Summary: Missing Scene From The Episode Legend Of A General
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 6100
The Barkley brothers rode hard and fast for the next eight hours. They stopped briefly when necessary to rest and water their horses before mounting once again. They wanted to cross the border into the United States prior to sunset.
Jarrod and Nick, along with General Vincente Ruiz and his fourteen-year-old son Pepe, had broken Heath out of a prison in Rio Blanco Mexico. Heath had been jailed for helping the general flee the country to the safety of the Barkley ranch. Vincente was an old and dear friend of the Barkley family. Thirty years earlier he’d help Tom and Victoria safely exit Mexico when they’d been down there on business and inadvertently got caught in the middle of a political uprising. Vincente was a popular Mexican leader for the next twenty-eight years. But as things often go in the unstable world of politics, his government was overthrown and he soon found himself a wanted man.
General Vincente Carlos Diego Ruiz would have lost his life had Heath Barkley not gotten him out of Mexico when he did. No doubt the same fate would have befallen the general’s teenage son. So when the Barkley family got word that the Mexican government had jailed Heath and he was facing the death penalty for aiding and abetting Vincente’s escape the general insisted he participate in Heath’s rescue.
Victoria Barkley feared she’d never see her old friend alive again the day Vincente rode away from the ranch with Jarrod, Nick, and Pepe. It was a fear that would come to pass. The general was shot and killed during Heath’s jailbreak. His brokenhearted son refused to ride back to California with the Barkley men, but instead chose to stay behind in his native country and take up his father’s cause for the freedom and equality of all Mexico’s people no matter how rich or how poor.
Now the long day was drawing to a close. The sky was streaked crimson with the last rays of sun. Jarrod looked over his shoulder as they crested another hill. Nick was to his immediate left, Heath was trailing fifty yards behind them. They’d crossed into California thirty minutes earlier, but had planned to ride until dark. The lawyer shouted over the pounding of the horses’ hooves.
“We’ve got another hour to go before we come to that creek we talked of camping by! You think Heath can make it?”
Nick turned his head to see for the first time the distance that had grown between them and their younger brother. “I don’t know! He looks like he’s struggling!”
The dark headed cowboy reined his horse. Jarrod did the same. When Heath reached them he halted the sorrel mare he was riding. Though it hurt to move his bruised and battered face in any fashion he shot his brothers a puzzled look.
“What are we stoppin’ for? I thought we were gonna ride until we got to Miners Creek. That’s at least another hour north.”
“We know it is,” Jarrod nodded. “But you look like you’ve had enough for one day. Nick and I have plenty of water in our canteens. We can stop here for the night, then stop again in the morning to refill the canteens at the creek and let the horses drink.”
“No. No, I’ll make it. Let’s keep going.” Heath looked over his shoulder. “I’d feel a lot better if we put a little more distance between us and Mexico.”
“Sure you’ll be okay?” Nick asked.
Heath ignored the tug on his split lip when he grinned. “Fellas, over the course of my life I’ve ridden with an arrow in my shoulder, gravel pellets from a shotgun embedded in my back, a concussion, and one time with four broken ribs and two sprained wrists. Believe me, this is a Sunday picnic compared to those journeys.”
Jarrod threw Nick a smile. “Well, Nick, I don’t know what we were so concerned for.”
Nick pretended to be put out when he growled, “Neither do I.” He spurred his horse. “Come on then, Barkley brothers. Let’s ride!”
Jarrod and Heath exchanged grins, then wheeled their horses around as one. Within seconds the three men were racing toward Miners Creek. Because of the rapidly approaching darkness Jarrod and Nick didn’t notice the stiff way Heath held himself in the saddle, or the tight grip he had on the reins as though he feared the slightest bump would cause him to topple from his mount.
At ten o’clock that night the three men were camped on the banks of Miners Creek. Although they’d detected no one following them throughout their long journey, Jarrod wasn’t about to take any chances. He built a fire but didn’t allow it to burn freely. He wanted just enough flame to cook supper and to keep wild animals at bay, but not enough to draw the attention of travelers.
Heath sat on a nearby log with Nick crouched down in front of him. The dark headed man had soaked his handkerchief in the creek’s frigid water and was now dabbing at the dried blood that covered Heath’s face.
