath tossed at his mid-section.  When their game was done Nick helped his brother stand upright.  He didn’t give Heath a chance to do more than get his footing before throwing his arms around the blond and pulling him to his chest.  Heath hugged Nick in return.  When the dark headed man was finally able to find his voice he said with a throaty growl,  “Don’t you ever do something like this again.  Don’t you ever leave me without my partner.”

“I won’t.”

“Is that a promise?”

“Yeah, Nick.  That’s a promise.”

Nick released his brother then, and simply stood drinking in the sight of him as the late afternoon sun bounced off that shock of golden red hair.  He reached up and grabbed a handful of curls at the nape of Heath’s neck and propelled him toward Charger.

“Come on.  Let’s go home.  And the first thing you’re gonna do is get a hair cut if you expect to have a job on this ranch.  You look like a river boat gambler.  Or one of them loco wranglers who work for those spreads down Arizona way.  Or Custer.  Yeah, that’s who you look like is General Custer.”

Nick didn’t understand the laughter his last statement prompted, nor did he understand the meaning behind the comment Heath made as he picked up his hat and swung onto Charger.

“Someone who knows General Custer recently made the same comparison you just did.  Except she says the General doesn’t have nearly as much red in his hair as I do.”

“Someone who knows General Custer?”  Nick climbed on Coco and waited until Heath reached his side.  “How can anyone know Custer as in the present tense?  He’s been dead for three years.”

 “Oh, let’s just say Tess gets around.”

 “Tess?”

 “A friend of mine I met in Heaven.”

 Nick eyed his brother as the two headed their horses toward the house.

 “Heaven?”

 “Someday, when I’m good and ready, I’ll tell you all about it, Nick.”

And having said that Heath urged Charger into a full gallop.  Nick did the same with Coco, but not with the intention of riding along beside Heath and forcing him to talk.  If Heath said he’d talk about his time away from the ranch when he was ready then that’s what he meant.  There was no use in trying to get the story out of him any sooner.  Nick had learned a long time ago that no amount of cajoling, pleading, or yelling could make his brother talk.  Part of respecting who Heath was as a person meant respecting his privacy and his silences.  For the time being Nick was simply thankful that Heath had found a friend in the place he referred to as Heaven.

 *****

Chapter 40

Victoria couldn’t remember the last time laughter had filled her dining room the way it did that night.  The family lingered around the table long after the dishes had been cleared, exchanging news and tossing playful barbs each other’s way.  When things quieted down Nick sat back in his chair and studied the bearded brother seated to his right.  Heath did his best to ignore Nick’s stare, knowing fully well he was being set up for something he’d rather not partake in.

Nick grinned at Jarrod and Audra, then winked at his mother.

“So, Heath, I’ve been wondering about something.”

Heath’s eyes slid to his brother.  “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

When Heath remained silent Nick spoke again.  “Aren’t you gonna ask me what it is I’ve been wonderin’ about?”

“Nope.”

“Nope?  Why not?”

“ ‘Cause I’ve got a feelin’ I don’t wanna know.”

Everyone but Nick laughed at the comment that was so like Heath.  Victoria saw the twinkle in Nick’s eyes as he continued to bait his brother.

“Sure you wanna know.  Well,…okay, maybe you don’t wanna know.  But the rest of us sure do.”

“Sure do what?”

“Well see, Heath, it’s like this.  We’re dying to find out who Lupe` is.”

Whoever Lupe` was she caused Heath’s face to turn as red as his beard, which only egged Nick on.

“Now she must be one heck of a woman.  As a matter of fact I know she is because you listed several of her more,…interesting qualities to me in Spanish one afternoon when your fever had you a bit mixed up as to where you were.” Nick dropped his voice to a stage whisper and leaned toward his brother.  “But don’t worry, I didn’t tell Mother and Audra what you said.”

Heath’s dry words dripped with sarcasm. “Thanks.  I’m forever in your debt.”

