Heart Filled with Joy (by Kenda)

Summary: An Alternate Universe Story Regarding How Heath Came To Live On The Barkley Ranch  
Category:  The Big Valey
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  36,000


Victoria Barkley strolled through the parlor with Audra on her hip. The nine-month-old baby caught sight of her father in the foyer. She smiled a toothless grin and cooed, reaching for the man who was reading the mail the ranch foreman had brought back from town.

The golden-haired girl shrieked when her father didn’t take his eyes off the letter he was reading for the third time. She kicked her legs, arching and bucking from her mother’s side.

“Tom,” Victoria scolded in a light tone, “your baby girl wants your attention.”

Victoria saw her husband swallow hard. When he turned to look at her his face was as white as the petticoats underneath their daughter’s dress. But more than his pale features it was his eyes that caught Victoria’s attention. Blue eyes filled with regret, pain, devastation, and fear. She’d seen him like this only one other time throughout their married life. That day almost two decades in the past now, when he told her their first born child, eight month old Thomas Alton Barkley Jr., had died from the measles.

Remembering that heart-wrenching day, and associating her husband’s current demeanor with that event caused the woman’s voice to quiver.

“Tom? Tom, what is it? Is Jarrod all right? Is that letter from him?”

Jarrod had been born ten months after Tommy’s death. He was eighteen now and had started college in San Francisco two months earlier.

“Tom?”

“No.” The man’s voice was so soft Victoria had to strain to hear him. “No, it’s not from Jarrod. It has nothing to do with Jarrod. Please,……I,…..Victoria, I have to talk to you. Please put Audra down for her nap and meet me in the study. Tell Silas,……tell him we’re not to be disturbed no matter the reason.”

“But, Tom, what is it? What’s,…”

There was an odd note of defeat to the man’s voice.

“Just do as I ask, Victoria. Please. I’ll explain,……I’ll explain when we’re alone.”

Was it Victoria’s imagination or did her husband’s shoulders slump just a little as he turned and walked to his study, the letter hanging limply in his hand.

Audra gave a grunt of indignation over being ignored by her father. Victoria kissed her pale head. “There, there, baby girl. Don’t you fret. Papa will be his old self again by the time you wake up.”

Thirty minutes later Victoria made her way to the study. She’d changed Audra’s diaper, nursed her, rocked her to sleep, then laid her in the crib. Like Tom had requested, Victoria found Silas and told him she and Mr. Barkley weren’t to be disturbed. She asked the black man to keep an ear out for the baby, though Victoria was certain the discussion Tom wanted to have with her would draw to a close long before Audra woke up.

Victoria entered the massive room Tom used as his office. The man was sitting at his desk staring out the big windows that faced the front of the ranch. The whiskey decanter sat in front of him half empty. He poured another shot down his throat.

“Shut the door, please.”

Victoria did as her husband requested. He stood and led her to one of two overstuffed chairs angled in front of the fireplace. A silence filled the room that was so long and so uncomfortable it reminded Victoria of their first date back when she was sixteen and he was a shy young man of twenty. The bold teenage girl had given way to a bold thirty-nine year old woman. In some homes a woman would be chastised by her husband for speaking before being spoken to. But those rules didn’t apply to Victoria Barkley’s household.

“Tom? What’s going on? What’s got you so upset?”

The man leaned forward in his chair. He cast his gaze upon the oak floor boards. He kneaded his forehead, then ran his hand through his dark short beard and across his mustache.

“I,…..Victoria, you have to believe me when I tell you I love you with all my heart and soul. I fell head over heels for you on our first date.” Tom lifted his head, his blue eyes boring into his wife’s. “You know that don’t you? You know I love you more than life itself.”

“Yes, Tom. I know that. I’ve never doubted it for a moment. Haven’t doubted it through twenty-one years of marriage.”

Tom reached over and took his wife’s hand. Tears swam in his eyes when he squeezed it. “You are still my beautiful Victoria. You always will be.”

“Tom,…..please. You’re scaring me. Tell me what’s wrong, sweetheart.”

The man released his wife’s hand and stood. He walked over to the windows.

“Nine years ago I spent a few months in Strawberry setting up our mining interests there. Do you remember that?”

“Certainly. It was the one and only time you were away on business for more than two weeks. Jarrod was nine, Nick just a little guy of five. They both missed you terribly. As did I.”

The man smiled a moment thinking of his handsome sons. Jarrod was a grown man now and studying law. The spitting image of Tom Barkley minus the beard, many were fond of saying. A son any father would be proud of. Intelligent, thoughtful, a skilled debater, and rabid in his interest for politics. Jarrod was going far in this life. Tom Barkley had no doubt his oldest son would someday be a well-known, well-respected man.

Then there was fourteen-year-old Nick. Dark and brooding, hot-tempered, impetuous and playful. He looked like Victoria’s father yet had his Grandpa Barkley’s personality. Already he was a crackerjack shot with a rifle and had an eye for horses that made him the envy of men three times his age. Like his older brother, Nick was a smart young man, but didn’t care too much for applying that intelligence to his school work. Instead he wanted to run the Barkley ranch along side the father he worshipped. The only way Tom was able to keep his teenage son in Stockton’s schoolhouse was by telling Nick he couldn’t be a full partner in the ranch operations until he earned his graduation certificate.

“I love our boys so much, Victoria. They’re the light of my life. And little Audra. The baby girl we hadn’t expected. She’s my joy. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, Tom, I know that. But you were talking about your trip to Strawberry. Does the letter you received today have something to do with our mines there? Is there a financial problem of some sort we need to discuss?”

“There’s a problem, yes. But it’s not financial in nature.” The man heaved a sigh and continued to stare out the window with his back to his wife. “When I came home from Strawberry all those years ago my right arm was in a sling. I’d been shot.”

Victoria wasn’t sure what her husband wanted her to say. Yes, he’d been shot by a vengeful man who wanted to own the mines Tom purchased. Not only had Tom taken a bullet in his right shoulder, but he’d also been shot in his right side just below his ribcage. That was part of the reason he’d been gone so long. And part of the reason why Victoria had paced the floor at night when three weeks went by without any word from him.

“I told you then that a friend offered me shelter, tended to my wounds, and helped me get back on my feet.”

“Yes, you did.”

“You never asked me who that friend was.”

“Well,…..no. I guess I didn’t. I was so relieved when you rode in that day, and the boys were elated and climbing all over you, and then when I saw the sling and saw how pale and thin you were,……..well with all the other questions that came to mind it just never occurred to me to make any inquiries about your friend. I assumed he was a man you did mining business with.”

“My friend,…..” Tom turned to face his wife. “My friend, Victoria, my friend wasn’t a man. My friend was a woman. A woman named Leah Thomson.”

Before she even asked the question Victoria had a suspicion she knew the answer. Her heart thumped in her chest, her throat suddenly as dry as an Alabama cotton field.

“What are you saying?”

“I,….I don’t know what made me do it. She saved my life. She came upon me in that alley and somehow managed to get me to my feet. We stumbled along, me more unconscious than not, until we arrived to her home. I would have bled to death had she not found me. Strawberry had no doctor back then. She took care of me. Tended to me until I was well enough to travel.”

“And you had to find some way to repay her for her kindness. Is that what you’re telling me, Tom Barkley?”

“It wasn’t like that. Honestly it wasn’t. I don’t,….I was out of it for over a week. Loopy from the pain. My mind wasn’t clear. I know that’s not an excuse. And I’m not asking you to excuse what I did.”

“Did she know you were married?”

“No.” Tom shook his head. “No. I never told her. At least not then.”

“Not then? What do you mean? Have you seen this woman again?”

“No. Never. Not since the day I rode out of there. But after I returned home and was healed I,…..I wrote her a letter.”

Victoria stood. She paced in front of the fireplace.

“So you wrote her a letter and what? Professed your love, but told her it would create too much of a scandal if you left your wife and sons?”

Tom crossed the floor in three strides. He grabbed Victoria by the shoulders, his eyes pleading with her.

“Victoria, no. No, it wasn’t like that.”

“Then maybe you’d better tell me what it was like.”

“I told her it was a mistake on my part. That I was married to a woman I loved very, very much. That I was the father of two young sons I adored. I told her I was sorry. So very sorry for leading her to believe anything but that. I told her our,…..our time together wasn’t her fault, but rather mine. I thanked her for being so kind-hearted and for helping me, a complete stranger. I told her I wanted her to forget me and go forward with her life. To find a good man who would love her as much as I love you.”

Tom dropped his hands and walked over to his desk. “Here. Here’s the letter I wrote her. It’s part of what came in the mail. Read it for yourself.”

Victoria took the letter her husband handed her. It was dog-eared, the writing faded and smudged, as though it had been read, and cried over, many times since the day it arrived.

The words on the paper were almost identical to the ones Tom had just spoken. When Victoria had read it through to the end she handed it back to him.

“You said this is part of what came in the mail. What else came?”

“This was folded inside another letter addressed to me. It was written by a close friend of Leah’s. A woman by the name of Rachel Caufield. I met her when I was staying with,….staying in Strawberry. She was quite a bit older than Leah, and was as much of a mother to her as she was a friend.

“I see. And why did Rachel feel the need to write you?”

Tom tried to put his arm around Victoria only to have her shrug his hand off her shoulder.

“Victoria, please. Let’s sit back down here together.”

The woman would not allow her husband to lead her to the chairs. She made him sit alone and in silence for several minutes before finally joining him. She perched stiffly on the edge of her seat, when Tom tried to take her hand she yanked it away.

“Don’t!”

“Victoria,…”

“Tell me why this Rachel felt the need to write you and enclose that letter.”

“She enclosed the letter as proof, I suppose, of her newly found knowledge of my relationship with Leah.”

“Newly found?”

“Yes. She mentions in her letter that she suspected we had an,…..”

“Go ahead, Tom, say it. An affair. You had an affair.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“Oh it wasn’t, was it? Well, I don’t know what else you’d call it. You can sugar coat it any way you please, but as Mr. Shakespeare was fond of saying, a rose by any other name is still a rose.”

“Okay then, an affair. Rachel suspected Leah and I had engaged in an affair. Nonetheless, that wasn’t confirmed until the day Leah,…..the day Leah passed away.”

“Passed away?”

“Yes. Rachel said she got sick last winter. From what she says in her letter I would guess Leah had some sort of cancer in her internal organs.”

“If you haven’t seen or had contact with this,……with Leah, since you left Strawberry nine years ago, what would make Rachel write you about her death?”

Tom reached for his wife’s hand again. This time she let him take it. The man had to clear his throat before he could speak. And even then it was hard for him to get the words out.

“It seems as though there’s a child. A boy eight years old. Rachel says,……she said Leah told her on her death bed that the boy is mine.”

A horse whinnied and the sound of a man’s shout drifted in through the open window before Victoria spoke again.

“A child,” she repeated, her voice devoid of emotion as though she was in shock. “An eight year old child.”

“Would you like to read the letter? It’s on my desk. Maybe,…..maybe it will help to,….”

Victoria jumped to her feet as tears streamed down her face.

“No, Tom, it won’t help. Nothing will help me right now.”

“Victoria, please. Please listen to,…..”

The woman eluded her husband’s grasp. She threw the study door open and fled the room, Tom at her heels.

“Victoria! Victoria, wait! Please, sweetheart, we have to talk!”

The sobbing woman charged up the stairs, flying by Nick who had just come from putting his schoolbooks in his room.

“Mother? Mother, what’s,……”

Before Nick could finish his question he heard the door to his parents’ room slam shut. Audra gave a startled cry from the nursery.

Nick looked at Tom. In all his fourteen years he’d never seen his father so upset. So flustered. Nor had he ever seen his mother cry before.

“Silas!” Tom yelled. “Silas!”

The black man trotted in from the kitchen.

“Please see to Audra. Mrs. Barkley,…..Mrs. Barkley isn’t feeling well. See if Phillip’s wife will watch the baby for a few hours for me.”

Phillip was the Barkleys’ ranch foreman. He and his wife lived in a two-story frame farmhouse by the barn.

“Yes, Mr. Barkley. I’ll do that.”

Nick watched as Silas disappeared into the nursery. He turned back to his father.

“Father, what’s wrong? Why was Mother crying? Is she sick? Has something bad happened?”

Tom hesitated before answering his son. Would he be making a mistake to tell Nick what had occurred all those years ago in Strawberry? Yet hiding it from him would be unfair. Hard work on the Barkley ranch had caused Nick to grow up fast. He was mature for his age. Intelligent and fair-minded. Hiding the truth from him would be a disservice to the boy. Eventually Nick would find out. The last thing Tom wanted was this type of news to come to his sons by way of anyone but him.

“Father?”

“No, Nick, your mother isn’t sick.”

“But you just told Silas,….”

“Never mind what I told Silas. This is private. Private family business. Come into the study with me, please. I need to talk to you.”

Twenty minutes later another bedroom door slammed in the Barkley house.

So much for Nick and his fair-mindedness.

That night Tom Barkley ate supper alone. He couldn’t get Nick to come out of his room, and as far as Victoria went he didn’t even try.

Tom was finally forced to face his wife at nine o’clock that evening when the hungry Audra was fussing to be nursed. Victoria wouldn’t speak to him as she went about seeing to the baby’s needs. She was gone a long time when she left to put Audra in her crib. Tom began to wonder if she was coming back, or if she’d chosen to sleep in one of the other bedrooms.

The rancher was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of the master bedroom when his wife finally returned. He watched as she sat at her dressing table and brushed her dark hair out in front of the mirror.

“I wish I knew how to make this right with you,” he said quietly.

“I wish you did, too.” Victoria gave her hair three more strokes then set the brush aside. She turned to face her husband. “You talked to Nick?”

“Yes.”

“What did you tell him?”

“The same thing I told you. The truth.”

“Has he been out of his room at all this evening?”

“No. He wouldn’t come down for dinner, and he refused the tray I had Silas bring up to him.”

“I’ll talk to him in the morning.”

“What are you going to tell him?”

“I don’t know, Tom. I just,….I don’t know.”

“Are you going to leave me?”

“You’d deserve it if I did. You’d deserve it if I walked out of here tomorrow with Nick and Audra. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes. I know that. I shattered your trust in me. I,…..that’s why I never told you about Leah. I wanted to. So many times I wanted to come clean and tell you the truth. But I knew how angry you’d be. More importantly I knew how hurt you’d be. It was a mistake on my part. A horrible mistake. A terrible lapse in judgment. I just,….I just thought if we could get through the rest of our lives without you ever having to know then you wouldn’t be hurt by my foolishness.”

“But we can’t run from our mistakes, Tom. Or lie to hide them. Isn’t that what you always tell your sons?”

“It is.”

Victoria looked into her husband’s eyes. “Have there been others?”

“Other women you mean?”

“Yes.”

The man shot out of the chair and dropped to his knees in front of his wife. He grasped her hands in his. She could feel the calluses from the hours and hours of hard work it took to build this ranch into what it was today.

“No, Victoria. No. Never. And there never will be. You’re my one true love. You have to believe me.”

Victoria hadn’t seen tears run down Tom Barkley’s face since the day they buried baby Tommy nearly twenty years ago.

“I’m so afraid you’ll leave me. I can’t live without you. I love you so much. And my,……my stupidity has hurt you so. Has shattered all that we had.”

Victoria brought a trembling hand up and ran it through her husband’s hair.

“It hasn’t shattered all that we had, Tom. But it’s shattered an important part of it.”

The couple clung to each other then and cried together. Long after their tears dried they remained locked in a firm embrace. Tom didn’t make any move toward the bed until his wife took him by the hand and led him there. He blew out the lamp, then climbed in beside her fully clothed. He put an arm around her waist and pulled her close. Victoria felt Tom’s tears trickle down her neck as he cried silently into her hair.

Victoria laid awake that night long after her husband fell into a fitful sleep. It was after midnight when she reached for her robe at the end of the bed. She put her feet in her slippers and silently exited the room. She picked an oil lamp up off a hall table and lit it before entering the nursery.

The woman stood over her baby daughter. The child was asleep on her stomach, her thumb firmly encased in her little mouth. Pale yellow curls ringed her round head like a custom-made cap. Victoria envied Audra her innocence. The little girl would never have to be aware of her father’s indiscretions if they chose not to tell her.

Victoria ran the back of her hand over a chubby cheek. “Oh my sweet baby daughter, how would I ever get through this pain without you? The Lord must have known what he was doing when he surprised me with your presence in my womb.”

Victoria stopped in Nick’s room next. He was asleep, too, but his mother saw the dried tears on his face.

“My Nick,” she whispered. “Already so strong and brave at fourteen. Already so quick to hide your pain from those around you. Already so quick to be a man. But you learned today that being a man means you pay a price for your wisdom. Oh, Nicky, how I wish I could have protected you from the knowledge you now have. How I wish your father could have stayed on the pedestal where you have always placed him at the end of each day. How I wish you hadn’t been forced to see your hero tumble from his perch.”

Victoria bent and placed a light kiss on Nick’s temple. She left the room as quietly as she’d entered. She made her way down the stairs to Tom’s study. His desk top had been cleared, but she knew where he would have put those letters. She set her lamp down, opened his middle drawer and pulled the letters out. She reread the first one he’d written to Leah Thomson nine years earlier. Once again Victoria needed to see for herself that he really had spoken of his enormous love for her, and that he voiced his regret and pain to Leah at initiating the affair.

The next letter was harder to read. It took her a long time to have the courage to unfold it. She pulled her lamp closer to the paper.

Dear Mr. Barkley,

I don’t know if you’ll remember me or not, but my name is Rachel Caufield. I was a good friend of Leah Thomson. Leah passed away on August 20th. She became ill last winter and only got worse as the months progressed. She grew so thin there was nothing to her but skin and bones by the time the good Lord took her. She had so much pain in her stomach that she couldn’t eat.

I am writing to tell you I found a letter from you amongst Leah’s personal papers. I have enclosed it. I am also writing to tell you Leah left behind an eight-year-old son. Leah never told me who the boy’s father was until her last day on this earth. Shortly before she died she said you are his father, Mr. Barkley, though to tell you the truth I had suspected that from the moment nine years ago when she told me she was pregnant. As you will recall, Leah was every bit a lady. She had never been with a man before you, sir, nor was she ever with one in all the days since you left.

Heath Morgan Thomson, as the child is known, is as sweet as any eight-year-old boy can be. He was his mother’s joy and she loved him with all her heart, as he loved her. Leah entrusted Heath’s care to me and our friend Hannah. I love Heath as if he was my own child, Hannah feels the same way. But neither of us are young women and I have always believed that a boy needs the influence of a father in his life if he’s going to grow up to be a decent man.

Leah has no other living relatives but her brother Matt. He and his wife live here in Strawberry and have been after me to let them raise Heath. Leah would not have wanted that, Mr. Barkley. Matthew Thomson is a nasty, dishonest man. Heath will have a hard life if he’s ever forced to live with his Uncle Matt. Forgive me for speaking ill of the man, but I know what he wants. He has always been lazy and shiftless. He will no doubt put Heath to work in the mines before the boy reaches his twelfth birthday, and then demand the boy’s salary from him. Mark my words, the only reason Matt wants that child is so he can live off him.

If I do not hear from you I will not bother you again, nor make trouble for you. Leah wouldn’t have wanted it that way. I will do my best to raise Heath and keep him out of Matt Thomson’s home. I know you have a wife and at least two sons. Maybe by now you have more children so Heath would not be so important to you. However, I cannot end this letter without telling you what a loving, intelligent child he is and how any father would be proud to call him son, just as his mother was proud to call him son. His little heart has been broken since Leah’s death. I think he feels very alone.

Sincerely,

Rachel Caufield

Victoria paid no attention when the Grandfather clock in the foyer struck one a.m. At one-fifteen her husband stuck his head in the study.

“Victoria?”

She looked up when he entered the room. His blood shot eyes and rumpled clothes reflected the troubles on his mind.

“Sweetheart, what are you doing down here by yourself at this time of the morning?”

“I had to read Rachel’s letter.”

“I see.”

“What are you going to do about the child, Tom?”

“I was planning on discussing that with you in a few days. It’s not a matter of what I’m going to do with him, it’s a matter of what we decide to do together.”

“There’s no matter of deciding. You must go to Strawberry and get him. He’ll live here with us.”

Tom walked over and perched a hip on the corner of his desk.

“I wasn’t going to ask you to do that, Victoria. I can make regular visits to Strawberry to see him. I can give Rachel money to provide for him. All the money she needs and then some. Later, when he’s older, I’ll send him to the college of his choice. Perhaps then he can visit us here and get to know his brothers and sister.”

“But that’s not what you really want to do, is it.”

“It’s not a matter of what I want to do. It’s a matter of what’s easiest on you and the children.”