“Ouch! Nick, ouch!” Heath pulled back. “That smarts!”
“It’s doesn’t smart nearly as much as it will three days from now.”
“Whatta ya’ mean?”
“When Mother sees your face the first thing she’s going to reach for is the Godfrey’s liniment.”
Heath started to wrinkle his nose, then thought better of it when pain shot through his swollen left eye. “I hate that stuff.”
“We all hate that stuff, but you know our mother. You’re not going to slip by her without a liberal dose of it being applied to all these cuts.”
Jarrod turned from where he was roasting the three rabbits they’d snared.
“Speaking of which, how’d you end up coming out of that prison looking like you lost a fight with a penned bull?”
Heath pushed himself to his feet. With slow, careful movements he hobbled to the fire’s edge. “Let’s leave it at this, me and my captors didn’t see eye to eye on several issues.”
“It’s usually Nick I can count on to lose his temper and suffer a black eye. You, on the other hand, brother Heath, generally have far more common sense.”
“Hey,” Nick protested as he joined his brothers by the fire. He handed out the tin plates he’d packed as part of their provisions before leaving the ranch. The three men sat down and Jarrod held out skewers of warm meat.
Heath shrugged a stiff shoulder while accepting his supper. The burning pain that shot all the way down his back made him regret that movement, but he did a good job of hiding that fact from his siblings.
“You’re right, Jarrod, I generally do possess far more common sense than Nicholas here. However; being wrongfully jailed tends to bring out my ornery side.”
Before his brothers could ask anymore questions of him Heath changed the subject.
“When we get home,…….when we get home I want to be the one who tells Mother about Vincente.”
Jarrod and Nick exchanged glances. The logs in the fire crackled and popped twice before Jarrod spoke.
“Heath, you’ve got no reason to blame yourself for the general’s death. We,…..all of us; me, Nick, Audra, and Mother, tried to convince him to stay behind at the ranch. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted to be a part of the action Nick and I took to get you out of Mexico.”
“And if your jailbreak wouldn’t have worked?” Heath asked.
A long silence followed that the blond man finally broke.
“If it wouldn’t have worked Vincente planned to turn himself into Diaz in exchange for my release, is that it?”
Nick cleared his throat. “I suppose that’s what he planned to do, yes.”
“And you would have let him?”
“Heath, I don’t know what we would have done,” Jarrod attempted to reason. “No, it wasn’t our intention to allow Vincente to turn himself in. On the other hand it also wasn’t our intention to allow Diaz to place you before a firing squad.”
“So goin’ into this either way the general’s odds weren’t good.”
“No,” Nick agreed, “no, they weren’t. But it’s what he wanted. It’s what he insisted upon. Like Jarrod said, we all tried to talk him out of it.”
“Well maybe you didn’t try hard enough.”
“What?” Nick’s voice broadcast his outrage. “What the hell is your problem? After all we went through to get you out of that stinking prison what gives you the right to be mad at us?”
“Nick, simmer down.” Jarrod advised his volatile sibling. “Look, gentlemen, we’re all tired and my cooking is nothing to write home about. I think we’d do better to engage in this conversation after we’ve had the opportunity to soak in a hot tub of water, eat a roast beef dinner the way only Mother can make it, and get a good night’s sleep on something other than the ground.”
It took a moment, but Heath finally nodded. “You’re right. And I’m sorry. If I sounded ungrateful I didn’t mean to.” The man stood without having touched his food. “It’s just that,…….”
Jarrod’s tone was soft and gentle. “It’s just that what, Heath?”
Heath turned his back on his brothers. “It’s just that a fourteen-year-old boy has been left without a father and I can’t help but feel that’s my fault.”
“Heath, it is not your fault,” Nick assured. “Vincente and Pepe were well aware of that possibility.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“And just why doesn’t it matter?”
Heath looked down at Nick, the cuts and bruises on his pale face accented by the light from the fire. “Because I know what it feels like to grow up without a father. And no matter what the circumstances, it hurts.”
Jarrod and Nick watched until Heath was swallowed up by the night. It was a long time before either of them spoke. Nick tossed the bones from his supper into the flames.
“Sometimes I get so damn angry with him.”