“I’m sure you are.  So in that event I think you should come clean and tell us who this Lupe` is and how much she means to you.”

“She’s just a girl I used to know.”

Nick cocked an eyebrow at Jarrod.  “Did you hear that, Jarrod?  Just a girl he used to know.”

“I heard it, Nick.”

“Now, counselor, wouldn’t you agree that Mr. Barkley here is making a bit of an understatement when he says Lupe` is ‘just a girl I used to know,’ in the same casual way one would recall a person they crossed paths with in the general store?”

“I’d have to agree with that, yes.”

Heath didn’t know what was coming next, but by the glee on everyone’s faces he knew he was about to find out.

“I would have to agree as well.  Especially since Mr. Barkley, in his delirium, thought I was the aforementioned woman and at that time asked me to marry him.”  Amidst his family’s laughter Nick turned to look at his red faced brother.  “So, Mr. Barkley, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Heath glanced from one laughing face to another before his eyes settled on Nick.

“What I have to say is this.  Boy howdy, Nick, I always told you that after- shave you wear smells like a woman’s perfume. I reckon you smelled so much like Lupe` I just couldn’t tell the two of you apart.”

A new round of laughter was prompted by the indignant look on Nick’s face.  When things had calmed down a bit Jarrod said, “He did it to you again, Nick.  Heath got the best of you despite your intentions to the contrary.”

“Oh no he didn’t, because I’ve got one ace to play yet if he doesn’t apologize.”

Heath eyed his brother, then took a sip from his water glass.  “You’re bluffin’.  And I ain’t apologizing.”

“I’m not bluffing.  And you’re going to wish you had apologized.”  Nick looked from Jarrod, to Audra, to Victoria, his grin growing wider with each stop until his eyes finally rested on Heath.

 “It’s your last chance.  Apologize.”

 “Nope.”

 “Okay.  But you’ll be sorry.”

Heath shrugged his shoulders as though he didn’t have a care in the world, then took a another long drink from his glass.

 Nick leaned back in his chair and allowed a long, dramatic pause to ensue before he announced in full voice,  “Mother and Audra saw you naked.”

Heath coughed and sputtered as he choked on his water.  No one thought it was possible for him to blush anymore than he already was.  But blush he did, and was still doing, long after the laughter died down to an occasional giggle.

 As Heath stood Nick looked up at him. “Bet you wish you’d apologized, huh?”

 “Nope.”

Nick shook his head in amazement.  “Heath Barkley, you’re stubborn to the core.”

“Yep.  Or so I’ve been told on a number of occasions in recent days.”

“By your friend Tess?”

“Her.  And some others.  Doesn’t matter ‘cause I already knew it was true.”  Heath reached out a hand for Audra.  “Come on, little sister.  You promised me a hair cut when I was ready.  Reckon that time has come.”

Audra stood and walked around the table, taking Heath’s hand.  “And then you’ll shave off your beard, too?”

“Reckon so.  Without the hair the beard does me no justice.”

“I’m glad.  It’s such a shame for you to hide your handsome face behind all that hair.”

Once again Heath felt his face heating up.  Audra laughed as she leaned into his side.  “And it also hides that cute blush you have.”

“Maybe that’s reason for me to keep it then.”

“Oh, no.”  Audra pushed her brother toward the kitchen.  “Absolutely not.  Let me cut that hair off right now before you back out on me.”

Jarrod and Nick left the table not long after that to engage in a game of billiards.  Victoria stood with them, but turned toward the kitchen.  She sat on one of the steps and watched as Heath’s curls fell to the floor with each snip of Audra’s scissors.  Though none of her children realized what this hair cut symbolized, Victoria was well aware of its significance.

Later that evening she passed Heath in the upstairs hallway.  He had just come from the bathroom where he’d shaved off his beard.  Victoria cupped his smooth face in her hands and stood on tip toes to kiss him.

“Morgan Lee is gone now, isn’t he?”

“I reckon he is, Mother.”