“Tom, life is never easy. There’s always bumps in the road. If Heath comes here to live with us now Audra will never know the difference. And as far as Jarrod and Nick go,……well, like I said life is never easy. Never without its disappointments and heartaches. Perhaps it’s time they learn that.”

“I think Nick learned it today.”

“I think he did, too.”

Victoria folded the letters and returned them to Tom’s desk drawer. She stood and crossed to the windows where she stared out at the full moon. She felt her husband walk up behind her.

“I know what kind of a town Strawberry is because I’ve been in mining towns with you before,” Victoria said. “For the most part they’re filled with rough men who put little value on education. Men like this Matt Thomson Rachel speaks of in her letter. We have so much to offer that little boy. It would be a shame if any opportunities bypassed him simply because we didn’t have the courage to stand up and do what’s right. Simply because we tried to save face by hiding him fifty miles away.”

The woman turned and looked into her husband’s eyes. “It’s not his fault, Tom. It’s not that little boy’s fault that he was born.”

“I know. And not for one moment have I thought it is. Believe me, I know whose fault it is.”

“He has no one now except two old ladies who were his mother’s friends, and one uncle that doesn’t sound like he’s fit to own a dog let alone raise a child. You have to bring Heath here. He deserves to be a part of this family. He deserves to know his father, his brothers, and his baby sister.”

“Yes, he does. But what about you? One way or the other you’ll be forced to become mother to a child who isn’t yours. To a child who,……a child who might break your heart every time you look at him.”

Victoria gave her husband a soft smile. “No child of yours could ever break my heart.” She laid a hand on Tom’s chest. “He’s just a little boy of eight years. A little boy whose mother has died. He must be so scared, Tom. So afraid of what the future holds for him.”

“I’ve thought of that, too.”

“What else have you thought of?”

“Pardon me?”

“I’ve told you what I think we must do for Heath. What do you think?”

“The exact same things. If you ask me not to bring him here I won’t. I’ve already told you the other options I’ve considered in terms of providing for him and getting to know him. But I’ll admit that’s not what I want to do. My heart has been breaking for that child ever since the letter arrived. I feel so guilty. Guilty for his sake. Guilty for yours. I just,…..I wish Leah would have told me long ago. I don’t know what I would have done had I known any sooner, but maybe it would have been easier on all of us if this had come up when Jarrod and Nick were too young to understand the whys and wherefores.”

“Possibly. But there’s no use in wondering what might have been.” Victoria paused. “Tom, I have one question I need to ask you before you make arrangements for Heath to come here.”

“Yes?”

“Are you sure,….absolutely sure this child is yours?”

Tom thought back to the first night he’d made love to Leah Thomson. He wasn’t going to tell his wife in so many words that the woman had been a virgin, but when he nodded his head she understood what he meant. He couldn’t explain further as to how he was so certain that Rachel was telling the truth when she said Leah hadn’t been with another man after Tom left Strawberry, he just instinctively knew it was fact. Granted, the love affair had been a short one, but there was a goodness about Leah, a pureness that was hard to define with the spoken word.

“All right then,” Victoria stated. “Heath must be brought here as soon as possible. There’s simply no choice in the matter.”

“I want to go see Jarrod first. I need to talk to him. I want him to read the letters just as you have. I’ll go to town tomorrow, buy a ticket for Friday evening’s train, and wire Jarrod to let him know I’ll be arriving in San Francisco on Saturday morning.”

“Did you offer to let Nick read the letters?”

“No. I pondered it, but he’s only fourteen. I wasn’t certain if they’re something he should be privy to.”

“He needs to read them, Tom. They might help him understand.”

“I don’t think anything’s going to help Nick understand right at the moment. He’s not speaking to me.”

“It will take him time to mend. He’s suffered a big blow. After all, you’re his idol.”

“I was his idol, you mean.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. You’ll always be Nick’s idol. But he’s learned one of his first lessons on the road to adulthood.”

“And what lesson is that?”

“Even idols are human. They make mistakes. They disappoint us. They don’t always live up to our expectations and it’s not fair of us to ask them to.”

Tears filled Tom’s eyes. “I never wanted to disappoint my son. To fall short of his expectations.”

“I know you didn’t, but you’re not perfect, Tom. No man is. Maybe it’s time Nick learned that.”

“I wish he didn’t have to. At least not yet.”

“I wish he didn’t have to, either. But such is the way of the world. I don’t believe God thrusts things like this upon us for no reason.”

“What do you mean?”

“If Tommy had lived you’d have three sons. Now Heath will be joining us and you’ll have three sons. Maybe that’s the way God meant for it to be.”

Tom pulled his wife to his chest. He held her tiny body firm within his embrace and placed kisses in her soft hair. Tears ran down his cheeks preventing him from making a reply to her words.

*****

Two weeks later Tom Barkley left for Strawberry. His visit with Jarrod went far better than his discussion with Nick. But then Tom had expected it would. Jarrod was levelheaded and calm. He had been since the day he was born. And possibly by virtue of his age he understood better than Nick the temptations adult men face as they navigate their way through life. Nonetheless, Jarrod wrote his mother a letter that deeply touched her heart when he offered sympathy for the pain she was enduring and told her how much he loved her.

Jarrod agreed with Victoria on the issue of Heath being raised on the Barkley ranch. He summed up his thoughts on that issue in one sentence said to his father.

“His life will be so much richer by knowing you, Father. By experiencing your love for him, and Mother’s love as well.”

Though Nick had returned to working beside his father after school and on weekends he continued to give Tom the cold shoulder. For now Tom let him be. Nick seemed to be at his happiest when they discussed together the day to day workings of the ranch. When he was told Heath would be coming to live with them he didn’t greet the news the way Jarrod had.

“But why?” Nick asked both his parents behind the closed doors of the study one week before Tom was due to pick Heath up from Rachel.

“Why does he have to come live here?”

“Because he’s your brother,” Victoria replied.

“Half brother.” The teenager glared at his father. “He’s my half-brother.”

Victoria’s voice was firm, her tone allowing no room for argument.

“Nicholas, there are no halves in this household and there never will be. Heath is your brother, end of discussion. And as your brother his place is in this home with all of us.”

“But you’re not his mother. You shouldn’t have to raise him.”

“No, Nick, I’m not his mother. But his mother is dead which means I’m the closest person to a mother Heath will ever have. I know this is hard for you to understand, but when a man and woman marry they make a commitment to one another to see each other through the hard times. No minister on this earth can define for you what the hard times will include. Sometimes they include situations like this. Sometimes they mean a man or a woman takes part in raising a child that is not theirs by birth.”

“You just said a man and a woman make a commitment to each other when they get married.”

“Yes, I said that.”

Nick pushed himself out of his chair. “Well it looks to me like Father didn’t uphold his end of the bargain.”

“Nick!” Victoria chased after the teen who was already taking the stairs two at a time. “Nicholas, get down here and apologize to your father!”

“Victoria, no.” Tom joined his wife in the foyer. “Let him go. He has the right to say what he feels. Maybe it will help him heal a little if he gets some of this off his chest.”

Although Victoria didn’t normally stand for impudence from her children she had to admit Tom was correct. Nick needed the freedom to say what was on his mind. She just prayed he held his tongue and temper when Heath arrived.

*****

Victoria didn’t know why she had butterflies in her stomach the day Tom was due home with Heath. After all, she’d successfully raised her oldest son to adulthood and wasn’t that many years away from being able to say the same about her younger son. Of course it wasn’t just meeting Heath that caused her to lose her appetite, but as well the knowledge of the months of speculations and wagging tongues his arrival would prompt. Tom had already met with the ranch hands. He hadn’t gone into any detail about Heath, but simply said he would be leaving for Strawberry to bring his eight-year-old son to the ranch to live. He had also talked to Silas.

Victoria was no fool. She knew the men would immediately know Heath was the product of an extramarital affair. She had no choice but to accept that fact, but hated the thought of the gossip that would soon be flying around Stockton. Nonetheless it couldn’t be helped. She wasn’t going to lie about Heath and say he was a nephew or the child of a distant cousin who had recently passed away. That would be a disservice to the boy, and wouldn’t show Jarrod and Nick the honest man their father really was. Tom Barkley felt it was important that a man own up to his mistakes. He proved that to Nick the day he faced their ranch hands and announced Heath’s impending arrival.

Victoria parted the dining room curtains. She’d been watching for the buggy all afternoon. She walked back into the parlor where Audra sat on a blanket playing with the toys scattered around her chubby body. Nick came down the stairs.

“Mother, can’t I go now? I’ve been cooped up in the house all afternoon. I wanna go check on those heifers in the north pasture.”

“You ‘want to go’, Nick. Not ‘wanna go’.”

“Okay, I want to go.”

“I realize that. But no. You stay right here until Father returns.”

“Come on, Mother. I can meet this kid at dinner. I don’t need to be here when they drive up.”

Victoria turned from where she was sitting on the floor beside her daughter.

“First of all we need to get something straight. He’s not ‘this kid’. He’s your brother and his name is Heath.”

Nick flopped down on the sofa and crossed his arms over his chest. “Heath. What kind of a stupid name is that anyway?”

“I happen to think it’s a very nice name. Very unique. It sounds strong, don’t you think? It sounds like the name of a man you can depend on.”

“Mother, he’s not a man. He’s an eight-year-old boy.”

Victoria gave her son a pointed look. “You’re right, he is. And don’t you forget it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I’m asking you to set your anger aside and think of how you’d feel if you were in his place. That child was raised by just his mother, Nick. Until last week when your father wired Rachel, Heath had no idea who his father was. Until last week he had no idea he had siblings. He’s eight years old and his mother is dead. Now a man who’s a complete stranger to him is taking him out of the town he’s grown up in and bringing him to a family and place he doesn’t know. Think about how frightening that must be.”

“I wouldn’t be scared.”

“You can say that with all the bravado you want, but you would be. You’d be more than scared. You’d be terrified just like I imagine Heath is. And that’s why it’s important that you be here when Father arrives. I want Heath to meet the whole family all at one time.”

“What about Jarrod? He’s not here.”

“Jarrod’s not here because he’s away at college and has exams this week. He’ll be back at Christmas. But more important than Jarrod is you, Nick.”

“Why? Why am I so important?”

“Because you’re closer in age to Heath.”

“Oh no.” Nick shook his head. “No. If you think I’m gonna be some kind of playmate to an eight-year-old you’d better think again.”

“And if you continue to talk to your mother with such a smart mouth you’ll get the opportunity to remember what the bathroom soap tastes like.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just that I’ve got better things to do than babysit an eight-year-old city boy.”

“Strawberry is hardly a city.”

“Whatever.”

“Nonetheless, you’ll be the one who rides back and forth to school with Heath and helps him get acquainted with the other children. You’re going to be a big part of his life whether you want to be or not.”

“Do I have a choice?”

Victoria heard the buggy stop in the front of the house. She scooped up Audra and placed the baby on her hip. She patted Nick’s knee as she passed him.

“No, you don’t have a choice. Now come on. Father’s home. Let’s go greet him and your brother.”

Victoria pretended she didn’t hear the mumbled, “My brother my eye. The only brother I have is Jarrod.”

Victoria made Nick wait with her in the foyer. As much as she wanted to rush outside she resisted the temptation. She didn’t want to overwhelm Heath any further than he already had been. She heard Tom talking before the door opened.

“And we’ll need to set you up with a horse once you’re all settled in. Your brothers rode Ginger when they were your age. She’s gentle and patient, the perfect horse for a young man learning to ride. She’s been lonely ever since Nick got Coco. She’ll love having a boy pay attention to her again.”

If Heath made a reply Victoria didn’t hear it. She found herself holding her breath when the door swung open.

The woman’s eyes immediately fell to the child who was standing so hesitant and small next to her husband. If she had any doubts he belonged to Tom Barkley they were dispelled right then. No, he didn’t have Tom’s features or dark hair, but rather he was the spitting image of Tom’s father, Theodore Barkley, and Tom’s younger brother, Theodore junior, whom everyone called Thor. Heath had the same handsome Scottish highland looks and coloring his grandpa and uncle possessed. No doubt he’d someday turn the heads of every woman he encountered just like Thor had in his younger days, and as it was rumored Grandpa Barkley had when he was a young man. The child’s hair was golden blond with strong red highlights, his lashes long and strawberry blond. He had Ted Barkley’s nose as well, straight and a little flat on the end. And he had one thing in common with his father, the baby blue Barkley eyes that had been passed on to Jarrod and Audra, too.

Tom urged the boy in the house by placing a light hand between his thin shoulder blades. He closed the door and smiled.

“Victoria, this is Heath. Heath, this is my wife Victoria.”

Prior to Tom leaving to pick Heath up he and Victoria had discussed how the child should address her. They’d come to no firm conclusions and decided Heath would have to decide that for himself.

Victoria held out her hand. The boy dropped his eyes to the floor as he placed his small hand in hers. She could feel him trembling and bent to hug him. He was so scared all she wanted to do was comfort him, assure him everything would be okay. But as she moved so did he. He took a step backwards leading Victoria to conclude he wanted no part of her hugs.

She straightened and offered him a smile in place of a hug. “Heath, I’m pleased to meet you.” She had to strain to hear his reply.

“Pleased to meet you, too, ma’am.”

Tom continued with the introductions. “And this pretty little lady on Victoria’s hip is your baby sister Audra.”

Heath glanced up at the grinning baby but didn’t make a comment about her one way or another.

“And this strapping young man is your brother Nick.”

Victoria looked at Nick and cleared her throat. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes when he held out his hand.

“Hi.”

Heath’s hand disappeared into Nick’s. “Hi.”

“And I’ve told you about Jarrod, your oldest brother,” Tom said when the brief handshake came to an end. “He’s away at college in San Francisco. He’s quite anxious to meet you, but won’t be able to come home until Christmas.”

Though Heath didn’t move his head Victoria could see him taking in every inch of the foyer, his eyes roaming from floor to ceiling.

“Tom, why don’t you get the rest of Heath’s things and we’ll show him to his room.”

Before her husband could reply Heath reached for the tattered satchel Tom was carrying. The child stood straight up, his chin jutting forward. For the first time his eyes met Victoria’s and in them she saw the Barkley pride.

“Everything I have is in here.”

Tom nodded at Victoria over the boy’s head. By looking at the satchel the woman estimated Heath couldn’t have more than two pair of pants, two shirts, a nightshirt and some undergarments in there.

“And I’m wearing my Sunday suit because Rachel said I should.”

Victoria smiled. The black suit coat was worn at the elbows. The arms of the coat barely reached Heath’s wrists, the pants stopped just above his ankles, and both knees possessed small patches.

“I see that you are. And it looks as though you’ve been growing like a weed because it barely fits you. If I remember correctly boys your age love nothing better than a good, home-cooked meal.”

Heath’s eyes dropped to the floor. “I won’t eat much, ma’am.”

Victoria and her husband exchanged glances. Tom put his arm around Heath.

“Heath, in this house you can eat all you want. You can have as many helpings as you like. No one goes away from our table hungry. Do you understand?”

Heath wouldn’t look at his father but he did nod his head.

“Okay then, now that we have that settled I’ll show you to your bedroom.”

The boy’s eyes flitted from the foyer, to Tom’s study, to the gun room, to the parlor, and then to wide, curving staircase.

“Where’s the other people who live here?”

“Other people? There’s no other people except your brother Jarrod and Silas. Remember I told you about Silas? He helps my wife take care of the house.”

For the first time Victoria saw animation on the child’s face.

“This house is all yours? Every single room of it?”

Tom chuckled. “Yes, every single room of it. Though it’s not just mine. It belongs to Victoria, and Jarrod, and Nick, and Audra, and you as well.”

“Wow! This is even bigger than the hotel in Strawberry. Lots bigger. And prettier, too.”

Tom held out a hand that Heath readily took.

“Come on then, let me give you the grand tour so you’ll know where everything is.” The man looked over his shoulder. “Nick, come along with us.”

Nick scowled. “I already know where everything is.”

“Nick!” Victoria scolded.

“Well, I do. Besides the horse and buggy need to be put away. I’d rather do that.”

“And I’d rather you go with Father and show Heath his room.”

“Victoria.” Tom shook his head at his wife, then looked to his teenager. “All right, Nick. You go ahead and take care of the horse and buggy. As long as you’re so anxious to be outside you can also do your other chores.”

“Gladly.”

Nick gave the door an unnecessary slam as he stomped out. Victoria knew his anger had nothing to do with the chores he’d been told to do. Telling Nick he had to work outside amongst the animals and ranch hands was hardly something he deemed punishment.

Victoria hoped the reason for Nick’s bad manners were lost on Heath. She realized that wish was not to be the minute she looked at the little boy’s face. She had no doubt he fully comprehended what was going on, and she could tell he was blaming himself for it.

The woman smiled, putting a hand on Heath’s back. The second she touched Heath she felt him stiffen and sidle toward Tom. Victoria allowed her hand to fall.

“Tom, go ahead and show Heath his room, then the rest of the house. After that he might like a treat from the kitchen.”

“Aren’t you coming with us?”

“No. No, I need to change Audra’s diaper and put her down for her nap.”

The man leaned forward and kissed his wife on cheek. In her ear he whispered, “Just give him some time. He’s scared. This is all new to him.”

Victoria nodded. She watched her husband guide Heath up the stairs. By the time they hit the landing and were on their way up the second short set of stairs that lead to the bedrooms she could hear Heath chattering away again about the size and beauty of the house.

Victoria kissed Audra’s head, taking in the baby sweet smell of her.

At least Heath is already comfortable with Tom. Hopefully in a few short days he’ll feel the same way about me.

For the time being Victoria concentrated on tending to the needs of her baby. She smiled when Audra wrapped her chubby arms around her neck.

You’ve already learned hugs always make a person feel better, haven’t you, baby girl.”

Victoria left her final thought unspoken. That she hoped Heath would soon learn the same thing.

*****

By the time the family sat down to supper that night Heath had been given a tour of the house and barns. Victoria felt sorry for both Nick and Heath when Nick entered the dining room and scowled at the boy. Heath had no way of knowing he had taken Nick’s chair when he’d sat down on Tom’s right side. Before Nick said something hurtful to his new sibling Victoria pointed to the chair on Tom’s left.

“Nick, why don’t you sit there.”

“But that’s Jarrod’s seat.”

“Since Jarrod isn’t here I doubt it will make any difference to him if you take it.”

“And what about when he comes home at Christmas?”

“When he comes home at Christmas he can sit right here next to me.”

“But that’s not how it’s always been.” Nick glared at Heath with open contempt. “Why can’t he sit next to you starting right now?”

Heath’s eyes flicked between Nick and Victoria. He started to rise from his seat. “I can eat somewhere else. I can eat out in the barn.”

“Oh please,” Nick mumbled under his breath.

Tom tried to make a joke of the whole thing. “In the barn? You really want to eat in the barn with the horses?”

“I don’t mind.”

“Hmmm. In the barn, huh? And how much hay and water should we give you?”

The child didn’t smile at Tom’s teasing. He shrugged his thin shoulders and dropped his eyes. “However much you want.”

Tom reached out a hand and placed it atop the eight-year-old’s head.

“Heath, I was kidding you. You’re not going to eat in the barn, and I’m sure Silas has something better for us than hay.”

Silas entered from the kitchen bearing a platter of roast beef and a bowl heaped high with steaming mashed potatoes. “I surely do, Mr. Barkley.”

“I’ll second that, Silas. The food smells wonderful.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll be back with the rest.”

Tom patted the seat of Heath’s chair. “Now you go ahead and sit here.” He reached over and pulled out the chair on his left. “And you, Nicholas, sit right here.”

“But Jarrod,….”

“We’ll worry about Jarrod when he comes home. There’s plenty of room around this table for everyone to sit where they want to. And right now want my two boys named Nick and Heath sitting on either side of me.”

Victoria stood and carried the two empty chairs at the table to separate corners of the room. She smiled as she reseated herself.

“See. Now that solves that, Nick. We have just enough places for all of us and this way you and Heath will be sitting between both Father and myself.”

Nick glared across the table at Heath. “So does that mean someone will be eating in the barn when Jarrod comes home?”

“No.” Victoria took the bowl of green beans Silas handed her. “That means we’ll return one chair to the table and Jarrod will sit by the mother who has missed him very much.”

Victoria caught the smile Tom threw her way. She’d been married to him long enough to know he was silently thanking her for her mother’s wisdom and diplomacy.

Tom helped Heath fill his plate. The boy didn’t refuse anything he was offered leaving Tom to wonder if he thought he didn’t have that right, or if he was really that hungry. Within ten minutes the man realized Heath, despite the snack Silas had fed him three hours earlier, must have been famished. He cleared his plate then readily accepted more when Tom offered it to him.

Nick snorted. “I thought you said you didn’t eat much.”

Heath’s fork stopped on its way to his mouth.