“Heath?” Jarrod asked.
Jarrod nodded. “Even though we were given a great deal of peace when we discovered Father never knew about Heath, and discovered Father’s……liaison with Heath’s mother brought him much guilt and pain, I get angry with him sometimes, too. Especially at times like this when I see how much Heath needed him.”
Nick stared into the fire, absorbing his older brother’s words. “Jarrod, do you ever wonder what would have happened had Father found out about Heath when we were all still kids?”
“I’ve thought about it.”
“And I don’t know. There’s no doubt that for a period of time it would have put a tremendous strain on Mother and Father’s marriage.”
“But they would have come through it.”
“I think so. Mother,……Mother has a very forgiving soul. She would have been terribly hurt, but I believe that once she knew the whole story she would have forgiven Father in life just as she has in death. As far as Heath goes, well had he come to us as a child,……let’s say for visits every so often, I don’t know how Mother would have handled that.”
“The same way she handles him living with us now. She would have loved him like she loves her own children.”
Jarrod smiled and arched an eyebrow. “Ah, but you forget that when Heath came to us his mother was deceased. He was a lonely young man with no family. He found siblings in you, Audra, Gene, and me, but in Victoria Barkley,…….well in Victoria Barkley he found something all men need no matter how old they are.”
“A mother’s unconditional love and loyalty. I believe had he come to us as a child the bond that exists between them now would never have formed. Or at least not with the same strength.”
“How can you say that? Mother would have been good to him. You know that.”
“Of course she would have been good to him. I’m not implying anything to the contrary. But Heath’s own mother was still living then. He wouldn’t have needed our mother in the way he does now. Nonetheless; to answer your original question, I have no doubt had Father found out about Heath when we were all still young he would have done three things.”
“And those three things are?”
“Financially provided for Heath and his mother, arranged for Heath to visit us as often as possible, and been a father to him in the same way he was a father to us. Or at least as much as he could be considering the circumstances.”
“I spend a lotta time wishing it could have worked out just the way you describe. For Heath’s sake I mean.”
“For Heath’s sake I spend a lot of time wishing that as well.”
Nick looked down the dark path Heath had taken that led to their bedrolls. He thought of all the hardships Heath had been through in his twenty-seven years on this earth. Despite those many trials Heath had always come out on top.
“You know, Jarrod, that younger brother of ours is one tough son of a gun.”
Jarrod smiled. He knew, coming from Nick, that was praise in the highest of forms.
“Yes, he is. But then I imagine he’s had no choice but to be.”
Nick gave a thoughtful nod. “I suppose you’re right.” He reached over and patted Jarrod on the knee. “Come on, Pappy, we might as well turn in, too. Despite his cuts, bruises and aching muscles Heath will be up and ready to go long before the first light of day.”
“That’s all too true, Nicholas.” Jarrod stirred the fire, then stood to follow his sibling. “That’s all too true.”
Three days later the men rode into the Barkley ranch. Galloping horses hooves brought Victoria and Audra running from the house.
“Heath! Oh, Heath!” Victoria cried when she caught sight of the blond man. She was waiting when he brought his horse to a halt. He eased from his mount and into the arms of the tiny woman.
“Oh, Heath, I was so worried about you.”
“No need to be worried. I’m fine.”
Victoria wrapped her arms around Heath’s back, taking only slight notice of the way he winced at her movements. She hugged him a long time, then stood back and studied him.
“Heath, your face. Oh, sweetheart, what did they do to you?”
“It’s nothing, Mother.”
“Nothing! Have you looked at yourself in a mirror?”
“Well, no. Not for a couple weeks I haven’t.” He tossed his mother a crooked grin while excepting Audra’s kiss on one of the few unmarred spots his face possessed. “It’s that bad, huh?”
“It’s not good, that’s for certain. But nothing my Godfrey’s liniment won’t cure.”
“No, no. Like I told you, I’m fine. I don’t need any of that.”
“Young man, those cuts are filthy. We have to clean them.”
“Nick cleaned them when we camped by Miners Creek a couple nights back.”
Nick and Jarrod were smiling at this exchange as they swung down from their own horses. Two ranch hands came over and led the animals to the barn.