“He needed to get through today, didn’t he?   He needed to be assured that Nick wanted him here.”

 “Yes.”

“I could have told you long before Nick arrived that he wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I suppose you could have, but I had to find out for myself.  I would have respected the choice of any one of you had you asked me to leave.”

“None of us would have, Heath.  None of us ever will.  I hope you never doubt that again.  In this family a brother’s love for his siblings is unconditional.  A sister’s love for her siblings is unconditional.  A mother’s love for her child is unconditional.”

Heath merely nodded as Victoria gave him a long hug.  When she pulled away she smiled.

 “And Morgan Lee is at peace with himself now?  He forgives himself for all those things that weren’t his fault that caused him to ride off this ranch two months ago?”

“Yes, with help from some angels, a boy named Randall,…and his father,  Morgan Lee is at peace.”

 “I’m glad, Heath.  I’m so glad.”

 Heath hugged the tiny woman.  He didn’t think his words had ever been more sincere when he replied, “So am I, Mother.  So am I.”

*****

The house was dark and quiet when Heath slipped into a pair of pants at two o’clock that morning.  By feel alone he made his way to his closet and took a shirt off a hanger.  He put it on, but didn’t bother with the buttons.

The blond man made his way barefoot down the stairs without disturbing anyone.  Quietly, he closed the study door behind him and crossed to the desk.  He opened the middle drawer and pulled out a match, then lit the lamp that sat on the corner of the wide structure.

 Heath’s inability to sleep wasn’t caused by unsettling dreams or disturbing memories, but rather by the thought that he’d been wrong in what he told Victoria several hours earlier.  No, Morgan Lee wasn’t gone.  Or at least not quite.  There was still one last thing Heath had to do before the fictitious man could rest in peace.

 Heath opened the desk drawer on his left and pulled out a tablet of paper.  He took the pen from the ink well and began to write.

Dear Randall,

A person shouldn’t deceive someone he calls his friend, therefore I owe you an apology.  Earlier this summer I was very sick with diphtheria.  Without knowing it I carried the disease to Stockton, California, where I live, and because of that many people died.  I blamed myself for those deaths, and in turn, that blame caused me to run away.  But then I met you, and your mother, and Doctor Wallace, and Tess, and Monica.  Without realizing it all of you, and your little town, helped me to heal inside. 

You told me if a person has a good family he loves, and who loves him, then he should be with them.  You were right about that, Randall. So very right.

I’m with my family now, and my name is not Morgan Lee.  It’s Heath Barkley.  No matter what anyone else says, I’m proud of that fact.  It took you, an old doctor, a handful of women, and a place called Heaven to make me see that.  And I thank you for that.  I thank you very much.

If you ever need me you’ll always be able to find me at this address;  Heath Barkley, The Barkley Ranch,  Stockton, California.  Always.

Your friend,

Heath                     

Heath addressed an envelope then folded the letter and slipped it inside.  He blew out the lamp, and with letter in hand, made his way upstairs.

Tess and Monica stood in a corner of the study and exchanged smiles as they watched Heath exit the room.

“I see Mr. Barkley is both healthy and happy, Tess.”

“Yes he is, Angel Girl.  Healthy and happy.  And no matter what comes Mr. Heath Barkley’s way as he travels life’s road, he will always possess a comforting peace in his heart because he finally knows one very important thing.”

“What thing would that be?”

“That his father loves him, Monica.  Heath finally knows that his father loves him.”

Tess looked up at the picture of Tom Barkley hanging over the fireplace.  She squeezed Monica’s hand right before they vanished into the darkness.  Only the black woman’s voice was left behind as a soft echo in an otherwise quiet house.

“And really, Angel Girl, what more can a man want other than the knowledge of his father’s love?”

The man with that knowledge now slept soundly because Tess was right.  Heath Barkley wanted nothing more than he’d been given.

A home.

A family.

And his father’s love.

***The End***

Return to Kenda’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.