Tom shot his teenager a stern look. “That was uncalled for.”

“I was only kidding.”

“You didn’t sound like you were only kidding. And speaking of that, I would advise you to alter the tone of voice you’ve been using in recent days. I don’t like it. Your mother doesn’t like it. And it will no longer be tolerated. Do I make myself clear?”

Nick’s hazel eyes slid from his father to Heath.

“Nick?”

“Yes, sir.”

Tom turned to the blond boy. “You go ahead and finish eating, Heath Then if you still want more you’re welcome to it.”

“I don’t have to have more. I just thought we were supposed to eat all we could.”

“Pardon me?”

“You know. In case there won’t be any food for a couple of days.”

“No food for a couple of days?”

Heath forked a green bean. With a child’s honesty he explained, “Yes. Sometimes we ran out of food before Mother got her paycheck.”

“Oh. I see.” Tom swallowed the lump in his throat as he reached out and placed a hand over Heath’s. “Well, that won’t happen here because all the food on this table we grow ourselves. You never have to worry again about going without a meal, son.”

“I wasn’t worried. If it happens it happens. Mother and I did okay for ourselves. We took care of each other.”

Tom squeezed the boy’s hand. “I’m sure you did.”

Victoria felt tears well up in her eyes at the child’s matter-of-fact words. If only Leah Thomson had notified Tom when she’d discovered she was pregnant. Regardless of what Victoria’s feelings were about the affair, it pained her to think this little boy had sometimes gone to bed hungry.

Without breaking the stride of the spoonful of mashed potatoes that were headed to Audra’s mouth Victoria glanced at Nick. Though he was trying to hide it she could tell Heath’s words had gotten to him as well.

I know you’ve been terribly hurt by your father’s actions, Nick, but you need to accept this child as your brother. You need to realize he’s been forced to live a hard life because of Father’s mistake. And you need to realize how very lucky you are.

Deep down Victoria knew Nick probably did realize all those things. Whether he’d ever be able to come to terms with the existence of this new brother only time would tell.

Heath’s eyes lit up like it was Christmas when apple pie was served. Victoria suspected dessert wasn’t a normal part of any meal he’d experienced in the past. Something so simple as pie fresh from the oven seemed to relax them all. For the first time since Tom had broken the news of Heath to them the family lingered around the table after dinner. It seemed like months had passed since Nick had spoken to his father with a civil tongue. But while Victoria and Tom sipped hot coffee, and Audra sat in the highchair playing with her wooden blocks, Nick engaged his father in a discussion about cattle prices. Thirty minutes later the conversation began to wind down. Victoria looked at her husband, then shifted her eyes to Heath. At some point during the past half hour he’d laid his head on the table and fallen sound asleep.

Tom smiled at the blond boy. “I’d say someone has had a long day.” The man stood. As gingerly as possible he scooted Heath’s chair back from the table.

“I haven’t carried anyone to bed since Nick used to do this same exact thing when he was Heath’s age.” Tom got the boy positioned so Heath’s head was resting on his shoulder. He looked across the table and winked at Nick. “I’ll have to confess I’ve missed it.”

Victoria wasn’t sure what she saw in Nick’s eyes as Tom carried Heath up the stairs. Jealousy. Envy. Anger. Probably all those things and a dozen more feelings she couldn’t identify.

“Nick.”

The teenager turned to face his mother. “Yes?”

“A parent’s heart holds more room for love than can be defined with the spoken word. No one will ever take your Father’s love away from you. He has plenty of it to share with all his children.”

“I know that.”

“Are you certain?”

Nick did his best to smile as he rose from the table. “Yes, Mother, I’m certain.”

The dark headed boy tweaked Audra’s nose, then bent to hug his mother. He held onto her a long time. She ran a hand through his hair and kissed his cheek.

“I know it’s difficult, sweetheart. Believe me, I know it’s difficult. But be patient. Time is the great healer of all wounds.”

Nick kissed Victoria’s forehead as he stood. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed before how tall he’d gotten in recent months. How thick his shoulders had become. How broad his chest had grown. In those brief seconds she saw a glimpse of the man he would become.

“I’ll be fine, Mother,” he said with a maturity that had been missing in recent weeks. “But what about you? Will you be all right?”

“Yes, Nick. I’ll be all right.”

Nick squeezed her hand then walked away. Victoria hoped her assurances brought a measure of peace to Nick’s fourteen-year-old heart.

*****

Victoria was dressing for bed when Tom entered their room at ten o’clock that night.

“Who won the checker game?”

“Nick.”

“I’m glad you suggested the two of you play. He needed some of his father’s undivided attention tonight.”

“I know. I’m sure it will be a struggle for him until Heath feels comfortable with all of us.”

“And a struggle for you as well.”

“What makes you say that?”

Victoria turned down the covers and climbed in bed. She watched as her husband stripped his clothes off.

“Heath will demand a lot of your attention in days to come. Nick’s not going to like that. At least not for a while. The burden of giving both of them what they need is going to fall largely on you.”

“As it should considering I’m the one who brought this trouble upon us.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call Heath trouble.”

Tom leaned back against his pillows and smiled. “No, neither would I. He’s a hard little boy not to like. Despite all he’s lived without he’s got such a loving spirit.”

The man looked at his wife.

“When I was helping him unpack he pulled out a wooden train engine. It was the only toy he had with him. I asked him where the rest of the train was. Do you know what he told me?”

“What?”

“That Santa Claus can’t afford to bring toys to every child every year. He said he got the engine for Christmas when he was four and Santa hadn’t been able to come back yet because other boys and girls needed toys.”

“Oh, Tom.”

“I know. It about broke my heart. But like the comment he made at the supper table about sometimes going without food he said it very matter of factly. As though he’d long ago accepted his lot in life and wasn’t going to feel sorry for himself nor allow anyone else to feel sorry for him.”

“His mother deserves credit for that.”

Tom reached for his wife’s hand. “I’m sure she does.”

“How about clothes? What does he need?”

“Everything. Shirts, pants, socks, underwear,” the man winked at his wife. “And a new Sunday suit.”

Victoria chuckled. “Yes, I could see that. Before he starts school you’ll need to take him to town and get him clothes and shoes.”

“Me? I thought that was your department.”

“Generally it is. I shudder to think how you’ll dress the child without my influence, but this once I’ll relinquish that duty to you.”

“Can I ask why?”

“Because he doesn’t feel comfortable with me.”

“He will in time, sweetheart.”

“I’m sure you’re right. If I remember correctly eight-year-old boys are quite resilient. Nonetheless, for now it will be easier on Heath if you see to his needs. When he’s ready,…..well when he’s ready to accept me in the role of Mother I’m sure he’ll come to me.”

“I’m sure he will, too.” Tom lifted his wife’s hand and kissed her knuckles. “He’d be a fool not to.”

“You haven’t had a chance yet to tell me about your trip to Strawberry.”

Tom stayed four days at the hotel in Strawberry. He and Victoria had agreed he needed to spend time getting acquainted with Heath before bringing him to the ranch.

“Overall it went well. Rachel and Hannah had prepared Heath for my arrival as much as they could. The first day I was there I joined the three of them for supper. Heath was very shy. And very frightened, too, I’m sure. Rachel was wonderful. She seemed to instinctively know what to do to help him adjust. She asked me to stay after supper and suggested Heath and I play a game of Old Maid. She and Hannah discreetly disappeared. She invited me back for breakfast the next morning. I walked Heath to school, then was waiting for him when school let out. Again I had supper with them and stayed until it was time for Heath to go to bed. We repeated this routine the third day, and by Thursday Rachel suggested he not go to school but simply spend the day with me. That was the best thing we could have done. I asked him to show me the sights Strawberry had to offer. That’s when he first started to open up. He gave me a tour of the town, pointing out every nook and cranny. He’s an observant little fellow, I’ll tell you that. There’s nothing that goes on in that town he doesn’t know about. And I doubt there’s a person he doesn’t know. We had a nice day. A very nice day. It was Rachel who decided I should leave for home with him on Friday morning.”

“How did that go?”

“It was difficult. Up until then I’m not sure if Heath fully understood I’d be taking him away from Rachel and Hannah, or if he’d allowed himself to believe I was just a nice man who had come to visit and would soon be leaving again. I’m guessing the latter because Rachel told me she’d been honest with Heath about my intentions. He cried when he had to hug those two women goodbye. They cried, too. And to tell you the truth I felt like crying. Right then I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I almost decided I should leave Heath with Rachel and work out a visitation schedule with her. She must have known that’s what I was thinking because as Heath clung to her waist and sobbed she looked at me and said, “Mr. Barkley, you’re doing the right thing. You’re doing what Leah would have wanted you to.”

“And I’m sure you are, Tom. We knew this wouldn’t be an easy transition for any of us. Most of all for Heath.”

“I know. But I’ll tell you it broke my heart taking him away from there. He looked so small and scared sitting in the buggy beside me as he left behind everything and everyone he had ever known.”

“Did his uncle come say goodbye to him?”

“No. Though he did search me out at the hotel and ask for money.”

“Money? Whatever for?”

“For the care he and his wife had given Heath.”

“But I thought he’d been left in the care of Rachel and Hannah.”

“By Leah’s request he had been. Believe me, Matt Thomson is everything Rachel said and then some. The man’s a scoundrel and a liar. I wouldn’t want my boy within two hundred feet of him. I ended up giving him fifty dollars just to get rid of him.”

“That was generous.”

“He didn’t seem to think so, but I really don’t care. And here Rachel and Hannah, who are struggling to provide for themselves, didn’t ask me for a penny.”

“Did you give them what we agreed upon anyway?”

Before Tom left for Strawberry he and Victoria had decided to pay the women five hundred dollars for the care they’d given Heath.

“Yes. Though both of them tried to refuse it. Rachel said she felt like Heath was her own child, and Hannah said you can’t pay a person for love that comes from the heart.”

“They sound like good women.”

“They are. They’ve both had their share of troubles in this life. Rachel has been widowed for many years. She and her husband had five children. None of them lived beyond the age of three. Hannah is a runaway slave from Georgia. Her husband and two young children were killed by their master a good number of years ago now. Or at least that’s what Rachel told me.”

“So Heath was all they had.”

“Yes. They love him very much, and he them. But Rachel made the correct decision when she wrote me. Neither of them are young women, Victoria. Whether they would have lived long enough to raise him to adulthood is anyone’s guess. And after meeting Leah’s brother I can understand why Rachel didn’t want to risk Heath being forced to live with that man.”

“Perhaps after Heath has adjusted to us and his new home you can take him back to Strawberry on a periodic basis to visit Rachel and Hannah.”

“I plan to do that. And Rachel promised him she’d write to him. I think that made the leaving a little less painful for him.”

Tom rolled on his side and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For wanting me to bring Heath here. Now that I’ve met him I can’t imagine going through life without him as part of our family.”

“He looks so much like your father and Thor.”

“Yes, he does. Although Father will kick my behind when he finds out about all this he’s going to be so proud the minute he lays eyes on that boy. How many times have we heard him say that he’s waiting for a grandson who looks like a Scotsman?”

“Let me see,” Victoria chuckled, “every time I announced we were going to have a child and every time each one of your sisters announced she was going to have a child. Out of twenty-five grandchildren now it’s quite ironic that Heath’s the only one with Grandpa Ted’s coloring and features. Ironic, and perhaps part of God’s plan to make the road of acceptance a little easier for the rest of the family.”

“Perhaps.”

“When do you plan on telling them, Tom?”

“I haven’t even thought about it. Certainly not until after the new year. We’ve been planning that trip to Philadelphia for next summer so both our families can see Audra. I imagine I should leave a few days before you and the children so I can talk to my family privately.”

“That sounds like a good idea. But for now let’s not dwell on it. We’re clear across the country in California. There’s no need to deal with family opinions at this moment.”

“You are my everything.” Tom kissed his wife’s lips. “Your wisdom has made me the man I am today.”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far.”

“I love you, Victoria Elizabeth Deeds Barkley. I love you for all the gifts you’ve given me including the gift of acceptance for that little boy asleep down the hall.”

Victoria laid back on the bed and allowed her husband to remove her night gown. For the first time since Rachel’s letter arrived the couple made love.

*****

The role Tom Barkley took as parent to Heath was more active than it had been with Jarrod and Nick when they were young boys. Tom and Victoria agreed it would be best for Heath to get acclimated to his new environment before they enrolled him in Stockton’s school. The first week the boy was with them he had Tom’s undivided attention once Nick left for the day. Heath followed Tom wherever the man’s working day took him on the vast Barkley acreage. By Saturday Heath had learned to ride the old roping horse Ginger, and had taken it upon himself to clean the horse stalls, keep the tack room in order, feed the barn cats, and look after Jarrod’s huskies, Chief, Cheyenne, and their newly born brood of five pups. When Tom praised the boy for his work ethic Heath simply shrugged his shoulders.

“I worked for Mr. Carvers at the livery stable in Strawberry.”

“You did?”

“Yep. Since I was six. Every day before school and after school, and all day on Saturdays. I wanted to earn money so my mother wouldn’t have to work so hard.”

Tom smiled at the boy while placing a tender hand on his head. The more he was with the child the more insight he gained regarding what Heath’s life had been like prior to Leah’s death. Though she’d struggled to make ends meet, it was obvious by things Heath said that he was Leah’s pride and joy.

Like Tom promised Victoria, he took Heath to shop for a new set of clothes on Saturday. Though Heath never asked for anything specific, Tom was well aware the boy’s eyes never wandered far from the cowboy hats and boots. While the store owner wrapped their purchases Tom walked over to his son.

“I see you’ve taken a liking to some things over here.”

Heath looked up. “That hat is just like Nick’s. And those are the kind of boots he wears.”

“You’re right.” Tom stroked his beard, pretending to be deep in thought. “I don’t suppose you’d like to own a hat and pair of boots yourself.”

“No. You bought me enough already. More than I’ve ever had in my whole life. I just like looking at these.”

“Well, I’d say you need to do more than look. A true Barkley never leaves home without a hat on his head and boots on his feet. Go on. Pick out the ones you want.”

“Really? Can I?”

“Sure.”

Tom helped Heath find boots that fit him. It wasn’t lost on the man that his son had chosen boots identical to Nick’s. He expected the same choice when it came to the hat, and was surprised when Heath veered from the black hats like Nick wore to the tan ones Tom favored.

“I like these.”

“Are you sure? I thought you wanted a hat like Nick’s.”

“No.” Heath slipped his hand into Tom’s. “I want one like you wear.”

Tom ruffled the boy’s hair. “One like I wear, huh, pardner? All right then, you shall have one like I wear.”

Heath wore his hat and boots out of the store. Tom piled the rest of their purchases in the back of the wagon then took his son by the hand and led him across the street to the Chocolate Drop.

Heath had been with them one week. By no means had Nick warmed to him yet, but you wouldn’t have known it by Heath’s devotion to his older brother. He made certain Tom bought an equal number of chocolates for Nick. He took the two bags his father handed him.

“I’ll keep Nick’s safe for him until we get home.”

“I’m sure Nick will appreciate that.”

“I’d save some of mine for Audra, but I don’t suppose she eats chocolate yet. I don’t think she has any teeth.”

Tom smiled as the boy skipped ahead of him. Heath was so relaxed when the two of them were alone together. He hoped some of this magic lasted when they returned to the ranch. The child was still shy and reserved around Victoria. Though she didn’t comment on it, Tom could tell Heath’s demeanor bothered her. She’d always been such a loving mother, such a strong presence in her children’s lives. He knew she must be wondering why Heath had erected a barrier around himself where she was concerned.

Heath talked nonstop about the sights he’d seen in Stockton on their ride home. He shared his chocolates with his father until Tom declined to take any more.

“I bought those for you.”

“I don’t mind sharing. It’s more fun that way.”

Tom looked at his son, marveling at this kind-hearted child Leah Thomson had raised all by herself.

“Well, in that case I’ll take another one.” Tom popped a chocolate in his mouth, caught it on the end of his tongue, and stuck it back out at Heath. The eight year old laughed the first real laugh Tom had heard since they’d met one another.

“This has been the best day I ever had.”

Tom worked the candy back in his mouth. “Really?”

“Yep.”

“What was the best part of it? Your new hat? Or the boots? Or the chocolates?”

Heath leaned into Tom’s side. “Being with you. That was the best part of it. Just the two of us together.”

Tom wrapped an arm around the boy. “Well, thank you, Heath. You don’t know how good that makes me feel.”

“You’re welcome.” Softly, as though he was afraid he’d be punished, the boy added, “Papa.”

This was the first time Heath had addressed his father by any name at all.

“Is that what you’d like to call me?”

“If that’s all right. I’ve always wanted to call someone that. My friend Tony at the Strawberry school, that’s what he calls his father. I always liked Tony’s papa. He was nice to me.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Tony’s papa sounds like a good man. I’d be proud to have you call me Papa.”

“I’d call you Father like Nick does, only I don’t think Nick would like that too much.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know,” Heath shrugged. “I just don’t.”

The pair traveled in silence for a few minutes. Although Heath didn’t offer to explain what he meant, Tom realized in that one sentence how perceptive the child was to the events occurring around him.

“Heath, you’re a very generous boy as evidenced by your willingness to share your candy with not only me, but with Audra as well. Nick,……well right now Nick is having a little difficulty sharing me with you. In time that will change.”

“That’s okay. I know I’m just an orphan boy. Not like Nick. He’s your real boy.”

Tom pulled back on the reins. When the horses stopped he looked down at his son.

“Who told you that?”

“My Uncle Matt.”

“When did he say this?”

“The day we left Strawberry. He came to see me at Rachel’s house. He said you’d never love me like you love your other boys. That I’m just a charity case.”

“Son, you have to believe me when I tell you that isn’t so. What your Uncle Matt said was wrong. You are my real boy, Heath. Just as much as Jarrod is and as much as Nick is. I love all my sons equally.”

“And Audra, too?”

“Yes, and Audra, too. I love all my children. And when I say all my children that means you as well.”

“I thought that might be true.”

“You did?”

“Yep. Because if it wasn’t true you wouldn’t have bought me these crackerjack boots and this hat.”

Tom pulled Heath to his side. He lifted the cowboy hat and placed a firm kiss on Heath’s head. “It is true, Heath. And don’t you ever forget it.”

Heath turned in the wagon seat. He wrapped his arms around Tom’s neck. The man felt Heath’s lips brush his cheek.

“I won’t forget it, Papa.”

Tom Barkley smiled the rest of the way home.

Heath jumped from the wagon when it stopped in front of the house. He ran around to the back, taking the packages Tom handed him. Together they entered the house laden with the new clothes. Heath set his bundles on the marble table in the parlor. He spotted Nick figuring cattle prices at the dining room table.

“Nick! Nick! Look what Papa bought me. Boots just like yours! And I got candy for you, too.”

Nick brushed the white bag aside. “I don’t want any candy.”

“But it’s yours. I asked Papa to buy,…”

“He’s not Papa! That sounds stupid. We call him Father.”

Heath shrank back as though he’d been slapped.

“Nicholas!”

Nick turned at the sound of Tom’s voice.

“Well, it does sound stupid. That’s not your name.”

“If that’s what Heath wants to call me then it is my name. At least to him it is.”

“That comes as no surprise.” Nick shoved his chair aside. He took in Heath’s new boots and hat, and then the packages piled high on the table. “Evidently Heath gets whatever Heath wants.”

“Nicholas Jonathan, in all your years on this earth I have never taken my belt to your backside and it’s been a good long time since you felt my hand there as well. I thought you were too grownup to receive a child’s punishment, but now I’m beginning to doubt that. Let me warn you right now, young man, if your attitude doesn’t change my belt and your hide are going to hold a meeting.”

“Go ahead! I don’t care and it won’t change how I feel.” Nick glared at his younger brother. “Nothing’s been the same since we found out about him anyway.” The glare was transferred to Tom. “And need I remind you, Father, that certainly isn’t my fault.”

“I have had enough of your mouth, young man.” Tom’s right hand reached for his belt buckle. Heath ran to him.

“No, Papa! No! Please don’t beat Nick!”

“I’m not going to beat him. I’m simply going to give him what he’s asking for. A good old-fashioned spanking.”

“No! I don’t want you to! You can take me back to Strawberry. I’ll live with Rachel. It’ll be better that way for everyone!”

Victoria entered from the kitchen.

“What will be better for everyone? And what’s all the yelling about?”

The anger radiating between Tom and Nick told Victoria the story more clearly than words could have. She saw Tom’s hand resting on his belt buckle.

“Tom? Nick?”

Victoria’s teenager brushed by her. “Ask Papa.”

“Nick!” Tom yelled.

The teenager never turned around.

“If you want to wale on me with your belt you know where to find me. I’ll be in the barn.”

When the kitchen door slammed Victoria turned to her husband.