“He may have cleaned them, but he didn’t do a very good job.”
“Hey now, that’s not my fault, Mother.” Nick gave the woman a kiss on the cheek. “He kept pulling away from me.”
“Well he won’t pull away from me or you and Jarrod will sit on him.”
Nick rubbed his hands together in mock glee. “Now that sounds like fun.”
Heath shot his brother a dirty look. Before the teasing could escalate Audra asked,
“Where’s Vincente and Pepe?”
“Yes,” Victoria said, “where are they?”
From beyond Heath’s line of vision Jarrod and Nick shook their heads at the women.
By her sons’ actions, and the look on their faces, Victoria realized this was a subject best left alone for now. She laid a hand on Heath’s arm.
“We can talk later. After supper. I’m sure you’d like to soak in the bathtub then lie down for a while.”
“No,” Heath negated, “no. We need to talk now.”
“Heath, it can wait.”
“No, Jarrod, it can’t wait.”
Heath looked down at Victoria. “The general,……..the general was shot. Shot and killed while helping Jarrod and Nick break me out of jail.”
Victoria kept her tears at bay. She had heard the catch in Heath’s voice, as if he was close to tears himself. She easily guessed the reason behind those tears and knew she had to be strong for him.
“Pepe,…..Pepe stayed in Mexico. He wanted to join a party of his father’s loyalists and ride with them against Diaz.”
“I see. Although I wish he would have chosen to come back here with you and your brothers, I understand why he didn’t. Pepe is very much his father’s son.”
Without realizing it the family observed a long moment of silence as they all paid homage to a brave and kind-hearted man. The silence was broken when Heath swayed and stumbled into Victoria. If Nick hadn’t reached out a hand and grabbed him by the upper arm both Heath and his mother would have ended up on the ground.
“Heath, are you okay?” Victoria took hold of Heath’s other arm. “Maybe we should get Doctor Sheriden out here.”
“I’m fine. And no, I don’t need a doctor.”
Nick could feel how much of his brother’s weight he was supporting but kept that fact to himself. “Come on, let’s go in the house. All three of us are tired and need to clean up before supper.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Victoria agreed. She walked behind her sons on the journey to the house. Heath’s exhaustion was evidenced by the slump of his shoulders and the way his boots scuffed a dusty path, as though he was too tired to pick up his feet.
The white-headed lady watched as Heath pulled away when Jarrod tried to lay a hand on his back. She recalled how he’d stiffened and winced when she hugged him a few minutes earlier.
He’s exhausted and saddle sore. They must have ridden hard to get here. I’ll tell Silas to delay supper so Heath can take a nice long nap. He’ll feel better once he’s had some sleep on a soft mattress.
Heath dabbed his wet body with the towel, being careful not to apply too much pressure to any bruises or welts. If his family thought his face looked bad they should see the rest of him. His chest and arms were dotted with black and blue marks the size of fifty cent pieces while his back was covered with angry red welts from the whip that had been lashed across it fifteen times. He made no mention of these maladies while Victoria cleaned his face with soap and water, then liberally applied her Godfrey’s liniment prior to him entering the bathroom.
It had taken every ounce of willpower for the battered man to lower himself into the steaming tub of water. He almost called Nick to help him, but when he thought of how his back looked he decided against it. No doubt there would be an uproar he was too exhausted to deal with. Besides, General Ruiz had lost his life because of Heath. For that Heath could put up with a little pain.
The man soaked in the hot tub forty minutes. He couldn’t believe Nick wasn’t pounding on the door, grumbling at him to get out. But then he imagined his impetuous brother had been given instructions by Victoria to leave him alone. Or more than likely yet, Nick and Jarrod were down in the parlor filling Victoria and Audra in on the details of their ride to and from Mexico.
Getting out of the tub proved to be easier than getting in. Heath attributed that to the soothing effects of hot water on sore muscles. After the man had slipped into clean underwear, pants, and socks, he gingerly bent to pull the bathtub’s drain. He had to maneuver his body sideways in order to accomplish that feat yet was still forced to stifle a groan. A sharp bite of pain ran up and down his back. The torn skin threatened to split further at any movement it deemed unwarranted.
So much for the soothing effects of hot water.
Heath ran a comb through his freshly washed hair then brushed his teeth. Being mindful of his sore body he cleaned the tub as best he could, then gathered up his dirty clothes and towel. He tossed the items in the wicker basket Silas would empty on laundry day.
The blond man shuffled bare-chested down the hall to his room and shut the door. He used the bedpost for support as he sank to the mattress. He stared out the window and saw Audra cross to the barn. No doubt she was going to feed the family dog and her vast collection of stray cats.
The man watched until his sister entered the big building. His exhausted brain replayed the image of a fourteen-year-old boy crying over the body of his dead father.
Why did they let Vincente come? Why didn’t they make him and Pepe stay here on the ranch?
A pair of knuckles rapping on the bedroom door brought Heath from his dark thoughts. He had no chance to rise from the bed, let alone retrieve a shirt from the closet, before Nick opened the door. The man was talking as he entered the room.
“We heard you moving around up here. Mother wanted me to tell you we won’t eat until…….” Nick’s body and words came to an abrupt halt. “What the,……….Heath, what the hell happened to your back?”
“Nick, please. Don’t make a big deal over it.”
“A big deal over it! You damn well better believe I’m going to make a big deal over it when someone takes a whip to my brother. Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because it was over and done with and we needed to ride.”
“Fine, we needed to ride. But for heaven’s sake Jarrod and I would have taken you to the first town we came to after we crossed the border and found a doctor.”
“I didn’t need a doctor. Besides, you know as well as I do why we stayed away from any towns. It would have been too easy for someone to pick up our trail.”
“Jarrod and I would have handled that, you stubborn fool. It wasn’t up to you to be worrying about it.” Nick turned for the door. “Mother! Mother! Jarrod! Get up here!”
“Nick!” Heath grimaced as he pushed himself to a standing position. “Nick, be quiet! I don’t want anyone to know.”
“Well someone has to know! You can’t let those welts go untreated. It’s a miracle you don’t already have an infection running through your system.” Nick swiveled again so he was facing the open door.
“Nick, please. I don’t want anyone’s pity.”
“Pity? Pity!” Nick sputtered with disbelief. “What are you talking about here pity? Did your brain get knocked around in your head or what? Pity! Now that’s just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard you,…..”
“Nicholas, what in the world is all the shouting about?” Victoria called from down the hall. “I sent you up here to tell Heath he should rest until dinner and the next thing I know you’re yelling like the house is on fire.”
“What else is new?” Jarrod smiled as he and his mother stepped into the room.
Nick spread an arm out toward the blond man. “This is what’s new.”
Victoria took in the bruises that dotted Heath’s body from collarbone to waist, and speckled his arms from shoulders to wrists. “Oh, Heath, why didn’t you tell us?”
“No, not that,” Nick said. “Though it’s bad enough he kept quiet about it. But right now I’m talking about something else. Heath, turn around.”
“Nick, I asked you not to,…”
“I don’t care what you asked me! Now turn around or I’ll come over there and turn you around myself.”
Victoria was puzzled by the plea she could hear in Heath’s voice.
“Heath,” Nick crossed his arms over his chest, “turn around.”
Jarrod and Victoria exchanged glances. In an attempt to break the tension between his brothers Jarrod joked, “What’s this all about? Did Heath go and get himself tattooed while he was in Mexico?”
“Oh, he got a tattoo all right. One provided by Diaz’s men.” Nick looked at the blond. “Now turn around.”
Heath sighed with resignation. There was no use in allowing the standoff to continue. All he wanted to do was sink back down to the bed before he passed out. He supposed he might as well get this over with, then maybe they’d leave the room to let him sleep,…….and grieve alone.
Heath used the bedpost for support as he slowly turned. He squeezed his eyes shut when he heard Jarrod’s sharp intake of breath and Victoria’s muttered, “Oh, my lord.”
The blond eased himself to the mattress, his back to his family. “Now that everyone’s gotten to share in Nick’s show and tell can I please get some sleep.”
Heath’s request was ignored. Victoria looked at Nick. “Get me the liniment and some clean cloths.”
Heath turned his head as Nick exited the room. “Mother, it’s not,…”
The woman pointed a finger. “I don’t want to hear a word of protest from you, Heath Barkley. I’m so angry at you right now that you’d better keep quiet and do as I say.”