“Did you tell him you were going to take your belt to him?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I told him. And if I do he deserves every wallop he gets with it.”

“No, Papa. Please. Don’t beat Nick.”

Any questions Victoria had were easily answered by the packages she saw heaped on the table, the new boots and hat Heath was wearing, and his use of the word papa.

“Tom,……”

The man held up a hand. “Victoria, no. Not right now. I don’t want to hear it.”

“I was simply going to suggest that perhaps it would be wise if both you and Nick cool off a bit before you have any type of,…..discussion with him.”

“I should have my discussion with him now, while I’m still good and angry.”

“And I think you should wait.”

Heath’s eyes traveled from one adult to the other. For the moment he’d been forgotten.

A long silence prevailed before Tom turned on one boot heel.

“I’m going for a ride. I need to check those fences along the north pasture. I’ll be back in time for dinner.”

Heath flinched when the front door slammed. He backed away from Victoria as though he knew he was the cause of the most recent upset and was fearful she would punish him for it.

Victoria crossed to the window and watched Tom ride away. She’d almost forgotten Heath was still in the room with her. When she turned around and caught sight of him she tried hard to smile and push aside her concerns over Tom and Nick.

“I see you and your papa had a successful shopping trip.”

Like he always did when Victoria spoke to him Heath hung his head. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Come along then. Show me what you bought while I help you put it away.”

“I can put it away by myself.”

“You don’t want me to help you?”

“I can do it by myself, ma’am.”

“All right then,” Victoria sighed. “But will you at least let me get Silas to help you hang up your new shirts so they don’t wrinkle?”

“Yes, ma’am. If that’s what you want, ma’am.”

Victoria had to admit it hurt her to see Heath so willingly climb the stairs with Silas while offering the black man a piece of his candy.

What am I doing wrong, Lord? Why does this little boy dislike me so?

The woman stood at the bottom of the stairs long after Silas came down and reported all the clothes had been neatly stowed in their proper places. She could see Heath’s door open just far enough for an eight-year-old boy to peer through the crack. She had no doubt he was looking to see if she was within sight. She waited a long time before finally walking away. It didn’t surprise her to hear a set of boot heels tread down the stairs seconds after she’d rounded the corner of the study, nor was she surprised when she heard the front door open and shut.

*****

For the first time since Heath arrived the Barkley family attended church. As Victoria dressed that Sunday morning she found herself dreading the moment she and Tom would appear together in public with their new son in tow. She was certain word had gotten around Stockton by now as to Heath’s origins. Nothing made for better gossip than a scandal befalling a well-to-do family. She wondered how they’d be greeted by their friends and neighbors, but decided no matter what she’d hold her head high and make it clear her loyalties remained with her husband.

Victoria couldn’t help but conclude the minister’s sermon had been written especially with them in mind. His topic was family. Victoria didn’t think she’d ever heard the man preach with more passion.

“We often think of the word ‘family’ as being narrowly defined by the people we sit across the breakfast table from morning after morning. But a true family is forever changing and growing. Sometimes that change is defined by a new member joining the family, sometimes change occurs when a loved one is called to heaven. More than anything else, family is a feeling. A feeling of being connected by the same roots, the same bonds, the same shared experiences.”

The minister smiled at Heath before his eyes took in the congregation. “Most of all the word family means love. And God’s book tells us love knows no boundaries. Love doesn’t care who our mother is, or who our father is. Love comes from the heart. In your lifetimes all of you will give love to many people. Not all those people will be related to you by blood, nonetheless the feeling of family will exist between you. Take that feeling with you as you leave today. Remember that your neighbors make up part of your family as well. Your community family. Remember God’s command, love thy neighbor as you would love thyself. Your neighbor may make mistakes, but forgive him for being human just as you would want him to forgive you.”

Victoria thought the handshakes and smiles bestowed on her in the church yard were filled with more warmth and kindness than usual. She saw sympathy in the eyes of a few women, and pity in the eyes of two or three, but for the most part she was given silent support from the friends she and Tom had known for so long.

Opal Manners had been Victoria’s best friend since they were girls growing up together in Philadelphia. The woman managed to pull Victoria away from the crowd, the two walking toward the Barkley carriage together.

“Oh, Victoria, I wanted to stop by and see you all week, but Garland kept telling me to keep my nose out of things that are none of my business.”

“The next time Garland tells you that you tell him I want a visit from my dearest friend. I certainly could have used your ear this week.”

“Are things going poorly?”

“That’s a hard question to answer.”

Opal glanced over her shoulder. Heath was holding onto Tom’s hand while the man stood talking to Garland and other ranchers.

“Has the boy been a trial?”

“Heath? No. Not at all.” Victoria shifted the sleeping Audra from her hip to her shoulder. “As a matter of fact he’s a very well behaved child.”

“He looks just like Tom’s father. And like Thor. He’s the spitting image of Thor.”

“Yes, he does favor both his grandfather and uncle.”

“He’s a handsome little lad, that’s for certain.”

Victoria made no reply.

“Victoria?”

“What? Pardon me?”

“I said Heath is a handsome boy.” Opal studied her friend. “Victoria Barkley, something is wrong. Now don’t lie to me and tell me things are okay when the look on your face tells me the exact opposite is true.” The woman dropped her voice. “I know you must be furious with Tom. So hurt by what he did.”

“I am. I’m furious, I’m hurt, I’m,….a thousand things I can’t identify. But I’m slowly learning to forgive him. Nick on the other hand,……Nick is angry with his father and angry with Heath. It’s been a difficult week to put it mildly.”

“I’m sure it has. And I’m sure you’ll have some difficult weeks yet to come. It’s not easy for any child to adjust to a new brother or sister. You have to look at it from Nick’s point of view. With Jarrod gone away to college he was the only son at home. Heath’s presence has changed that fact, and changed Nick’s place as youngest son in the family.”

“There you go again, springing your own special brand of,….what do you call it? Psychology? Springing your psychology on me. Really, Opal, you must quit ordering those books from Boston.”

“Laugh at me all you want, but it’s true. A large part of a child’s personality is based on his or her position in the family. That’s why my Franklin had such a difficult time when the twins were born. Not only was he no longer the baby of the family, he was also no longer the only boy.”

“Well, whatever the reason, I’m sure Nick will eventually adjust.” Victoria’s eyes traveled until she spotted her teenager at the far side of the churchyard. Normally he would be right beside Tom taking part in whatever discussions the man was having with his fellow ranchers. But not this Sunday. On this Sunday it was Heath who stood beside Tom while Nick elected to stay as far away from his father and brother as possible. Victoria absorbed the significance of this as she finished her sentence. “He has no choice in the matter. Heath isn’t going anywhere.”

“What about you? Do you have a choice?”

Victoria swayed back and forth, rubbing Audra’s back with her palm. “If you’re asking me if I’m leaving Tom the answer is no. If you’re asking me if the thought has crossed my mind, then the answer is yes. But for a lot of reasons I’ve chosen to stick by him. Number one; because he made a mistake and I know he loves me. He’s made that quite clear these past few weeks. And number two, because right now, more than any other time in his life, Nick needs to see his mother and father as a united front. When I first found out about Tom’s,……relationship with Heath’s mother, I considered taking Nick and Audra to Philadelphia, but you know as well as I do Nick would hate living there. Absolutely hate it. He loves the ranch. Ranching is all he’s talked about making his life’s work since he was six years old. And he’s at an age where his father is the most influential person in his life. I’d be doing more harm than good if that’s the choice I made, Opal.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more.” The woman looked up to see her husband waving her to their buggy. “I’ve got to go. When are you putting Heath in school?”

“He starts tomorrow.”

“Good. I’ve already told Rhodes and Raleigh they’re to make Heath feel welcome.”

“Thank you. You don’t know how much that means to me.”

Opal kissed Victoria’s cheek. “I’ll stop by on Wednesday after the children are off to school. I’m sure we have a lot more to talk about.”

“I’m sure we do, too. I’ll have Silas make us lunch. Tom has an appointment here in town that day. We’ll have the house to ourselves. We can rattle on like a couple of old biddies all afternoon.”

“Good. I have a feeling that’s just what the doctor ordered.”

Opal gave Victoria’s hand a squeeze, placed a light kiss in Audra’s curls, then gathered her skirts and hurried for her husband’s buggy. Victoria watched as Opal climbed in amongst her two daughters and three sons. The girls were young ladies now of eighteen and nineteen. Franklin was a year younger than Nick and one of his closest friends, the twins were Heath’s age. Victoria prayed Heath would quickly form a bond with Rhodes and Raleigh.

Maybe things between Heath and Nick will improve if they share a friendship with Opal’s boys.

Before Victoria could ponder that further it was time for her own family to be loaded in the Barkley carriage.

Later that afternoon Victoria stumbled upon Heath sitting on the parlor floor playing with Audra. She stepped back into the shadows of the dining room, listening to the one sided conversation he was having with the baby.

“Reverend Miller is nice, Audra. He shook my hand after the service and told me he was glad to meet me. He didn’t stare at me, or point at me, or whisper behind my back, like some of the other people did. He even said I look like you. Do you think that’s true? I guess it might be. We both have blond hair. No one else has blond hair, not Nick or Papa. I don’t know what color hair Jarrod has ’cause I haven’t met him yet. I hope he wants to be my friend. Nick,……I want Nick to be my friend, but he doesn’t like me much. ” Heath stacked another wooden block on the tower he was making for his little sister. “Reverend Miller preached a good service. He’s not boring like Reverend Holmes is. Reverend Holmes preaches at the Strawberry church. He puts everyone to sleep, even Rachel. Though she’ll deny it if you ever come right out and ask her. But Reverend Miller, I liked him. He talked about family and how lots of different people can be a part of your family. I knew what he meant ’cause me and Hannah and Rachel were a family after my mother died. I really miss them, Audra. They took good care of me, and I took good care of them, too. Rachel told me so. Lots of times she did. But now I’m part of your family even though Papa’s the only one who wants me here. Maybe you want me here, too, but you’re too little to tell me that just yet. Maybe you’ll tell me someday, huh?”

Victoria slipped up behind the boy. “When Audra is older I’m sure she will tell you how much she wants you here.”

Heath jumped, knocking over his tower before Audra got the opportunity. The baby squealed with delight at this new game while the boy scrambled to his feet, words spewing out his mouth in a panic.

“I didn’t give her anything she shouldn’t have. I didn’t feed her, or try to pick her up, or let her play with anything sharp.”

“Honey, that’s fine,” Victoria soothed, not certain why Heath was suddenly so frightened. “You can play with Audra any time you like.”

Victoria reached for Heath but he backed away from her.

“I’ve got chores to do. Chief and Cheyenne need to be fed.”

The woman dropped her hands. She tried to keep the hurt off her face. She couldn’t quite keep it out of her voice.

“All right. You go ahead then.”

As usual when he was alone with Victoria, Heath fled the room as fast as his legs would carry him.

Victoria shook her head as she eased herself to Audra’s blanket.

“All I wanted to do was tell your brother that I want him here as well. Why won’t he give me a chance, Audra?” Victoria put the baby on her lap. She rocked back and forth while placing a kiss on the top of Audra’s head.

“Oh, why won’t Heath give me a chance?”

*****

Tom Barkley drove his sons to school on Monday morning. That event caused another eruption of Nick’s temper. The teen had been riding a horse to school from the first day he started when he was six years old. Nick scowled as he helped his father ready the wagon.

“You never took me to school on my first day.”

Tom looked across the horse he was harnessing. “That’s because you didn’t want me to. You insisted on riding Ginger alongside Jarrod.”

“Why can’t Heath ride Ginger then and I’ll ride Coco?”

“That’s how we’ll do things tomorrow if Heath wants to. But for today we’re doing things my way.”

“Why?”

“Nicholas,…..”

“I’m just asking why.”

“You know perfectly well why. This is Heath’s first day at a school where he knows no one other than you. I think it will be easier for him if together, you and I, introduce him to Miss Wellington and the other pupils.”

“I still don’t understand why I have to be a part of this. Why can’t I go on ahead and meet up with my friends like I do any other morning?”

Tom took a deep breath. Jarrod had never given him these kinds of problems when he was Nick’s age, nor did Tom recall ever giving his own father any back talk. But Thor,…..well Thor had been another story and Nick was just like his uncle in more ways than one.

“You have to be a part of this because whether you like it or not you’re Heath’s brother. End of discussion.”

“Well, I don’t like it. I don’t like being Heath’s brother one teeny tiny bit.”

“Nick, I said end of discussion.”

“But,…”

“Nicholas, that’s enough.”

Tom glared at his sullen teenager. His gaze shifted when he caught sight of Victoria in the doorway of the barn. Heath was with her carrying a new slate in one hand and the tin lunch bucket Jarrod had used in another. By the look on Victoria’s face Tom knew she and the boy had been privy to Nick’s words.

The rancher put on his best grin. “There’s my boy. And don’t you look just dandy on your first day of school.”

Heath didn’t say anything as Tom swung him up onto the wagon seat. Before Nick could escape to the back of the wagon Tom said, “Nick, you drive.”

Indecision hung heavy in the air. There was nothing Nick liked more than driving a team of horses, yet his pride dictated that he wasn’t allowed to find any enjoyment in this day.

Tom didn’t stand for further argument. He climbed up on the seat next to Heath, leaving room for Nick to his left. He leaned over with the reins in his hand.

“Nick, come on. We need to get going.”

Nick finally took the reins from his father and climbed up beside him. Victoria patted her teenager’s leg. “Have a good day.” She smiled at Heath. “You have a good day, too, Heath. I’m sure you’ll come home with all sorts of wonderful stories about your new school.”

Heath simply nodded his head. Whatever he was feeling inside about this adventure he’d kept to himself. He hadn’t even allowed Tom to draw him into a conversation about attendance at Stockton’s school no matter how many times Tom had tried to bring the subject up.

Tom timed the trip so he and his sons would arrive at the school house before any other children were there. Nick insisted on waiting in the school yard for his friends while Tom took Heath inside to introduce him to Miss Wellington.

The father allowed his teenager this much. He wasn’t in the mood for any more tension between himself and his son.

Stockton’s teacher was nineteen years old with hair the color of burnished copper and laughing Irish green eyes to match. She barely reached Tom’s chest in height, and had the fine bones of a filly. This was her second year at Stockton’s school and she was loved by all her pupils. The little ones adored her because she made learning fun and was devoted to them and their well-being. The older girls admired her and wanted to be just like her, while the older boys had crushes on this beautiful young woman who hailed from New York City.

Tom was president of the school board and had been instrumental in bringing Kathleen Wellington to them. He was pleased with her performance thus far and could only pray she wouldn’t marry any time soon and leave them.

Miss Wellington turned from the blackboard when she heard footsteps on the wooden floor.

“Mr. Barkley.” The girl stepped out from behind her desk. “How nice to see you. And this must be Heath.”

Tom had spoken to the teacher the previous week. Although he’d said no more than, “I’d like to enroll my eight-year-old son, Heath, to start school on Monday,” gossip had already reached the young woman’s ears in regards to Heath’s sudden appearance. That made no difference to Kathleen. She loved her pupils and wasn’t concerned with the circumstances that brought them to her.

“Yes,” Tom confirmed now. “This is Heath. Heath, this is Miss Wellington.”

Heath held his hand out to the teacher. “How do you do, ma’am?”

“I’m fine, Heath. Thank you for asking. Your father tells me the teacher at the Strawberry school said you’re advanced in your sums and reading.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“That’s excellent, Heath. Positively excellent. You’ll be a big help to me with some of the younger pupils. Would you like to be a tutor?”

“I can be if you want me to. I helped my friends, Tony and John, at the Strawberry school. They didn’t know how to read very well and they had problems with their sums. Sometimes Mr. Evans would ask me to take them to the back of the room and work with them.”

“That’s wonderful. I can already tell you’re the kind of boy I can rely on.” The teacher took Heath’s hand, for the moment Tom was forgotten.

“Now this is where you’ll sit. Raleigh and Rhodes Manner will share this desk with you. And over here is where we put our lunch buckets. And the cloak room is right there, behind that door.”

Miss Wellington had Heath set his slate on his desk and put his lunch bucket on the shelf at the back of the room.

“Why don’t you go outside until I ring the bell. I see some of the other children are arriving. I’m sure Nick will introduce you to them.”

Heath turned to look at Tom. The man gave his son an encouraging smile. “Go on and play until school starts. You met Raleigh and Rhodes at church yesterday. I know they’ll be waiting for you. I’ll be back at the end of the day to pick you and Nick up.”

Heath gave his father a smile that didn’t do a good job of covering his fear. Tom could only imagine how scared he must be at the prospect of facing all those strange children. The man walked over and bent down.

“You’ll be fine, Heath. Why I bet by the end of the day you’ll have made friends with every child in this school.”

Heath didn’t tell his father what he was thinking. So far he hadn’t even been able to make friends with Nick.

The boy turned and headed out the door. The sounds of laughter and shouts drifted in to Tom and Miss Wellington until the door was closed behind Heath.

“He’ll be all right, Mr. Barkley,” the young teacher assured. “Entering a new school is difficult for any child. But the records you brought me from Strawberry indicate Heath is a bright child who makes friends easily. It won’t take him long to fit in.”

“I’m sure it won’t.” Tom tipped his hat to the woman. “Thank you for taking the time to make him feel welcome. If you have any problems I’ll be here at three to pick the boys up.”

“Now don’t you worry, I’m sure there won’t be any problems. Or at least not any I can’t handle.”

Tom left without saying anything further to either of his sons. Nick was playing stick ball with a group of teenage boys while Heath watched. Tom wished his eight year old would join the other boys his age who were playing hot potato in another section of the school yard, but decided not to interfere. No doubt Miss Wellington was correct. By the end of the day Heath would have more friends than he could count.

Ten minutes after Tom left Miss Wellington stepped out on the porch with a bell in her hand. She gave it six healthy rings. In groups of twos and threes her pupils headed for the school house save for Heath. He walked alone, lagging behind the four boys and three girls who were nearest his age.

Nick turned when he heard footsteps pound from behind. George Barnsworth joined Nick and his friends.

“Hey, Barkley, is that mangy little pup walkin’ ahead of us your father’s bastard?”

Franklin Manners glared at the bulky fifteen year old. “Shut up, George.”

George ignored the younger boy. “How ’bout it, Barkley? Whatta ya’ have to say on the subject? Is the kid your father’s mistake?”

Heath turned around and looked at Nick. Nick refused to meet his brother’s eyes when he dropped his own to the ground and mumbled, “Yeah. Yeah, that’s about the size of it.”

George gave Heath a shove as the older boys passed him.

“Bastard.”

The eight-year-old stood alone, watching his schoolmates trot up the steps. Miss Wellington waved him over.

“Come on, Heath! It’s time for school to start.”

She gave Heath’s shoulder a squeeze when he walked by her. She hadn’t heard the exchange between George and Nick, but had observed it from afar. She’d also observed the shove George had given Heath. She didn’t have to be close enough to hear George’s words to be able to guess what was said. Every school had a bully and George Barnsworth was Stockton’s. Whenever he thought she wasn’t looking he pulled girls’ pigtails, dropped frogs down dresses, slipped snakes into coat pockets, and put his foot in the aisle to trip a child who’d been called to the blackboard. She generally broke up fights between him and Nick Barkley at least once every two weeks. Though she had to be fair and punish both boys when these incidents occurred, she hated having to keep Nick after school. She couldn’t fault him for defending a younger boy George was picking on or coming to the honor of a girl whose skirts George was trying to peek under. That’s why she’d been shocked when Nick had allowed George to shove Heath. At that moment she was certain she’d see a fist fight of violent proportions ensue. But Nick simply headed for the school house as though nothing happened.

For now Miss Wellington filed the incident away in the back of her mind. She led Heath to the bench seat he’d share with the Manners twins, then walked to the front of the class. The young teacher opened her Bible and instructed everyone to stand. They began the day by saying the 23rd Psalm. She watched Heath stand with his classmates, though his mouth didn’t move throughout the entire recitation. A lesser teacher might have called the child on his seeming defiance, but Miss Wellington didn’t.

After all, how could she discipline a little boy who was trying so hard not to cry?

*****

The next morning Heath and Nick rode to school on their horses. Tom Barkley wasn’t certain if that’s what Heath really wanted to do. He got the impression the boy was simply trying to please his fourteen-year-old brother.

“I can hitch up the wagon and we can ride into town together, Heath. Nick can go ahead on Coco if he prefers.”

“No, that’s okay, Papa. I can ride Ginger.”

Tom didn’t debate the point further. He thought it would be good for both boys if they traveled back and forth to school together. Maybe some of Nick’s animosity would recede if he was given the opportunity to get to know Heath on his own terms.