“I’d heed her advice, Heath,” Jarrod quipped. “The few times in my life when I’ve seen her eyes flash like this she was generally coming after me and Nick with her wooden spoon.”
Victoria stood with her hands on her hips and a stern frown etched on her face. It was apparent she had no intention of finding any humor in Jarrod’s words. Her stance alone broadcast her displeasure to Heath.
The blond man turned to face the wall. He couldn’t help but smile just a little. The image of this petite woman going after two sturdy boys with a wooden spoon was amusing, though Heath had no doubt every word Jarrod said was true. Victoria Barkley was a strong-willed no nonsense lady. He easily imagined she had handled any mischief her sons were up to quite efficiently and independent of her husband’s input.
Heath heard Nick’s boots pounding up the back stairs from the kitchen.
“Here you go, Mother.”
“Thank you, Nicholas.”
Victoria’s icy tone, and the use of the word ‘Nicholas’, indicated her degree of anger to all three men.
The blond man felt the mattress dip. He glanced over his shoulder to see Victoria kneeling on the bed behind him. The sharp smell of alcohol filled the room when the liniment bottle was uncorked.
This time there was no joking or teasing when the medicine was applied like there had been in the kitchen when she’d cleaned his face an hour earlier. Heath steeled himself for the sting of the ointment, but didn’t anticipate the pain that would set his nerve endings on fire when a soaked cloth was placed on the upper part of his back. He sucked in a sharp breath and bit the inside of his mouth to keep from crying out. When the cloth moved down he couldn’t help but arch his spine and reach a hand for the bedpost. He squeezed the brass knob until his knuckles turned white. His family exchanged glances at his reaction.
Nick placed a hand over the top of Heath’s. His soft voice was in sharp contrast to the shouts from earlier. “She’ll be done in a few minutes.”
Heath couldn’t see the tears in Victoria’s eyes as she tended the raised welts though they weren’t missed by Jarrod and Nick.
The lawyer reached out his hands and grasped his mother by the wrists. “Mother, why don’t you let me finish this. Maybe you’d rather sit beside Heath while I,…..”
“No, no,” Victoria shook her head. “I’ll take care of him just like I would if it was you or Nick.”
“That’s not what I meant. I just think,…”
“I know what you meant, Jarrod. But I’m fine. Just give me another cloth and let’s get this over with.”
Jarrod looked at Nick and shrugged. He did as his mother asked, soaking another cloth in liniment then handing it to her.
Ten minutes later the job was done. Heath’s back stung and burned, but no worse than it had the first few hours after the whip had been taken to it. At least this time there was no blood and something other than dirty straw to lie on.
Jarrod left the room to put the liniment away and toss the cloths in the laundry basket. Nick helped Heath ease to his side on the bed.
“Anything I can get you?”
“The next time I tell you to keep your mouth shut?”
“Promise me you’ll do it.”
Nick saw the twinkle in Heath’s eyes and the way his mouth curved up at the corners. He patted his brother’s arm. “Let’s put it this way. I owe you one, okay?”
Heath closed his eyes and nodded his head.
“Nick, go ahead and take your bath,” Victoria said. “Tell Jarrod to do the same. Then I want both of you to rest for a while. I’ll call you when dinner’s on the table.”
Nick glanced down at Heath. Victoria shooed him from the room with one word.
Once the door shut behind Nick the woman crossed to the closet. She pulled a quilt off the shelf, unfolded it, and walked to the bed. She spread the quilt over Heath, bringing it up to his shoulders.
The man’s eyes were still closed when he spoke. “I’m sorry.”
“Making you angry. Causin’ all the fuss. I asked Nick not to say anything.”
Victoria didn’t make an immediate reply. Instead she moved to a corner of the room and retrieved a chair. She carried it to the side of Heath’s bed and sat down.
“Why did you ask Nick not to say anything? For that matter why didn’t you say something about the condition of your back when I was tending to your face in the kitchen? Or better yet, why didn’t you tell your brothers about it three days ago when they broke you out of that prison?”
Heath opened his eyes. “Like I told Nick when we were riding home and he thought I needed to stop and rest, I’ve survived worse.”
“I’m sure you have,” Victoria acknowledged. Over the years since Heath had come to them he’d occasionally mentioned jobs he’d held or things he’d done since he’d set out on his own from the mining town of Strawberry at the age of sixteen. He’d definitely weathered his fair share of the rugged life and the injuries that went along with it.
“Nonetheless; you live with us now,” Victoria reminded. “You’re family. A person doesn’t keep secrets from their family.”
“It wasn’t a secret. It just wasn’t worth gettin’ everyone upset over.”
“It wasn’t worth getting everyone upset over! Heath Barkley, if those welts had become infected you could have gotten sick! You could have died! You don’t think that’s not worth getting upset over?”
“It’s not worth wasting time on in light of what happened.”
“In light of what happened?”
“Your friend is dead because of me. A fourteen-year-old boy has been left without a father because of me.”
“Oh, so you were just going to feel sorry for yourself until those welts went untreated long enough to make you good and sick. For what purpose, Heath? To make a martyr of yourself? To prove to me that you really do feel bad about Vincente’s death?”
Despite the pain Heath shot to one elbow. Anger flashed from his blue eyes. “I don’t feel sorry for myself! I never have and I never will! If there’s one thing my mother taught me it’s to have pride and stand tall no matter what your circumstances.”
“That’s a good thing to teach a boy.” Victoria reached out a hand and brushed it over the side of Heath’s face. “I know your mother was a special woman and that you loved her very much.”
Heath allowed his head to sink back to the pillows. He closed his eyes, unsure of why tears had welled up under the lids. Was that caused by the mention of his mother, or because of the blame he was placing on himself for the general’s death, or simply because he was tired and more than ready to call it a day despite the fact it was only five in the afternoon?
“Talk to me, sweetheart,” Victoria encouraged. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
It was a long time before Heath opened his eyes and spoke.
“I’m thinking that a fourteen-year-old boy has been left without a father because of me.”
“Heath, there’s much I can tell you about Vincente Carlos Diego Ruiz, but now is not the time. Later, after you’ve had a chance to rest for a few days, we’ll discuss the man at length. At this moment all I’m going to say is General Ruiz never did anything he didn’t want to do. And he never did anything without fully calculating all the risks. He did not return to Mexico to get you out of that prison because we asked him to. Quite the contrary, we tried to keep that news from him. Nonetheless; he did return. But because he wanted to, Heath. Because he was a man of honor just like you are a man of honor. Vincente wasn’t going to allow you to go to your death because of him.”
“Well maybe he should have. Look where this has left Pepe. I’m no one’s father. No one needs me the way Pepe needs Vincente.”
“You’re right, Heath. You’re no one’s father. But you are someone’s brother.” Victoria gave the man a gentle smile as she ran a hand through his damp hair. “And someone’s son.”
Heath squeezed his eyes shut. But even at that he couldn’t keep the tears from running down his cheeks.
Victoria sat with Heath a long time that evening stroking her fingers through his hair as he grieved. When his tears stopped and he was just about to drop off to sleep he felt her lips brush his forehead.
“And you’re wrong you know,” she whispered as she tucked the quilt around his shoulders. “Someone does need you. As a matter of fact I can think of several someone’s in this house who need you. Need you. Worry about you when you’re sick. Miss you when you’re away. But most importantly, love you. And don’t you ever forget it.”
Heath couldn’t help but smile when he heard the woman’s final words before she exited the room.
“Don’t you ever forget it, Heath Barkley, or you, too, just might feel the wrath of my wooden spoon.”
Heath fell asleep thinking about all the things Victoria had said. It didn’t make the general’s death any easier to bear, but it did allow some of the blame to lift from his heart.
And the words that stayed with him the longest were the ones that meant the most.
Someone does need you. As a matter of fact I can think of several someone’s in this house who need you. Need you. Worry about you when you’re sick. Miss you when you’re away. But most importantly, love you. And don’t you ever forget it.
Forget it? Heath Barkley knew that wasn’t likely. He’d carry the sentiments of this woman he called Mother to his grave. And until that time she’d have his devotion, his loyalty, and his love.
Which was, Heath’s heart readily acknowledged, what having a family was all about.