Unbeknownst to Tom, Nick had no intention of getting to know Heath. He dug his heals into Coco’s sides and stayed thirty feet ahead of his brother throughout the entire trip to school. The boys tied their horses to a hitching post under a shade tree. Nick went and got a bucket of water from the well in order to fill the trough while Heath readied the feed pouches they’d brought along. The horses were tended to in silence. When the animals had been watered and the feed pouches attached to their halters the boys retrieved their books and lunch tins from their saddle bags.

George Barnsworth ran by them. He knocked Heath in the back of the head with his fist while calling to Nick.

“Hey, Barkley, come on! Let’s get a game of stick ball going! Leave the work to the kid! After all, no one’s gonna want to play with him anyway!”

Heath bent down to pick up his cowboy hat. By the time he had it settled back on his head Nick was playing ball with the older boys.

George had fun at Heath’s expense throughout the day. The boy was tripped on his way to the blackboard, his lunch bucket was hidden and his horse untied. Fortunately Ginger had been coming to Stockton’s school since Jarrod was boy so didn’t wander more than a few feet from Coco.

At the end of that second day Heath passed George on his way down the school house steps. The older boy matched strides with the younger.

“So, kid, when Miss Wellington takes roll I hear her call you Heath Barkley. But Barkley ain’t your real name now, is it? I hear tell your name is Heath Thomson. And if it’s Heath Thomson, how can you go around claimin’ to be a Barkley? ‘Course everyone knows the Barkleys got loads of money so maybe you’re not as dumb as you look, huh? As a matter of fact you might be one of the luckiest little bastards around. On the other hand, I bet Mrs. Barkley ain’t none too happy you showed up. I hear tell she don’t like you one bit. Not that anyone can blame her. You’re living proof that her husband had himself some big time fun outside the sacred marital bed. Whatta ya’ got to say about that?”

Heath kept his eyes on the ground as he walked toward Ginger.

George back peddled in front of the eight year old and rammed a fist into his shoulder. “What was that? I didn’t hear you.”

Again Heath made no reply.

“What’s the problem? Are you the family retard? Man, wouldn’t that be something. Everyone’s brags on Jarrod cause he’s got more brains than just about anyone in Stockton, and Nick,…..well Nick ain’t far behind Jarrod in the smarts department, that’s for sure. And everyone knows Tom Barkley ain’t no dummy. But I do say it looks like he got himself a dummy for a bastard son.”

George pushed Heath backwards. The boy stumbled over his feet. Before he could regain his balance he was pushed again. Two more hard shoves landed him on his rear end in the dirt.

A thick wad of spittle kicked up the dust by Heath’s head. George sneered down at the blond.

“You really are a retard, you know that?”

It wasn’t Nick who came to Heath’s aid, but rather his new friends Raleigh and Rhodes. Raleigh helped him to his feet while Rhodes collected Heath’s school books. Nick made no comment about what he’d seen happen until he and Heath were stabling their horses at the Barkley ranch. As the teenager was walking out of the barn he turned.

“You’re going to have to learn to take care of yourself against the likes of George Barnsworth, ‘cause if you think I’m gonna get in a fight for you you’d better think again.”

Heath watched his brother until Nick disappeared into the house. The boy let out a heavy sigh, then finished currying Ginger.

*****

Two weeks after Heath started school Miss Wellington paid the Barkley ranch a visit on a Saturday afternoon.

Silas motioned Victoria to stay seated as he passed through the parlor on the way to the door.

“Miss Wellington,” the black man greeted. “Won’t you come in, ma’am.”

Victoria set her book down on the coffee table and stood. She met the young teacher half way across the foyer floor, briefly clasping her hand.

“Miss Wellington. How nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you, too, Mrs. Barkley. And I do apologize for dropping by without an invitation.”

“You never need an invitation to drop by my home and you know it.”

Victoria turned to Silas. “Please put on some tea, Silas. And bring a tray of cookies.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“There’s no need to go to any trouble on my behalf, Mrs. Barkley.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” Silas assured the woman for his mistress.

Victoria led the teacher to the sofa.

“I hope I didn’t come at a bad time.”

“No. Not at all. Audra is upstairs napping and Tom is in the study reading the latest Cattlemen’s Journal. But if you’re here to see the boys I’m afraid you’ve missed them. Nick is tracking down strays with some of the hands and Heath is playing with Rhodes and Raleigh over at the Manners ranch.”

“Actually I’m glad to hear that. I wanted to talk to you and Mr. Barkley alone.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. It’s about Heath.”

“I see.” Victoria stood. “Wait here just a moment please while I get my husband.”

“Of course.”

Within seconds Victoria returned with Tom. He shook the teacher’s hand then took a seat across from her. Victoria helped Silas carry in the tea and cookies. She played the part of hostess, seeing that everyone got a cup of tea and plate of sugar cookies. The trio made small talk while they enjoyed the snack. Tom waited until the teacher had finished her tea and refused seconds before broaching the reason behind her visit.

“My wife tells me you wanted to speak to us about Heath.”

“Yes, I did. Though now that I’m here I,……well I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds.”

“Overstepping your bounds?”

“Yes. By coming here to tell you what I’ve observed.”

Tom smiled in an attempt to put the young woman at ease. “You’re Heath’s teacher. It’s your place to tell us, as his parents, what you’ve observed. I hope he’s not causing you any trouble.”

“Heath?”

Victoria heard the astonishment in the teacher’s tone.

“Oh my goodness no. He’s such a sweet child. And just as smart as his school records from Strawberry indicate. A little on the shy side, but I suppose that’s normal considering he’s come to a new school in the middle of the term.”

“He’s a little on the shy side here at home, too,” Tom said. “But then I suppose that’s normal considering we’re new to him as well.”

“You can rest assured Heath’s school work has been exemplary. I don’t believe you’ll have reason to be concerned in that area.”

“Then where do we have reason to be concerned?” Victoria asked.

“I,…..I don’t know if you have reason to be concerned at all. However, as you know the well-being of my pupils is of the utmost importance to me. So again, forgive me if I’m overstepping my bounds by coming here today.”

“You don’t need to be forgiven for anything, Kathleen,” Tom assured. “Why don’t you simply tell Victoria and me what’s on your mind.”

The woman thought a long moment before speaking. “Perhaps I’ve been misleading when I say my concern is for Heath. Actually, I’ve come to speak to you about Nick as well.”

“Nick?”

“Yes. As both of you know I’ve broken up several fights between Nick and George Barnsworth during my year and half at the school.”

Victoria tried not to smile. “As have all the teachers prior to your arrival.”

“Yes,….well,…..I know this is going to sound rather absurd, but what has me upset this time is the fact that Nick isn’t fighting with George.”

Tom cocked his head. “Pardon?”

“Though I try hard to like all my pupils, I must admit George is a trial. I’m told every school has a George Barnsworth. A mean-spirited bully shall we say.”

“Yes,” Tom nodded, “if I recall my own school days correctly I would have to agree with that statement.”

“Therefore, it will probably come as no surprise to you that George has taken to picking on Heath. He started the first day Heath was with us and he has yet to let up.”

“Picking on Heath how?” Victoria asked.

“Shoving him. Tripping him. Untying his horse. Hiding his lunch bucket, things of that nature. The frustrating part of it is I rarely see George do these things. He’s a sneaky boy who knows how to cause trouble on the sly. Nonetheless, I have no doubt George is the instigator behind these pranks. And I’ve heard him say some nasty things to Heath out on the schoolyard.”

“Nasty things?” Tom asked. “What kind of nasty things?”

The teacher’s eyes flicked to Victoria. “Just,…….things.”

“Miss Wellington,…..Kathleen,” Victoria smiled. “You can repeat whatever it is you’ve heard. You won’t offend me or my husband by telling us what George has been saying to Heath.”

“He,…..” Kathleen didn’t know how to start. After all, Heath was the product of Tom Barkley’s affair. How could she lay such a sensitive subject on the table in a diplomatic way?

“Go ahead, Kathleen,” Victoria urged. “Tell us please. We can’t help Heath unless you do.”

The young woman nodded. “George,….he teases Heath about his parentage. I’ve heard George call him the ‘Barkley retard’ and the ‘Barkley mistake’. Mind you this has never been done in the schoolhouse, but always before or after class out in the yard. I have spoken to George about it but that only seems to make matters worse. I’ve contemplated punishing him, but I’m afraid he’ll only lash out more severely at Heath if I do.”

Tom shifted in his chair and set his cup on the coffee table. “And where has Nick been when all this is going on?”

“Out on the schoolyard as well.”

“So he’s heard and observed the same things you have.”

“Yes.”

“And that’s why you’ve come to talk to us today,” Tom said. “You’re upset because Nick isn’t defending his brother’s honor. Because Nick is allowing George to have his say.”

“Yes. Though I’m not blaming Nick. Like I said, I can hardly punish Nick for not fighting with George. I just find it,…..odd that he isn’t.”

Tom chewed on his lower lip a long time. He had no immediate solution to offer the teacher. She seemed to sense as much and rose.

“I’ve taken up enough of your Saturday afternoon. I must be going. I promised Mr. and Mrs. Harris I’d come for supper this evening.”

Tom stood and shook the teacher’s hand. “Thank you for coming all the way out here to speak with us. I appreciate your insight.”

“You’re welcome. And I can assure you I’ll keep an eye on George where Heath is concerned. I try to look out for all my students, but with twenty-six that task isn’t always as easy as I’d like it to be.”

“No, I’m sure it’s not. Which is exactly why Heath has an older brother who should be looking out for him.”

“Please don’t come down too hard on Nick, Mr. Barkley. Like I said, we can’t really fault him for not getting into a fight. I’m sure this situation has been difficult on him.” The teacher’s face reddened as she realized her slip of the tongue. “On all of you.”

Victoria stood and put an arm around the young woman’s shoulders. “Yes, it has been difficult for Nick no doubt. And don’t you worry, we don’t blame him for anything. Like my husband said, we appreciate you coming out here to talk to us. Now why don’t you pencil in dinner right here on the Barkley ranch for next Saturday night. We’d love to have you come on a social visit. Nick really enjoyed it the last time you were here. I’m sure both he and Heath will want to engage you in a game of checkers while hearing all about life in New York City.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Barkley. As always, you’re too kind.”

Victoria led the teacher to the door. When it had closed behind the woman she turned to see her husband staring into the fireplace. She walked up beside him and snaked an arm around his waist.

“What are you thinking?”

“That my foolish actions have caused an eight-year-old boy an untold amount of pain. That my foolish actions have caused a fourteen-year-old boy an untold amount of pain.” The man planted a light kiss in his wife’s hair. “And that my foolish actions have caused the woman I love an untold amount of pain.”

The couple stood together until Victoria heard a wail from above.

“It sounds like Audra’s awake. What are you going to say to Nick when he gets home?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“I can’t make him fight for Heath, Victoria. As much as I hate to say this I can’t make him love his little brother. Those are things Nick will be drawn to do naturally in time, or they won’t be. I can’t predict what the future holds for any of us. And if anyone should be punished for this heartache it should be me.”

Without saying another word Tom walked away from his wife, his shoulders slumped in sorrow and defeat. He entered his study and closed the door.

Victoria hesitated before climbing the stairs to Audra. She wanted to offer her husband comfort, but had no idea what words to say that hadn’t already been said many times since Heath arrived.

*****

Heath had been with the Barkley family two months as Christmas approached. He continued to excel in school, though his problems with George Barnsworth hadn’t ceased. Yet Heath never spoke of the bully to Tom, nor how much it hurt him when Nick pretended not to hear George’s teasing.

Despite Victoria’s best efforts Heath remained aloof in her presence. She had been certain that by now he would have come to accept her as his surrogate mother. Yet he never spoke to her unless she spoke to him first, and he never allowed himself to be in the house alone with her.

Aside from Tom, Audra, and Silas, the only other members of the Barkley household Heath appeared to be comfortable with were Jarrod’s dogs and their offspring. Without fail he fed and watered the brood every morning and every evening. If he wasn’t playing with the puppies, or cleaning horse stalls, then he could be found in the tack room straightening and sweeping.

On December twenty-second Tom hitched up the buggy and went to town to meet Jarrod’s train. Silas and Victoria worked together in the kitchen cooking all Jarrod’s favorite foods. Nick lingered around the house and ranch yard, anxiously awaiting his older brother’s arrival while Heath retreated to the barn without anyone noticing he was gone.

At the first sight of the black buggy entering through the main gates Nick raced into the steamed filled kitchen. “They’re coming, Mother! They’re coming!”

Victoria scooped Audra up off the floor. She was four steps behind Nick all the way to the front door.

Jarrod had barely emerged from the buggy before he was thrown backwards by the force of Nick’s body.

“Jarrod! Jarrod!”

“Easy there,” Jarrod laughed while engulfing his younger brother in a bear hug. When he finally got the teenager to loosen his grip he took a step back with his hands firmly grasping Nick’s upper arms.

“Nicholas, you’ve grown a foot since I left for school. I do believe you’ll be taller than me when I come back again next summer.”

Before Nick could reply Victoria launched herself into the arms of her eldest child.

“Jarrod! Oh, sweetheart, it’s so good to see you! We’ve missed you so much!”

“I’ve missed you, too, Mother.” The young man gave his mother a kiss and long hug, then tweaked Audra’s nose. “And look how big this beautiful little doll has gotten.”

The baby held her arms out to her big brother. She let Jarrod take her from their mother, laughing and shrieking as he lifted her high above his head.

While Jarrod played with the little girl Tom asked, “Where’s Heath?”

“I don’t know.” Victoria looked at Nick. “Was Heath in the house?”

“No.”

Tom took a few steps from the buggy. “He’s probably in the barn.” The man cupped his hands over his mouth. “Heath! Heath!”

Just the hint of a blond head peered around a barn door.

“Heath, come here please.”

Heath’s steps were slow and tentative, eyes downcast, as if he wasn’t sure how he’d be greeted by this ‘new’ brother. Jarrod met him halfway across the yard and held out his hand.

“It’s nice to finally get to meet you, Heath. I’ve heard so much about you.”

Heath’s eyes never lifted from the toes of Jarrod’s boots as he mumbled, “Nice to meet you, too.”

Jarrod exchanged a smile with his father, then crouched down. He placed two fingers under Heath’s chin and gently urged the child to look at him.

“There now. That’s better. I couldn’t see anything but the top of your head. My, my, my, but don’t you look like Grandpa Barkley.”

“I don’t know.” Heath shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t met him yet. But maybe I kind of look like Audra.”

“As a matter of fact I was just thinking that same thing myself. I can’t wait to go back to school and tell my friends what a handsome young brother I have.” Jarrod stood and took Heath’s hand in his. “Father says you’ve been taking care of Chief and Cheyenne for me.”

“Yes. And their puppies, too. I hope that’s all right.”

“It is, and I thank you for it.”

“I named the puppies, but if you don’t like their names you can change them.”

“I’m sure I’ll like them. Why don’t you show them to me while you tell me all about them.”

Heath kept his hand in Jarrod’s as he led the college man toward the barn. He began describing the offspring of the animals Jarrod had bought from a fur trader the previous summer despite Tom’s good natured protests that two sled dogs would be of little use on a cattle ranch.

“First there’s Shone,” Heath said. “She’s a girl and she’s very sweet. Then there’s Wolf. I named him that because he’s always stealing food from his brothers and sisters. The comes White Foot because he has four white paws, then Bear because he’s fat and round and clumsy like a grizzly bear, then Little Maiden just because she’s tiny and real pretty. I gave all of them Indian names because of Chief and Cheyenne.”

“I couldn’t have picked better names myself. I can’t wait to meet them.”

“I just finished feeding them and cleaning their pen. I wanted them to look nice for you as a welcome home present.”

Jarrod gave Heath’s hand a squeeze. “That’s very kind of you, Heath. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

The conversation faded as the two entered the barn. Tom turned and smiled at Victoria.

“It looks like Jarrod has already made a life long friend.”

Though inside Victoria was hurting at Heath’s instant attachment to Jarrod, she gave her husband a smile in return.

“Yes, it does. But then that doesn’t surprise me. Jarrod has his father’s gift when it comes to putting people at ease.”

Nick scowled as he reached into the back of the buggy and retrieved Jarrod’s bags. “I sure hope he doesn’t plan to spend his entire vacation with Heath. I was his brother first, you know.”

“Yes, Nick,” Tom stated quietly, “we know. And believe me, Jarrod knows that as well. He has plenty of activities planned for just the two of you. But please, allow him some time to get acquainted with Heath and Heath with him.”

At the word ‘activities’ Nick perked up.

“Activities? What kind of activities?”

“Oh, I don’t know. He mentioned something about the two of you going to the dance in town next Saturday evening. And he said he got an invitation to a New Year’s Eve party at the Hansens’ ranch that includes you.”

Jarrod had been courting Melinda Hansen before he went to college. Nick was sweet on her youngest sister, Emily, who was in his class at school, though he was under the assumption his family was unaware of this last fact.

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I would like to go to that party with Jarrod. Does Heath have to come with us?”

“No,” Victoria shook her head. “The party is for young adults only. Franklin Manners was invited as well. Your father and I have asked Mr. and Mrs. Manners to come here for the evening. We’ll have our own little party with Heath, the twins, and Audra.”

“Good.”

Nick trotted into the house with Jarrod’s bags. Tom put an arm around his wife and daughter.

“It’s good to see Nick happy again. I knew having Jarrod home would help settle him down.”

“Yes, Jarrod has that effect on people. Which is exactly why he’ll make an outstanding lawyer.”

“I expect nothing less from him.” Tom kissed his wife’s temple. “But then he was raised by a wonderful mother. All the credit for the man he’s become belongs to you and you alone.”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far, Tom Barkley.”

“Don’t even bother to argue with me, lady, because it will do you not one ounce of good.”

“All right, if you put it that way I won’t.” Victoria turned for the house. “I need to help Silas finish the meal preparations. Your job is to make sure all your sons are gathered around the table promptly at six p.m.”

“All my sons,” Tom smiled. “That sounds wonderful.”

With Christmas only three days away Victoria hoped things would remain wonderful throughout Jarrod’s stay with them. Not that she had any concerns about her oldest son, but Nick was so jealous of Heath, and if Heath took to Jarrod and started tagging along after him,…….Victoria gave her head a mental shake. There was no use borrowing trouble.

Victoria watched as Tom disappeared into the barn. Nick flew out the front door and headed in that direction as well. The woman smiled to herself, wondering if she’d be able to keep track of four males throughout the next two weeks. She turned to her daughter.

“I do believe we’ll have our work cut out for us, Audra.”

*****

For the first time since Heath had been with them supper was a merry event. When Jarrod saw the platters of food that stretched from one end of the dining table to the other he declared his mother and Silas had already cooked the Christmas feast. Jarrod’s tales of college life kept everyone spellbound. He had a way of telling a story that made you laugh long before the punch line arrived.

When it came time for Heath to go to bed it was Jarrod who carried him up the stairs and read him a story. Tom engaged Nick in a game of checkers until Jarrod returned.

Tom looked up as his eldest entered the parlor.

“Heath asleep?”

“Sure is. He conked out half way through the book. I’ll have to finish reading it to him tomorrow evening.”

It didn’t surprise Victoria when Jarrod seemed to sense Nick was now in need of his undivided attention. He clapped the fourteen year old on the back.

“Come on, Nicholas. Let’s go see if there’s any cake left out in the kitchen. Then you and I and Father can play a few hands of cards before we call it a night.”

Victoria smiled at her oldest from where she sat rocking her youngest. Jarrod pointed a finger at her.

“And I’d like to request a private audience with you tomorrow, madam.”

“I will grant you that request, kind sir, and look forward to your visit.”

Victoria remained in the rocking chair with Audra sleeping on her shoulder. From her position she could see the card players at the dining room table. She hated herself for the thought that flitted through her mind when Nick laughed and teased his father over the poor hand Tom had just played.

This is just like how it used to be before Heath came to us. Nick was so happy.

We,……we were all so happy.

*****

The family gathered together for breakfast the next morning. Tom pushed his empty plate aside and looked at Jarrod.

“What plans do you have for today?”

“If you don’t need my help with anything specific I thought I’d go riding with my brothers.”

Nick looked up from his eggs. “Heath, too?”

Jarrod cocked a teasing eyebrow. “I believe I said ‘my brothers’, Nick. As in plural. So yes, Heath is included, too.”

“Aw, Jarrod, come on. Why can’t it just be you and,…

Victoria cleared her throat and shot Nick a pointed look. Tom’s eyes slid to Heath. The youngster was staring down at his plate, the expression on his shadowed face saying he wished he wasn’t once again the source of conflict in his new home.

Nick started over, attempting to present his case with a bit more diplomacy and tact.

“What I mean is, Heath won’t be able to keep up with us. You know how poky Ginger is.”

“Then Heath and I will ride double on Jingo.”

“But I wanted to show you the new breeding stock Father and I bought in September.”

“And you can’t show me that with Heath along?”

“It’s not that. It’s just that,….well, it’s just that I thought you and I were going to spend some time together.” Nick glared at the top of Heath’s head. “Alone.”

“We will.” Jarrod took a sip of his coffee. “As a matter of fact I was planning on you accompanying me into Stockton tonight.”

“For what?”

“Supper at the Cattlemen’s Hotel then a trip to the general store.”

“The general store?”

“I need to finish my Christmas shopping.”

“Oh. Oh,….okay. Yeah. That sounds like fun.”

Tom smiled. “Good idea, Jarrod. I’ll dare to go out on a limb and guess Nick hasn’t even begun his shopping yet.”

The man wiped his mouth with a napkin. He stood and kissed the top of Heath’s head as he passed.

“Have fun with your brothers today.”

“Yes, sir.”

He kissed Victoria on the mouth, then gave Audra’s jam covered cheek a peck. When he came to Jarrod he squeezed the young man’s shoulders while saying quietly in one ear, “Thank you. You’re a lifesaver.”

Nick’s hair got a thorough tousling next, then Tom was out the door. Victoria instructed Heath and Nick to help Silas clear the table. She sat and visited with Jarrod until the task was complete. Nick kissed her right cheek and Jarrod her left as they passed on their way to the barn. She didn’t get the opportunity to say goodbye to Heath. He’d left the house while Nick and Jarrod had Victoria occupied. That didn’t surprise the woman. Heath was good at slinking by her unnoticed.

Victoria shook Heath from her mind. With only two days to go until Christmas she had an abundance of jobs to accomplish. She wiped off Audra’s hands and face, then plucked the baby from the highchair.

“Come on, Mama’s girl. Let’s get a head start on those cookies we need to bake.”

*****

Audra sat on the kitchen floor gurgling at her reflection in a tin pie plate. Victoria smiled down at the content little girl while wiping a strand of hair out of her face. She had just pulled a hot batch of cookies from the oven when she felt a pair of lips kiss her cheek.

“Looks like I’m just in time to enjoy some Christmas cheer.”

The woman smiled at her oldest son. “That you are. Pour yourself a glass of milk and have a seat at the table.”

Jarrod did as his mother ordered. She took three ginger bread men from the cooling rack and placed them on a plate. She sat down next to her son, enjoying the opportunity to have time alone with him. The heady smells of cinnamon and nutmeg warmed the room, making it feel like Christmas had already arrived. Or so Jarrod said in-between bites of his cookies.

“Where are your brothers?”

“Nick rode on to the upper pasture to help Father sort cattle. Heath’s out in the barn taking care of Jingo, – at his insistence, of course. He let me remove the saddle off for him, but he said he’d do the rest.”

“He’s a hard working little boy, I’ll give him that. I don’t believe there’s a lazy bone in that child’s body.”

“Father said the same thing to me the day we rode home from the train station.”

Audra crawled over and latched onto her mother’s dress. She pulled herself to her feet, then swayed back and forth on unsteady legs. Victoria picked the baby up, setting Audra on her lap. Jarrod tore off part of a ginger bread man’s leg and handed it to his little sister. Victoria watched the baby gum the treat for a moment then turned her attention back to her son.

“Speaking of Nick and Heath, how was your ride?”

“Great. It’s so good to be home. I didn’t realize how much I missed the ranch until we were riding over all this wide open space.”

“I’m glad to hear that. It gives me hope that you’ll set up your law practice in Stockton when the time comes.”

“I have a ways to go before I’m ready to set up a law practice. But I don’t have any reason not to want to return home when my schooling is finished.”

Victoria reached over and patted her son’s hand. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that.”

Jarrod studied his mother over the rim of his glass. He took a long swig of milk then set the glass aside. He took his mother’s hand in his and squeezed.

“Enough small talk. How are you?”

Victoria dipped her head, placing a kiss in Audra’s curls. “Fine.”

“Mother.”

“What?”

“When you answer me without making eye contact I’m led to conclude your ‘fine’ is less than an honest reply.”

“You may be some years away from being a lawyer, Jarrod, but you already sound like one.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“That’s how it was intended.”

“Mother. Please. The truth. How are you with all,….this? How are you and Father?”

“Your Father and I are weathering the storm. Don’t worry, honey, our ship isn’t going to sink.”

“You’re certain?”

Victoria wormed her hand from Jarrod’s grasp. She reached up and cupped the side of his face. “I’m certain, Jarrod.”

A soft smile touched the corners of Jarrod’s mouth. “You’re a remarkable woman, Mrs. Barkley.”

“Not so remarkable really. But you’re right about one thing. I am a woman. And a woman does what she has to in order to keep her family together.”

Jarrod nodded. He ate the remainder of his snack before speaking again.

“That Heath sure is a likable little guy. After Nick left us he kept up a steady stream of one-sided conversation our entire ride back here, pointing out this and that to me as though I’d been away a hundred years.”

“Your father says he does the same when the two of them are alone together.”

“It’s not that way when Nick’s around though, isn’t it? Heath’s a completely different child then. So reserved. So quiet.”

“Nick’s having a difficult time adjusting to the situation. He’s been very angry with your father.”

“Yes. Father mentioned that. He said Nick’s jealous of Heath.”

“Jealous of the attention Father gives Heath, yes. Though in your father’s defense I must say he tries his best to give equal time to both the boys. He’s gone the extra mile with Nick on a number of occasions, but you know how your brother is when he gets angry.”

“Nick’s got quite a temper,” Jarrod agreed. “He’s like Grandpa Ted and Uncle Thor in that regard. And he can hold a grudge longer than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Victoria shifted Audra in her arms. The baby had fallen asleep. Victoria repositioned her so the child’s head rested in the crook of her elbow.

“That he can. Truthfully, I thought by now Nick would have begun to form a friendship of sorts with Heath but that has yet to happen.”

“Just like you can’t form a bond with him?”

“Who told you that?”

“No one. But it’s quite apparent to anyone who observes the two of you, you and Heath, together.”

Victoria sighed. She was surprised to feel the lump well up in her throat. She pushed her way around it.

“He doesn’t like me.”

“Heath?”

“Yes.”

“Has he told you that?”

“He doesn’t have to. He won’t have anything to do with me. Or at least not any more than he has to. He won’t speak to me unless I speak to him first, and then it’s only to reply ‘Yes, ma’am,’ or ‘No, ma’am,’. And heaven forbid if he were to be caught alone in the same room with me. The child must think he’ll fall over dead should that happen.”

“Has Heath ever talked to Father about the reasons why he treats you that way?”

“No. To the best of my knowledge Heath doesn’t speak about me to anyone. I don’t understand it, Jarrod. Even though Nick can be downright mean to him, Heath still makes an effort to extend friendship to Nick. But not once, not one single time, has he shown any warmth toward me.”

“Could that have something to do with his mother’s death? Possibly he feels he’s being disloyal to her if he transfers his affection to you.”

“Possibly. Though to be honest with you Heath’s never projected any emotion close to affection toward me. He’s very distant with me. Even more reserved around me than he is around Nick.”

Already the young lawyer, Jarrod’s brow furrowed in thought. “Well, he could be,….”

Before Jarrod finished his sentence boot heels pounded through the parlor. A young voice filled with excitement and joy sounded.

“Mother! Mother!”

For a brief moment Jarrod saw his mother’s eyes shine with delight. A smile split her face and she stood with the sleeping Audra in her arms.

“Mother! Mother!”

Victoria was halfway across the kitchen floor when Heath entered.

“Moth,….” the boy came to a halt in the doorway. He looked around, puzzlement etched on his face. When he spotted the cookies cooling on the counter his eyes shifted to Victoria. And right before tears spilled from those eyes she saw disappointment, betrayal and sorrow. Jarrod stood, but before he got to his little brother the child turned and fled the room.

Victoria started to follow the eight year old. Jarrod placed a restraining hand on her arm.

“Why don’t you put Audra in her crib while I go to Heath.”

Victoria hesitated a minute before nodding. If Heath was her child she wouldn’t consider letting anyone else comfort him when he was crying. But he wasn’t her child, and through his actions he continuously reminded her of that fact.

“Yes. Yes, you see to your brother and I’ll see to Audra.”

Jarrod placed a kiss on the woman’s temple. When he stepped back Victoria said, “You saw it too, didn’t you? The disappointment in his eyes when he came face to face with me. The same disappointment I always see in his eyes when he looks at me.”

What Jarrod wanted to say was, No, I didn’t see it. What I saw was a little boy who’s devastated over the loss of his mother. A little boy who doesn’t understand why he’s living in this house full of strangers. But most importantly what I saw was the love shining from your eyes when you thought he was calling for you. The love, and then the hurt when you realized it wasn’t you he wanted.

But Jarrod didn’t say any of those things because he knew his mother was already aware of them. Had probably mulled them over a thousand times since Heath came to the Barkley ranch.

Jarrod walked out of the kitchen. Victoria trailed him with Audra in her arms. Ten minutes later Victoria stepped out of the nursery just as Jarrod stepped from Heath’s room. He closed the door behind himself and didn’t speak until he and his mother were in the parlor.

“Did Heath tell you what upset him?”

“No,” Jarrod shook his head. “He wouldn’t say. He wouldn’t talk to me at all. He wouldn’t allow me to comfort him in any way. There wasn’t much else I could do but tell him that I’d always be willing to listen if he ever wants to discuss whatever it is that’s hurting him.”

“You couldn’t do anymore than that, Jarrod.”

“I know. But when my little brother is crying as though his heart is breaking what I had to offer doesn’t seem like much.”

Victoria gave her son a sad smile. “Now you know how I feel.”

“Yes.” Jarrod’s answer was quiet, thoughtful, and full of new respect. “Yes, Mother, I guess I do.”

*****

By nine o’clock on the morning of Christmas Eve the Barkley house was filled with smells that indicated the coming days would bring an abundance of food to the table. Victoria and Silas popped pan after pan of popcorn for stringing while the Barkley men were out cutting down the tree. A twelve foot tall evergreen was in a stand in the corner of the parlor by noon. After lunch everyone gathered to decorate the massive beauty.

Though Heath participated in stringing popcorn and cranberries, Victoria noticed he sat by himself on the floor in the far corner of the room. Even coaxing from Tom couldn’t draw him closer to the family circle. His head remained bent over his task, his concentration seemingly focused on the job he was doing.

The joy of the holidays and the fun of decorating the tree soon had the rest of the Barkleys reminiscing about past Christmases. They laughed when Jarrod reminded them of the time the tree fell on Nick, when the then seven-year-old couldn’t resist sneaking down the stairs and poking around after Santa Claus had come to call.

“I’ll never forget being woken up at two in the morning to Nick’s scream,” Tom said with a twinkle in his eye. “Mother and I thought he’d been sleepwalking and had fallen down the stairs. Instead we found him pinned under the evergreen, his arms and legs flailing in six different directions.”

Nick talked about the year his favorite uncle had been with them for the holidays.

“When Uncle Thor visited us that year it was like having our very own Santa Claus right here in the house,” Nick said.

“Yes, it was,” Victoria agree. Her robust, sandy haired brother-in-law never spoke in anything less than a rumbling shout and loved to laugh until tears rolled down his cheeks.

Tom looked at his two oldest sons. “And I seem to recall a Christmas when two boys beat Santa Claus to his cookies.”

“We couldn’t help it,” Nick grinned. “Jarrod and I got hungry waiting for him to come.”

It was only after an hour had passed and Heath walked over to fill his bowl with more popcorn that Victoria realized how left out he must feel. He hadn’t said a word while his family had talked, but then he rarely did when they gathered as one.

“Heath,” Victoria said, “why don’t you share some memories with us about special Christmases you had.”

The boy refused to meet Victoria’s eyes.

“No, thank you.”

Heath turned with his bowl and reseated himself in the corner.

Tom looked from his wife to his youngest son. What did the boy mean? That he had no memories of past Christmases that he deemed special, or that he felt the memories he had of times spent with his mother were not welcome in this house, or was he simply being rude?

“Heath?”

The eight-year-old looked across the room at his father, his face a neutral mask.

When the child didn’t break the heavy silence that prevailed Tom decided to let things drop. He didn’t want the holiday ruined for the rest of his family. If Heath chose to sit by himself and not participate when invited to, then so be it.

“Nothing.” Tom forced himself to smile. “You go back to what you were doing.”

Nick rolled his eyes at Jarrod and whispered, “He ruins everything that’s supposed to be fun.”

Victoria shot her fourteen-year-old a look that clearly said, “That’s enough, Nicholas.”

Silas was the family’s saving grace. Whether by accident or design he chose that moment to appear with a plate of fudge and a pitcher of milk. If nothing else the refreshments diverted everyone’s attention for a little while.

It was late in the afternoon before the work on the tree was declared finished. Victoria couldn’t wait until night came and the children were in bed. She and Tom would light the candles on the evergreen then sit together by the fire and enjoy its beauty. It had been five years since she had a youngster in her home who believed in Santa Claus. Not that Heath had talked to her about the jolly old elf, but she had seen him writing a letter to Santa at the dining room table one evening several weeks back. She heard him ask Tom for a stamp later that night. Tom had done his best to get Heath to turn the letter over to him to mail, but the boy refused. He insisted he’d drop it off at the post office on his way to school, which was exactly what he did. That left Tom and Victoria guessing as to what to put under the tree for him. In the end they drew on their experience as parents of two sons and bought the kinds of things all eight-year-old boys like. A whittling knife, a wooden whistle, a set of jacks, a card game, a kite, and additional cars for Heath’s train were just some of what he’d find under the tree on Christmas morning.

For the time being Victoria reminded her men they had to hurry through chores and then take turns in the bathtub. For ten years now Tom and Victoria had hosted a cookout on Christmas Eve for the ranch hands and their families. A steer and two pigs had been roasting all day in the pits behind the barn. By sundown tables would be piled high with food and drink. At midnight everyone would join together to sing Silent Night, then the party would draw to a close.

*****

At quarter to one Christmas morning Jarrod walked into the house. He found his parents exactly where he knew he would, sitting together on the hearth of the fireplace. The glow from the fire and the flickering flames of the tree’s candles were the only lights shining in the house.

Tom smiled up at his oldest. “Did the last of the party goers finally call it a night?”

Yes, and this party goer plans to do the same. Are Nick and Heath in bed?”

“Nick went up a few minutes ago,” Tom said. “I brought Heath in about eleven. I found him asleep in the barn with Chief’s tribe.”

“So that’s where he disappeared to.”

“It would seem so.”

Jarrod raised a questioning eyebrow, but his father chose not to elaborate. With the gaggles of excited children running around during the party it had been a long time before anyone noted Heath’s absence. The first Jarrod knew of the boy’s disappearance was when his father came up to him and Nick at ten-thirty and asked if they’d seen Heath. Both young men shook their heads no, Jarrod offering to help look for his youngest brother.

“No,” his father had replied. “You boys continue with your fun. I’ll find him.”

Then Tom was out of earshot Nick turned to Jarrod. “See. What did I tell you. That kid ruins every good time we’ve tried to have since he got here.”

“Perhaps you should have a bit more sympathy for his plight, Brother Nick. After all, this is his first Christmas without his mother, and the first with his new family.”

“You already sound like a lawyer, you know that? Father’s sure getting his money’s worth outta your fancy schooling.”

That’s when Nick poked Jarrod in the stomach and took off running. Jarrod raced after him, thoughts of Heath pushed from his mind as he plotted playful revenge against his fourteen-year-old brother.

Jarrod came back to the present when his mother said, “Father found Heath so that’s all that matters. We can hardly punish him for being in the barn, now can we.”

Jarrod studied his parents a long moment. He could tell the adjustment of a new child to their family was turning out to be as hard on them as it was on Heath.

“No, I don’t think we can punish him for that,” was all Jarrod said. He smiled and bent to kiss his mother on the forehead. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Jarrod.”

“Goodnight, son.”

When he heard Jarrod’s bedroom door shut Tom pulled his wife close to his side. He ran a hand through her hair and kissed her temple.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Barkley. And thank you.”

“For what?”

“For everything. Standing beside me through good times and bad. Weathering my mistakes. Welcoming Heath to our family. You’re my one-in-a-million gal.”

Victoria made no reply to the compliments. She had to admit that this year, more than any other, they were deserved.

The couple stood and went to the study. Presents were pulled from the huge locked closet across from Tom’s desk and carried to the parlor. Victoria filled six stockings then hung them on the fireplace mantel while Tom piled gifts under the tree.

The couple sat enjoying their handiwork until the fire burned low. At two a.m. Victoria finally suggested they go to bed. She almost added, “No doubt Heath will have us up at the crack of dawn,” but somehow she knew that wasn’t true. She couldn’t picture her subdued stepson flying down the stairs with joy to see what Santa had left him.

As she and Tom walked hand in hand up the stairs Victoria offered a silent prayer heavenward.

Please, Lord, just let today be free of upsets for all of us. Just this one day of all days.

*****

Heath wasn’t sure what woke him. He sat up in bed, confused for a moment as to how he got here. The last thing he remembered was laying against Cheyenne’s soft side while her puppies clambered all over him.

The boy listened for other sounds in the household. All was silent, leading him to believe the party had come to an end and everyone was asleep. He rolled toward the nightstand by the side of his bed and opened a drawer. He grabbed the gifts he’d been hiding for weeks and threw the covers back. His flannel nightshirt swirled around his calves as he crept to the door. He opened it without making a sound, then peered into the hallway. The door that led to his father’s room was shut, as was the one to Nick’s room and the nursery. Jarrod’s room he couldn’t see from here, it was around the corner, but no lights shone from the lower story meaing Heath felt it safe to descend.

The glow of the fireplace led the eight-year-old to the parlor. A wide grin split Heath’s face when he caught sight of the bulging stockings and the presents piled under the tree. Santa Claus had come! He’d really come again!

Santa hadn’t visited Heath in several years now. The boy was glad to find out that this year of all years, Santa had put Heath back on his list.

The boy stopped in front of the bright red stocking that had his name embroidered on it. Santa must have brought the stocking with him. Heath never had a stocking when he lived in Strawberry.

The boy quaked with anticipation. He absently laid the gifts he carried under the tree, then stood and parted the branches. He craned his head, looking left and right. He circled the tree, even squeezing behind it where it brushed up against the wall. He looked, and looked, and looked, then thought, The kitchen! That’s where he’d leave my present. In the kitchen ‘cause we always had so much fun in our kitchen at home.

Heath thought of the gingerbread cookies his mother used to bake and how their aroma made their little house in Strawberry smell so good. Just like the kitchen in this house had smelled the other day when he thought his mother had come back to him.

The boy ran into the cold, dark room. He navigated without the aid of light, feeling every chair. He moved to the cook stove, then to the wall that held the cabinets. When Heath finally determined there was no one present but himself he caught his lower lip between his teeth to keep from crying out his anguish. He fled through the dining room, parlor, and out into the foyer. When he came to the stairs he forced his steps to slow. He had to get back to his room as quietly as he’d left it. He didn’t want to face these people he lived with now. He couldn’t bear to see the sorrow on his father’s face, or the pity on Jarrod’s, or the anger on Nick’s. And her,…..well her, the one he called ‘ma’am’, he didn’t want to see at all.

Once again Heath laid alone in his room and cried like he had done many a night since arriving on the Barkley ranch.

*****

Victoria was correct in her assumption that it wouldn’t be Heath waking them at dawn. Yet neither had she imagined it would be her oldest son leading the charge for the Christmas tree.

Ever since he was a little boy Jarrod had been so in-tune to the feelings of those around him. Therefore his instincts must have told him if this Christmas was going to be a joyful one, it was up to him to start it off on the right note.

Jarrod roused Nick from his bed at six that morning. The fourteen year old did some good natured grumbling which prompted a brief pillow fight, but he was soon pulling on a pair of socks, pants and a shirt. Jarrod dragged Nick along to the nursery where baby Audra was sitting up in her crib playing with a rag doll. She smiled and held her arms out to her big brother.

“Peeeweh,” Nick held his nose. “Take her to Mother.”

“I think we can give Mother a little break from diaper duty on this day of all days.”

“Maybe you can, but don’t count me in on that idea.”

Jarrod carried the baby to the table his mother used for diaper changing and dressing. “I’ll handle the diaper, you find her a dress and some socks.”

Nick was willing to do that much for his baby sister. In ten minutes time the little girl was clean, dressed, and had a fresh ribbon in her hair though admittedly the green bow tilted farther to the left than it should have.

Jarrod passed Audra to Nick as he hurried to Heath’s room. He opened the door with a big grin on his face and boomed, “Merry Christmas,……”

Jarrod’s words faltered as he walked into the room. Heath was hardly the picture of excitement like Jarrod remembered himself and Nick being at the age of eight on Christmas morning. The blond boy was dressed for the day and sitting by the window. His forlorn gaze never left the ranch yard below.

“Heath?”

Heath turned as if this was the first he was aware of his siblings.

“Come on,” Jarrod urged. “We’re going down to see what Santa left for everyone.”

Jarrod didn’t allow the morose boy anymore time to brood. He swept Heath from his chair and swung him to his shoulders. Jarrod followed Nick out of the room, ducking under the doorway so Heath wouldn’t hit his head.

Jarrod backtracked down the hall just long enough to pound on his parents’ bedroom door.

“Merry Christmas, Father! Merry Christmas, Mother!”

Nick’s voiced echoed the same sentiments.

Jarrod added, “Heath and Audra say Merry Christmas as well.”

Victoria was belting her robe when she opened the door. She smiled at the sight before her. A fully dressed Audra smiling from Nick’s hip, Nick and Jarrod standing together looking so handsome and grownup, and a somber Heath perched on Jarrod’s shoulders whether he wanted to be there or not.

Tom was slipping into his robe when he joined his family. “Go on then, Jarrod. Let’s get this Christmas Day started.”

Jarrod bounded down the stairs, calling, “Hang on, Heath!” Nick followed with the laughing Audra who squealed with delight at all the commotion.

The boys went right for their stockings. Tom took Heath off Jarrod’s shoulders while Victoria took Audra from Nick. Nuts, oranges, and chocolate candies spilled out of the boys’ stockings while Audra received a rattle, a teething ring, and a new cloth doll. Jarrod and Nick dug further, Nick finding dime novels by his favorite western author while Jarrod found a bottle of aftershave and a pocket dictionary.

Heath let Tom guide him through his stocking, only reaching for more treasures when he was prompted to do so by his father. If the gifts brought Heath any excitement Tom was hard-pressed to discern it from the boy’s reserved demeanor.

The man did his best to cover Heath’s behavior. When all the stockings were empty he clapped his hands and said, “Okay, everyone! Gather around in a circle by the tree.”

Tom took Heath by the hand and led him to the evergreen. Jarrod sat next to Heath with Nick on the other side of him. Victoria sat between her husband and Nick, Audra on her lap.

Tom picked up the first present. He read the writing on the tissue paper. “This says it’s for Heath from Papa and Victoria.”

Heath took the gift and opened it. Without comment he studied the wooden car that would hook on the back of his train engine. He finally lifted his eyes to his father.

“Thank you, Papa.”

Tom patted his back. “You’re welcome, son. That was from Victoria, too.”

Heath knew what his father meant by that last comment. He glanced across the room, barely making eye contact with his stepmother.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“You’re welcome, Heath.”

Tom continued to pass out gifts one by one until everyone had a pile of open presents surrounding them. Audra sat in the middle of the floor now, ignoring her new dolls and the jack-in-the-box to instead play with the discarded wrapping paper.

Tom watched his family for a moment. He smiled at his sparkling baby girl, his eyes then shifted to his older sons. Nick was sighting the new rifle he’d gotten while Jarrod poured over a set of law textbooks Victoria had ordered for him from Boston. Heath was the only one who showed little interest in his gifts, though he had said thank you after he’d opened each one.

The family patriarch reached under the tree one last time. He found gifts from Nick and Jarrod to himself and Victoria, and gifts from them to each other, Heath, and Audra. Whether or not Nick would have purchased Heath a gift without Tom’s prompting the man didn’t know, nonetheless the purchase had been made at some point in recent days and that was all Tom cared about.

Victoria opened the first box Tom handed her. Her eyes grew wide with shock.

“Jarrod,…..oh, Jarrod, it’s beautiful.”

The woman held up a slate gray cameo broach for all to see. “Honey, you shouldn’t have. The money you must have spent.”

Jarrod rose and stepped over Audra. He bent and kissed his mother’s cheek. “You’re worth every penny.”

Her gift from Nick was a jar of colored bath salts and a bottle of her favorite perfume.

“Why, thank you, Nick. Thank you. This was so thoughtful of you. And to think you even know what my favorite perfume is.”

Nick blushed and shrugged his shoulders. “It was nothing. But when you’re ready to use those things,…..on a night when Father takes you out to dinner maybe, I’ll watch Audra.”

Tom looked at Nick mouthing, “And Heath, too.”

“And Heath. I’ll stay here and watch Audra and Heath so you and Father can go out to dinner. Maybe even take the train to San Francisco and see a play.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, Nick. When Audra’s a little older I’ll take you up on it. Thank you, son.”

While Victoria helped Audra open the gifts Jarrod and Nick had given her no one noticed Heath scoot back toward the tree. His hand encountered two presents he slipped into the back pocket of his pants. By the time Tom was opening his gifts Heath was seated next to him once again.

The man was surprised to find a present wrapped in brown paper with his name printed on it.

“To Papa,” he read, “From Heath.”

Tom smiled down at his blond son while he opened the gift. His jaw dropped as he hands rubbed over the soft leather of the wallet.

“Heath, this is nice. Very nice. But wherever did you get the money to buy it?”

The weekly allowance Tom paid Heath for doing chores around the ranch wouldn’t have purchased a wallet this expensive.

“I made it.”

“You made it?”

“Yes. After school and on weekends when I was in the tack room. Phillip gave me the leather. He said they were scraps no one would ever use.”

Tom turned the wallet over to see the word ‘Papa’ burnished on the other side. He watched as Jarrod and Nick opened wallets with their names burnished in the leather as well.

“Where did you ever learn tannery?”

“From Mr. Overmeier in Strawberry. He was the tanner. I cleaned his shop for him whenever he asked me to.”

Jarrod expressed his pleasure at Heath’s craftsmanship, and even Nick was forced to admit this new little brother was constantly full of surprises. For the first time since Heath had arrived he spoke to the boy in a civil tongue.

“Thanks, Heath. Thanks a lot.”

Victoria opened the gift addressed to Audra from Heath. A leather necklace strung with colored wooden beads was just the right length to tie around her chubby neck.

“Where did you get the beads?” Tom asked.

“Miss Wellington got them for me. She traded me two week’s worth of blackboard cleaning for them ‘cause I told her I don’t take charity.”

Tom laughed and pulled his son to his chest. “You’re quite the little businessman, aren’t you.”

“And I made Silas a belt. I’ll give it to him after breakfast.”

“That was very thoughtful of you, to remember Silas like that.”

“He’s my friend,” was all Heath said in return.

Tom looked under the tree one last time. When he didn’t see anything for Victoria from Heath he wasn’t sure if he should question the boy or not. He caught his wife’s eye and saw her shake her head no. He swore he saw tears swimming behind her gaze, but she turned away before he could ascertain that fact. Victoria distracted the family by picking up Audra and announcing, “Silas is putting breakfast on the table. Let’s leave our gifts for the time being and eat.”

*****

The family attended church services at noon that day, then returned home to the Christmas feast Silas had awaiting them. Friends and neighbors popped in throughout the afternoon and early evening. By ten o’clock that night the Barkleys were settling into their respective beds. Even Nick went without a fuss, the long day taking its toll on him as well.

Tom turned on his side and snuggled against his wife. “Victoria, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“For not making certain Heath had a gift for you. I never gave it a thought that he would buy,…..or make rather, any of us presents this year. I assumed he wasn’t comfortable enough with us yet so I didn’t broach the subject with him.”

“It’s okay. Heath has the right to give gifts to whomever he chooses.”

“But he doesn’t have the right to leave you out. That’s not the way we do things around here.”

“Let it be for now. Please.”

“But,…”

“Tom, this situation is no different than what you said a while back about Nick.”

“About Nick?”

“Regarding George Barnsworth and how he picks on Heath. You said you couldn’t make Nick fight for Heath, nor love him either. Well, you can’t make Heath love me. To quote you, he’ll be drawn to do that in time, or he won’t be. None of us can predict what the future holds.”

Tom made no reply to his wife. As much as he hated it when she found occasion to use his words against him, he had to admit they were appropriate given the current situation.

Victoria said no more and Tom fell asleep holding her. She didn’t allow her tears to flow until she felt his soft snores against her back.

*****

The next two weeks flew by. New Year’s Eve took Jarrod and Nick to the party at the Hansen ranch and brought the Manners family to the Barkleys’ homestead.

Somehow Jarrod found the time to give equally of himself to everyone. He worked alongside his father, took trips to town with Nick, went horseback riding with his mother, played with Audra, and walked with Heath beside the river that cut through the Barkley property when the boy took Chief’s puppies out for their daily romp.

Everyone hated to see Jarrod return to school, but the day came when they had no choice but to wave goodbye. Nick helped Tom secure Jarrod’s luggage to the back of the buggy. One of the ranch hands was driving Tom and Jarrod into Stockton. Tom was taking the train to San Francisco with his oldest son. He had business to conduct in the city for several days and decided this would be a good opportunity to get it taken care of.

It wasn’t unusual for Heath to disappear whenever Tom went to town. Therefore, Victoria wasn’t concerned when she didn’t see him after the buggy pulled out of the main gates. She knew he never wandered too far, but always seemed to find something to occupy his time on the Barkley acreage.

Nick flew into the dining room at five minutes after six that evening. He slid into his chair.

“Sorry I’m late, Mother.”

Victoria leaned sideways with her napkin and wiped at a smudge of dirt on her son’s face.

“It looks like you’ve been busy.”

“Some horses broke out of the east corral. I was helping Randall and Paul repair the fencing.”

“Your father will be pleased to know he can leave the ranch in your capable hands.”

Victoria saw Nick’s chest swell with pride at the compliment, though he simply shrugged his shoulders in reply to her words. The woman reached out and slapped at one of Nick’s hands.

“Nick, put that roll down. You know we don’t begin eating until everyone is seated.” The woman craned her head toward the foyer where Nick had entered from. “And speaking of everyone being seated, where’s Heath?”

“I don’t know.”

“You didn’t see him on your way in?”

“No.”

“That’s odd. He’s never late for a meal.”

“That’s for sure,” Nick snorted. “The kid’s like a cuckoo clock when it comes to being fed.”

“Nick.”

“What? No one’s around to hear me. Well, no one but Audra that is and she’s not going to tell anyone, are you Audra?”

The baby gurgled at her big brother as though she’d understood every word he said. Nick reached over and moved her blocks around on her high chair tray.

Victoria stood and went to the dining room windows. “When was the last time you saw Heath today?”

“I don’t know. I guess when Father and Jarrod left.”

“That was the last time I saw him, too.”

Silas entered carrying a platter of ham. Victoria turned.

“Silas, have you seen Heath this afternoon?”

“No, ma’am. Least ways not since you were all gathered outside saying goodbye to Mr. Jarrod.”

Victoria turned back to the windows as Silas exited the room.

“It’s getting dark,” the woman said to her son. “It’s not like Heath to stay out after dark. And it’s especially not like him to be late for supper.”

“Do you want me to go out and see if he’s in the barn?”

The woman turned to her son. She could tell by the look on his face that he’d rather be eating. She appreciated him taking a mature stance for once where his younger brother was concerned.

“Yes, Nick. Please do that. And if he’s not there look in the other buildings as well. And check with the men in the bunkhouses, too.”

“I will.”

This time Victoria didn’t admonish Nick when he reclaimed his dinner roll on his way out the door. On impulse she took Audra out of the high chair and called to Silas.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m going to check upstairs just to make certain Heath isn’t hiding somewhere on us. Would you please look in all the rooms down here.”

“Yes, Mrs. Barkley. I’ll do that right now. But don’t you worry none. It’ll probably turn out like Christmas Eve. Mr. Heath is probably curled up in some corner somewhere sound asleep.”

Victoria nodded as she and Audra headed for the stairs.

Silas is right. I’m worrying for nothing. Heath has probably fallen asleep somewhere, or is outside feeding Jarrod’s dogs and has lost track of time.\

*****

An hour later Victoria knew she now had reason to be concerned. The search of the house proved futile, as did Nick’s search of the out buildings. The fourteen year old was getting some men together to ride the ranch looking for Heath when horse’s hooves pounded from the west. Nick strained to see into the darkness.

“Whoa,” the man said as he reined his horse to a stop next to Nick.

“Heath!” Nick cried. “Where have you been? It’s after seven o’clock and you’ve got everyone goin’ out of their minds with worry.”

The ranch hand swung down off his horse, then lifted the soaking wet Heath out of the saddle.

“I found him walking home from the river, Nick. He said he fell in.”

“Fell in! Why you little,…….you know the river’s off limits unless an adult is with you.”

Nick looked up at the man who had brought his brother home. “Thanks, Art.”

“No problem.” The cowboy tousled Heath’s wet hair. “And you stay away from that river, young fella’.”

Nick grabbed a handful of his brother’s shirt and propelled the child toward the house. “Boy, are you gonna get it. Mother’s gonna tan your hide for this stunt. First you disappear without telling anyone where you’re goin’, then you practically get yourself drowned in the river. You have yet to see Victoria Barkley’s temper, but I have a feeling you’ll be well acquainted with it before you’re sent to bed.”

Even if Heath had wanted to make a reply he couldn’t have. The air temperature was fifty degrees and the cold water of the river hadn’t felt any warmer than that. His teeth were chattering and his limbs stiff as ice.

Nick was shouting before he even opened the door.

Mother! Mother! Mother, look who Art brought home!”

Victoria rushed down the stairs from the nursery.

“Heath! Heath, where have you,……Heath, what happened? My Lord, you’re soaking wet.”

“He fell in the river.”

“In the river? What was he doing down there?”

“I don’t know. Art found him walking home a little while ago.”

Victoria shuddered as she thought of the wild, rushing river that cut a wide path through the Barkley property. It was as beautiful as it was deadly. Only on the calmest of summer days could it be used for a swim. In winter, when it was filled with snow run-offs from the mountains it was swollen and angry. As angry as Victoria was right now when she thought of what could have been had Heath somehow not gotten himself to safety.

“Heath, you know you’re not supposed to be near that river unless an adult is with you! What in the world made you go down there?” The woman cupped the child’s chin and raised his head so he was forced to make eye contact with her.

“Heath? Heath, answer me.”

When it became apparent the boy was going to make no reply Victoria shook her head in both anger and disgust.

“Go upstairs and get changed out of those wet clothes.” The woman turned to her house servant as he entered from the kitchen to see what the commotion was about. “Silas, please help him. Get him in bed while I warm up some soup.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Silas put a hand on Heath’s cold back. “Come on, Mr. Heath. Let’s get you warmed up.”

Heath watched Victoria with wary eyes when she entered his room thirty minutes later. He was dressed in a clean nightshirt and tucked in bed with two extra quilts spread over him. He wouldn’t meet Victoria’s gaze as he sipped at the chicken soup. At least she wasn’t trying to make conversation. She was so angry with him she simply sat perched on the edge of his mattress waiting for him to finish his meal.

When Victoria got up to leave she realized it was Tom who had always tucked Heath into bed for the night. She knew little of what their night time routine contained. She never gave it a thought when she leaned forward to kiss the boy’s forehead. She would have made this gesture to any of her children no matter how upset she was with them.

Heath cowered into his pillows when he saw Victoria moving toward him. She stopped in mid-motion, his blatant dislike of her made the woman feel as though someone had taken a slice from her heart.

She stood with the soup bowl in her hand. She leaned over the oil lamp and blew out the wick, plunging the room into darkness.

“Good night, Heath.”

The boy didn’t answer Victoria, but then she didn’t expect him to.

*****

Victoria sat in the parlor staring into the fireplace. The flames offered no answers to the questions churning in her mind.

She wondered what had lured Heath to the river. Though he generally disappeared when Tom wasn’t around, he’d never before been disobedient and wandered somewhere he’d been told he wasn’t supposed to be.

And his dislike of her. He’d been with them over two months now and nothing had changed. They hadn’t even begun to form the slightest of friendships, let alone forge a mother/child relationship. While some women in Victoria’s position might have looked upon Heath’s silence as a blessing, she knew in his case actions did speak louder than words. The most recent example of that was the Christmas gifts that had been given to everyone but her. Why even Silas received a gift, but there had been nothing for her and no mention as to why not. Well, Victoria knew the why nots. The boy hated her. He resented her for being the woman whose role it now was to take his mother’s place.

Maybe Tom needs to take him back to Strawberry. I thought we were doing the right thing by bringing Heath here, but now I see I was wrong. Heath hates me, he has no desire to get to know me, or allow me to get to know him. And then there’s Nick. We shouldn’t have expected him to accept this boy as brother. It’s not fair that this has altered Tom and Nick’s relationship. All for a little boy who doesn’t want to be here in the first place.

Heath and Audra were sleeping, and Silas had retired to his quarters for the night. Nick was out in the tack room mending a saddle meaning Victoria had the main floor to herself. She sat in the parlor until the clock chimed ten times. She thought of going outside and telling Nick it was time for him to get ready for bed, then decided he might as well enjoy his last few days of school vacation. Besides, he’d been such a help tonight. So calm and level-headed when organizing the men to search for Heath. So confident that Heath would be found when he patted Victoria’s arm and said, “Don’t worry, Mother. Everything’s going to be all right. I’ll find him, I promise.”

Yes, Heath had been found and with plenty of help from his guardian angel everything had indeed, been all right. But what would tomorrow bring? And the day after that? Would the child eventually run away? Had he been trying to do just that this evening when he fell in the river? And what heartache would it bring Tom if the boy disappeared at some point in the future and was never found? Would Tom ever be able to forgive himself for the mistakes that were made the night Heath was created?

Victoria stood and crossed to the fireplace. She wished she knew what opinions she was going to express to her husband when he returned from San Francisco. Should Heath remain at the Barkley ranch, or be returned to Rachel?

Perhaps that decision was best left up to the eight-year-old. But would Tom even be willing to consider such a thing? And if he wasn’t, what price might they pay for keeping Heath with them? What price might Heath pay for staying with them?

With a heavy heart Victoria removed the poker from its rack and rolled the logs. She left the fire burning low, knowing Nick would take care of it when he came in.

The woman lifted her skirts and climbed the stairs. She placed her hand on the knob of Heath’s bedroom door, her intention to silently enter the room one last time to make certain he wasn’t suffering any ill effects from his swim. She paused a moment and cocked her head. There it was again. A muffled, gasping sound like someone was crying. Crying but didn’t want to be heard.

Victoria opened Heath’s door and took two steps into the room. The lights from the hallway gave her all she needed to see by. Heath lay curled in a ball with his back to her. His body shook as he sobbed into his pillows.

“Heath?” The woman rushed to the bed. “Heath? Honey, are you all right? Do you feel sick?”

Victoria sat on the edge of the mattress. Heath curled up even tighter when he felt her come to rest beside him. She ignored his movement and placed her open palm on his forehead. When she couldn’t detect a fever she ran her hand down to his cheek. With her own children she’d often found this was a good gauge of how high their temperatures were.

Heath’s skin felt a little warm to Victoria, but she wasn’t certain if that was a sign of illness or if it was from the exertion of crying. His face was wet with tears. He sputtered and gulped, trying to stop their flow, but the weeping seemed to continue on its own accord.

“Heath, can you tell me what’s wrong?”

When Victoria got no answer she kept her voice quiet and soothing when probing again.

“Are you sick?”

Still no answer.

“Heath, please. I’m worried about you, sweetheart. If nothing else please tell me if you’re not feeling well.”

Finally Victoria saw him nod against his pillow.

“Does that mean you’re all right?”

His voice came out soft and nasally. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You don’t have a tummy ache?”

“No, ma’am.”

“How about a headache?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Are you too warm or too cold?”

“No, ma’am.”

Victoria put a smile in her voice when she asked her last question.

“Have you grown another arm or leg? Or perhaps another set of toes? Or an extra ear?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Well then, young man, I’d say you survived your swim unscathed.” It wasn’t until after she’d brushed Heath’s hair off his forehead that Victoria realized he’d allowed her to touch him. She pulled a hankie out of her dress pocket and wiped the tears from the side of his face that was visible to her. She held the white linen to his nose and encouraged him to sit up.

“Here, sweetheart. Blow.”

Heath rose on an elbow and did as instructed. Victoria folded the hankie and returned it to her pocket. She sat in silence with the boy for a moment, trying to decide how to proceed with this very fragile thread that suddenly existed between them. She kept her voice soft and gentle.

“Would you tell me why you were crying, honey?”

Heath leaned against his pillows but turned his head away. Nonetheless, his movement couldn’t hide the tears she saw well up in his eyes again.

“Heath?”

When Victoria got no reply she absently fingered the quilts that lay across the boy’s chest.

“You know, when my children are upset it upsets me, too. It hurts me to find you crying in here all by yourself. Sometimes when something bothers us so much that it makes us cry it helps to have a friend to talk to.”

Heath thought a long moment before confessing, “Rachel used to talk to me when I cried after my mother died.”

“Rachel was a good friend then, wasn’t she.”

“Huh, uh. And Hannah, too.”

“Yes, and Hannah, too. I’m glad to hear you had such good friends. I know when we have to move away from our friends it can make us very sad. Are you crying because you miss Rachel and Hannah?”

“No.”

“I see. Well, maybe you’re crying because you had to say goodbye to Jarrod today. Saying goodbye to Jarrod made me sad.”

“I didn’t want Jarrod to go either. I like him a lot.”

Victoria smiled. “Everyone likes Jarrod a lot. He’s a good brother, don’t you think?”

“Yes.”

“So is that why you’re crying? Because Jarrod had to leave us to return to school?”

“No.”

Victoria thought further, trying to remember what it was like to be eight years old. Trying to put herself in Heath’s place. She pondered bringing up the subject of his mother, but thought it was best to follow his lead in that area. She looked around the room, her eyes traveling to the vast hallway beyond. This house must seem so enormous to Heath after the home he was used to living in with his mother. Tom had told her it had one room that served as both kitchen and living room, and one tiny bedroom barely bigger than a closet where Heath slept, while Leah slept on a cot near the stove.

Victoria could easily imagine how frightening it must be for Heath to sleep in this big room all by himself. She wondered why she’d never thought of this before. On the other hand, how could she have? Prior to this moment she’d always gotten the impression Heath didn’t want her in the room with him.

“Heath, were you crying because you’re scared?”

Victoria’s question prompted a fresh flow of tears.

“Sweetheart, what is it that’s frightening you so?”

When the boy didn’t answer Victoria prompted, “Heath?”

“Papa,…..Papa’s gone.”

“You’re scared because Papa went with Jarrod?”

Heath nodded his head.

“There’s no need to be scared, honey. Papa will be back. Remember when he left today he told you he’d see you on Saturday.”

The boy’s answer came in a hiccupped sob. “I,…I,….I….know.”

“Papa will be back on Saturday, and in the meantime I’m here with you and Nick and Audra.”

“But,…..but,……but…..you’ll send me away,……away to some place…..some place where Papa will never find me.”

“I’ll do what?”

“Send,…..send,….me……away.”

“Who told you that?”

“My,….my……Uncle Matt.”

“Your Uncle Matt? When did he tell you that?”

“The day I lef,…left Strawberry. Uncle Matt wanted me to stay with him and Aunt Martha. He told me to tell Papa I wanted to stay in Strawberry. Only I didn’t want to. Well,……maybe I did a little because I love Rachel and Hannah. But Uncle Matt is mean. Especially when he drinks whiskey. And Aunt Martha,….well Hannah says she’s not right in the head and it’s true. She looks at people funny and laughs for no reason at all. Sometimes she even wears her clothes backwards, or forgets to put on her shoes, or wears her night gown to the general store. I didn’t want to live with her and Uncle Matt. If I couldn’t stay with Rachel and Hannah then I wanted to come with Papa ‘cause I already liked him.”

“Exactly where is it your Uncle Matt told you I’d send you?”

Heath finally made eye contact with his step mother. Though Victoria could tell he was frightened, she could also tell he was ready to face the fears that had haunted him since the first day he came to the Barkley ranch.

“He said you’d hate me because I’m not your boy. That you’d hate me ‘cause I’m just your husband’s bastard. He said the first time Papa went away for more than a few hours you’d send me to an orphanage where Papa would never find me.”

Victoria was getting a good idea as to just what kind of a man Matthew Thomson was. She had a strong suspicion he’d filled Heath’s head with even more lies than had just been revealed.

“What other things did your uncle tell you about me?”

“That,…..that,….” tears threatened to cut off Heath’s voice.

Victoria stroked his cheek with the back of her hand. “Honey, don’t cry. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Your Uncle Matt has told you a lot of things that aren’t true. Things that have been scaring you and have prevented you and me from becoming friends. Now why don’t you tell me everything else your uncle said.”

It took Heath a moment to find his voice. “He said even if you didn’t send me away you’d beat me. That I wouldn’t even have to do anything wrong and you’d take a strap to me. He said you wouldn’t want me in your house ‘cause I’m not one of your kids. That you’d just as soon put me out with the garbage than to have to look at me.”

“Is that why you don’t like me to touch you, and why you don’t like to talk to me? It that why you disappear every time Papa goes to town, because you’re afraid I’ll beat you? Is that why you wandered down to the river tonight?”

The boy dropped his eyes.

“Heath?”

Victoria saw him give a skittish nod of his head.

“Heath, look at me please.”

The eight-year-old reluctantly lifted his head. He was shocked to see tears rolling down his stepmother’s face.

“Sweetheart, I would never, never send you away. Not to an orphanage, not anywhere. This is your home now. You live here with your father and your brothers and your sister. You have just as much right to be here as anyone else in this family. And I do want you in this house. Don’t you think for one minute that I don’t. As far as me taking a strap to you,…..well, have you ever seen me take a strap to anyone?”

“No. But Nick said you were going to tan my hide tonight.”

“Nick knows perfectly well that I have never struck any child in this household. Unfortunately, when Nick gets angry he tends to stretch the truth.”

“Nick’s angry with me a lot. I want to be his friend, but he doesn’t like me much.”

“Nick hasn’t given himself time to get to know you, Heath. Which is his fault, not yours.”

“He thinks I took Papa away from him. I never meant to. I always try to make sure Papa spends more time with Nick than with me because Nick needs him more than I do. I love Papa, but I got along okay for eight years without knowing him so if it makes Nick mad ‘cause he has to share Papa with me then I won’t mind if Papa ignores me. Besides, Uncle Matt already told me that my brothers and sister wouldn’t want me here either ‘cause I’m the bastard kid.”

Victoria kept her seething anger for Matt Thomson from showing on her face or in her voice.

“Heath, we need to discuss several issues. First of all, it’s very generous of you to say you’d allow Papa to ignore you if that act would make Nick happy, but let me assure you Papa won’t be ignoring any of his children. Just like Jarrod had to learn to share Papa when Nick was born, Nick will now have to learn to share Papa with you. Such is the way of families long before any of us came into this world.

“And as far as your uncle saying you’re a bastard,…..I don’t like that word. It’s a stupid word. It’s a stupid word that just means your Uncle Matt isn’t a very smart man.”

“No. It means that I don’t have a father. Other people in Strawberry used to call me that sometimes, too. I even fought some kids in school who used to call me that.”

“But you do have a father, Heath. Everyone has a father. None of us could be born without one. Granted, not all of us grow up living with our fathers, but I don’t care who the person is, he or she has a father. So see, you aren’t a bastard.”

Heath mulled over Victoria’s words before nodding his agreement to the logic behind them. She sat stroking a hand through his golden hair, allowing him time to contemplate their conversation. When he spoke again she had to strain to hear the little voice that was pitched just above a whisper.

“Sometimes I cry because I’m scared,…….and sometimes I cry because I miss my mother.”

And with that the floodgate broke. Sobs wracked the boy’s body as he cried for the woman he had loved so much and tried so hard to take care of.

Victoria wrapped Heath in her arms. He buried his face in the hollow between her neck and shoulder, weeping so heavily Victoria could soon feel his wet tears dampening the material of her dress.

The woman rocked back and forth in gentle rhythm. One hand cupped the back of Heath’s head while the other rubbed up and down the curve of his bony spine.

“I know, sweetie. I know it hurts. I know how much you loved her and how much you miss her. I know,” Victoria soothed. “I know.”

Heath pushed words out between his sobs.

“I’ve tried….tried to be good. I’ve tried to wish her here. I thought,….I thought maybe…..maybe if I….if I didn’t cause anyone,….anyone any trouble that….that…..God…..God would give her…..give her back to me. I even asked Santa Claus to bring her. I didn’t,….I didn’t ask for anything else. Nothing. Just my mother. But then I woke up,……woke up on Christmas and went downstairs to look for her and,….and she wasn’t here. That’s when I knew…..when I knew she wasn’t ever coming back. Never. No matter how good I am,…..or how hard I pray,…..or how much I wish. I’ll never see her again, will I?”

It broke Victoria’s heart to have to tell this child the truth. Despite the fact that her husband had slept with Leah Thomson, Victoria wished she had the power to bring Heath’s mother back to him.

“I’m so sorry, Heath, but no. No. You won’t ever see your mother again. Or at least not for a long, long time until you’re a very old man and God calls you home to heaven. But in the years between now and then you’ll have the memories of your mother to carry in your heart.”

“I just want,…..I just want to hug her one last time. I just want to tell her I love her again. She was so,….so sick when I told her that day. That last day that she was,…..was alive. So sick that I don’t think she heard me.”

“Oh, honey, she heard you. She heard you.”

“How do you…..how do you know?”

Victoria’s lips brushed the top of Heath’s head. “Because a mother always hears her child’s voice no matter what.”

Heath clung to Victoria and cried a long time that night. She suspected every memory he had of his mother was coming alive within his mind. She also suspected he was taking the first steps toward saying goodbye to a life he could never have again, and to a cherished woman he would never see again.

When Heath’s tears stopped he was content to remain folded within Victoria’s embrace. He didn’t say anymore, and neither did she. She simply held him, stroking his hair and rubbing his back until she could tell he’d fallen asleep.

The woman eased Heath to his pillows without waking him. She sat beside him a while longer, then stood and made sure he was well covered. She leaned down and placed a light kiss in the middle of his forehead. As she walked out of the room she could only hope tonight was the beginning of a new day for both of them.

Victoria closed Heath’s door, then turned to face Nick. She’d heard him come up the stairs shortly after she’d entered Heath’s room. The entire time she was with Heath she was well aware that Nick was standing outside the open door eavesdropping.

Nick ducked his head while swiping at his eyes. No matter. Victoria had seen the tears brimming there.

Her voice was quiet but firm when she spoke to her fourteen-year-old.

“I imagine you now have a better understanding of what your brother is going through, and why this adjustment is just as difficult for him as it is for you. For as much as he needs a mother, he also needs a friend. At some point very soon I hope you decide to be that friend. If you don’t, then someday he’ll look elsewhere for someone he can turn to, admire, work beside, and have fun with. My woman’s intuition tells me you’ll live to regret it if that’s what you allow to happen. I have a feeling that little boy in there is just itching to make someone the best friend you could ever hope to have.”

Nick’s reply was unsteady and tight. “Yeah. Yeah, I,…..I get that feeling, too.”

The young man accepted his mother’s kiss on the cheek.

“Good night, Nick.”

“Good night.”

*****

Victoria, Audra, and Heath were already at the breakfast table the next morning when Nick entered the room. Heath’s eyes slid sideways when Nick took the chair next to him rather than the one across the table from him.

“Good morning, Mother!” Nick boomed with sunshine in his voice. His greeting to Heath was no less exuberant. “Morning, Heath!”

Victoria smiled. “Good morning.”

Heath’s “morning,” was full of wary caution, as though he wasn’t sure what Nick’s motives were.

Victoria saw Heath’s eyes widen when Nick spoke of the day he had planned. There wasn’t one thing on Nick’s list that didn’t include Heath’s participation.

“If it’s okay with you, Mother, Heath and I will inspect that north fence line Father asked me to check. Then we’ll ride to the line shack and drop supplies off to Bill and Jack. I’ll have Silas pack us a lunch. We’ll eat in the orange grove, then look over the trees. After that we have a little errand to run.”

“An errand?” Victoria questioned.

“Yeah. Me and Heath need to pay a visit to George Barnsworth. We have some business to take care of with him.”

“Business?”

Nick looked at Heath and smiled. “We need to let him know that there’s just some things you can’t get away with sayin’ to a Barkley.”

“I see. Well, that does sound like important business. You boys take care of it in whatever way you see fit.”

Nick’s smile was transferred to his mother. “I thought you’d say that.”

Nick shoveled his eggs in his mouth then gulped his orange juice in three swallows. He tousled Heath’s hair as he stood.

“Come on, little brother. Day’s a wastin’.”

Victoria smiled to herself when Heath jumped from his chair and ran after Nick with open devotion written all over his young face. She turned to Audra who was smiling as well, as though she knew exactly what was transpiring in her household.

Victoria dabbed at her daughter’s mouth with a napkin. “Audra, I do believe your brothers are on their way to becoming life-long friends.”

The woman turned and looked out the window. She watched as one dark head and one blond head disappeared together into the barn. She had a feeling this was a scene she’d watch over and over again for many years to come.

*****

Victoria looked up when she heard the front door shut. She was in Tom’s office balancing the books as she did every month. Audra was spending the morning with Phillip’s wife so Victoria could go about her work uninterrupted.

The woman smiled when she saw Heath peer around the corner.

“I thought you and Nick were already off doing all those things Nick said needed tending to.”

“Not yet.” Heath approached the desk without hesitation, his hands clasped behind his back. “Nick’s helping some of the men fix one of the corral fences. The new stallion broke a board on it this morning. I got our horses ready so now I’m just waiting for him.”

“I’m sure he’ll be along in a few minutes.”

“Yeah, he will.” Heath dropped his eyes. “I,….I have something for you.”

“For me?”

Heath produced two wrapped packages from behind his back. “I was gonna give these to you for Christmas, but,….”

Victoria moved out from behind the desk and led Heath over to the sofa. She sat down next to him and took the presents he handed her.

“But what, Heath?”

The boy shrugged. “They’re not fancy like the pin Jarrod bought you. And they don’t smell nice like the perfume Nick bought you. After I saw what they gave you I didn’t think the presents I had for you were good enough. But I didn’t have the money to buy you anything from a store. I send all the money I earn working for Papa to Rachel and Hannah.”

“You do? Does Papa know that?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, I never told him. He said I could do whatever I want with my money.”

“He’s right, you can. And I think it’s very generous of you to send your allowance to Rachel and Hannah.”

“They need it. I have so much now and they both have to work real hard to make a living. I promised my mother I’d always take care of Rachel and Hannah ‘cause they always took care of us.”

“You have a very loving spirit, Heath, and don’t you ever let anyone tell you differently. When Papa gets back from San Francisco you talk to him about what you’ve been doing. I think he’ll come up with another plan to assist Rachel and Hannah in such a way that you won’t have to give up the allowance you work so hard for.”

“Okay. But I don’t take charity.”

“I know that,” Victoria smiled. “And so does Papa. I’m sure the two of you can negotiate a deal that will allow you to better provide for Rachel and Hannah over and above what you’ve already been sending them.”

The woman looked down at the gifts in her lap. “Do you want me to open these now?”

“I guess. But you might not like them.”

“I’m sure I’ll love them.”

Heath looked doubtful as Victoria unwrapped the first gift. The necklace was just like the one Heath had given Audra. Colorful wooden beads were strung on a soft string of leather that tied at the back of her neck. Victoria immediately put the necklace on.

“It’s beautiful, honey. And it’s just the right length.”

“Miss Wellington tried it on for me so I knew just where to cut the strings.” Heath bit his lower lip. “I,…I made one for my mother, too,…..but…..but I know now she won’t be able to have it so I’m going to send it to Rachel. I’ll make one for Hannah, too, so she doesn’t feel bad.”

Victoria couldn’t speak around the lump in her throat. Her hat was off to Leah Thomson. What a special little boy she had raised.

“I’m sure Rachel and Hannah will be thrilled with their necklaces. When you get them done you and I and Papa will drive to Strawberry so you can deliver them personally.”

“Really? Can we? Can I really go back for a visit?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“I’d like that. Can Nick and Audra come, too? And Jarrod if he’s home?”

“Certainly. The whole family will go.”

“That will be great. Rachel loves company. She makes the most delicious pies. If she knows we’re coming she’ll cook all day.”

“That alone makes the trip sound worth it to me.”

“Me, too.”

Victoria unwrapped the second gift. A brown leather purse appeared from the folds of the paper. It was trimmed with beaded tassels and closed on top with a drawstring making Victoria think of what she’d seen Indian women carry. Victoria knew hours of craftsmanship had gone into making the gift.

“Oh, Heath, it’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”

Heath beamed as he said, “Turn it over.”

Victoria did as she was told. She saw the names of her children burnished deep in the purse’s underside. She ran her fingers over the letters that formed Jarrod, then the ones that spelled Nick, then the ones that said Audra. She looked at the boy sitting next to her.

“This is a wonderful gift, Heath. But I think you have a little more work to do before it’s complete.”

Heath studied the bag, not certain what he’d missed. Ever seam was sewn shut and every bead strung tight. When he looked up at Victoria with open puzzlement she gave him a gentle smile.

“You forgot a name, sweetheart.”

“I did?”

“Yes. You forgot Heath.”

Heath studied his stepmother, then threw himself forward and wrapped his arms around her waist. Victoria held him close while running a hand over the back of his head. She didn’t tell him that by August there would be yet another name to add. She already knew she was in the early stages of pregnancy, but hadn’t told Tom their family was going to be blessed with yet another child.

The woman smiled as she thought of her husband.

Maybe Tom will finally get to make use of that name he’s so fond of after all. Eugene. I can’t say it’s one I’d pick out, but he let me veto it when we finally settled on Jarrod, and then again when we eventually came to agree upon Nicholas. It’s a good thing Audra was a girl because we never did choose a boy’s name for her. Once again Tom was trying to sell me on Eugene. I suppose I should give in to him this time if another little boy is added to our family.

Victoria turned her attention back to the boy in her arms. She heard Heath’s muffled, “My mother used to call me that all the time.”

“Call you what? Sweetheart?”

“Yes.”

Victoria gently disengaged Heath’s arms from her waist. When she could look into his eyes she said, “Perhaps it’s time we discuss what you want to call me. I don’t think, after these beautiful gifts, that I want to hear you calling me ma’am any longer. It sounds a bit too formal in my opinion.”

“I suppose.”

“Would you like to call me Victoria now like Papa suggested on the first day you came here?”

Heath thought a moment, then shook his head. “My mother said you shouldn’t call adults by their first names. It’s disrespectful.”

“Your mother was correct about that. I’ve taught your brothers the same thing. Nonetheless, I think this a special situation, don’t you? Perhaps we can overlook the rules this one time.”

“I don’t know,” Heath mused aloud. “I’m not sure it would be right.” Granted, he called Rachel and Hannah by their first names but that was different. They’d been his mother’s best friends and Heath had known them for as long as he could remember.

Victoria patted the child’s knee. “I’ll tell you what, you think it over for a few days and I’ll do the same. Maybe between the two of us we can come up with something that will make us both happy.”

“All right.” Heath glanced out the big windows and saw Nick leading Coco and Ginger from the barn. “Nick’s ready. I’d better go.”

The woman stood and walked with Heath to the doorway of the study. “Have a good day. And thank you again for the gifts, Heath. I couldn’t love them any more had they come from the most expensive store in New York City.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I’m glad.”

Victoria watched the boy race for the door. She marveled at the transformation that had taken place in less than twenty-four hours.

The woman headed back to her work. She almost fell over when accosted from behind by two arms that encircled her waist. She turned around to see a familiar golden head buried in her skirts.

“I decided,” Heath said.

“Decided what?”

“If you’re going to call me sweetheart,…..”

“Yes?”

“Then I’d like to call you mother.”

Victoria crouched down so she could give Heath a proper hug. She kissed his cheek then pressed her face against his. She didn’t have to voice her approval to him, when he felt her tears against his skin he knew he had made her happy.

When Victoria finally pulled away from Heath she cupped his face in her hands and placed a final kiss on his forehead. “I’m so lucky, Heath. I’m so very lucky. I have four beautiful children named Jarrod, Nick, Heath, and Audra. Each and every one of those children fills my heart with joy.”

Victoria released the smiling boy, then turned him toward the door and gave him a playful whack on the behind.

“Go on with you now so I can get my work done. Have a fun day with Nick.”

“I will.” Heath ran from the room, only to appear again seconds later. “Oh, I need to ask you one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“Do you promise you won’t tan our hides if we give George Barnsworth what he has coming?”

Victoria saw the twinkle in Heath’s eye and knew she was being teased.

“Let’s put it this way, son, what I don’t know I can’t dish out punishments for, right?”

“Right.”

Heath whirled away with a smile. Victoria heard his boot heels pound across the foyer, then the slam of the front door. Until this moment she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed having a little boy in the house.

Victoria crossed to the windows and watched Heath race across the yard.

“Come on, Nick, we gotta go! Boy howdy, but this will be great! Mother says she won’t even tan our hides for giving George Barnsworth what he deserves!”

Victoria laughed while cocking an eyebrow. “Boy howdy? Now there’s an expression I haven’t heard before.”

And somehow, deep inside her soul, Victoria Barkley knew that was one expression she’d come to grow fond of over the many years that were to follow.

***The End***

Return to Kenda’s homepage

One thought on “Heart Filled with Joy (by Kenda)

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.