The Orphan and the Cowboy (by Kenda)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  17,800


The sun toasted Heath Barkley’s back through his chambray shirt. He pulled on Charger’s reins, bringing the animal to a halt. He unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and rolled one sleeve to his elbow, then repeated that action with the other. He took his cowboy hat off and wiped his forehead with an arm. The sun beat down on his fair head, causing him to make quick work of repositioning his hat before gently nudging Charger with the heels of his boots.

Heath could see the inviting blue of the Diamond River in the distance. The river cut a wide path through the Barkley property and was a great place to fish on the rare occasions when Jarrod, Nick, and Heath could all sneak away from their work for a summer afternoon of brotherly camaraderie. Jarrod and Nick often spoke of swimming in the river as children, though to Heath’s knowledge neither man had engaged in that bit of fun for a good many years now. The same didn’t hold true for Heath and Audra. The two of them enjoyed nothing better than taking a dip in the crystal clear water on a sweltering July day.

The man leaned forward in the saddle and patted Charger’s neck. He wicked sweat off the animal with his hand. “How about a little detour to the river, boy? You can get a nice long drink while I go for a swim. Audra’s not with me today so I can enjoy the water the way a man was meant to.”

Heath guided the horse to the river’s edge. He looped Charger’s reins over a low tree branch, making certain the animal would have no problem reaching the water. Charger immediately proved he could accomplish that feat as he bent his head and took a drink.

Heath looked around before beginning to disrobe. Just as he expected, there was no one within miles. He was deep onto Barkley land, far away from any roads or commonly traveled routes. The man had been inspecting fence lines since seven that morning and was more than happy to take a break during the heat of the day. It was mid June, but felt like August. As Heath tossed his clothes over Charger’s saddle he couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of the summer would be like if it was already this hot.

The naked man slowly waded into the river. He enjoyed the feel of the water as it rose to cool his skin. When the water touched his chest Heath took a deep breath and plunged beneath its surface. He burst back to the top, shook the excess water from his hair, then dove deep and swam until he was forced to come up for air. He repeated this action again and again, then rolled over on his back. With lazy strokes Heath swam for the area where Charger was secured. He glanced over and saw his horse nibbling on grass. The animal appeared to be as content with this little break as his master was.

The blond man repositioned his body until the buoyancy of the water kept him in a sitting position. Using his hands to steady himself he paddled down river, occasionally diving beneath the surface when the sun burned too hot on his head.

Some time later Heath glanced at the sky. By the position of the sun he was able to estimate a good forty-five minutes had passed since he’d entered the water.

I better get out, take a few minutes to let the sun dry me off, then get my clothes on and head home. I’m sure Nick will have a list of things waitin’ at the ranch for me that he’ll claim will need doin’ before the day ends.

Heath swam back to where Charger was waiting. His strokes were sure and strong as each arm rose from the water in synchronized rhythm. When the river bank came into focus he was surprised to spot a little boy sitting on a rock with a fishing pole in hand. Heath squinted, trying to get a look under the brim of the boy’s cowboy hat. From this distance it was hard to see the child’s face, but near as Heath could tell he didn’t know the young man.

Mmmm, I wonder who he belongs to. It’s a good ten miles to the nearest ranch from this spot. He can’t be more than,…..five, six years old tops. Too young to be out here by himself.

Heath didn’t want to scare the boy so stood in the chest-high water and waved. “Hi, son!”

The boy looked up. The presence of a strange man didn’t seem to startle him. He smiled and gave Heath an amiable wave in return.

Heath waded toward shore. Sand oozed through his toes from the river bottom. The water was just about to recede to Heath’s hip bones when the boy stood. The youngster pulled his line in, took off his hat, and gave his head a shake.

Heath plunged faster than a hawk diving for a fish. The boy wasn’t a boy after all, but rather a girl. A petite little girl with honey brown hair that cascaded to the middle of her back. The child secured her line to her pole, then picked her way over the rocks until she was standing on the bank next to Charger.

“Hi!”

“Uh,…..hi.”

“Goin’ for a swim?”

“Uh,…yeah. Just finishin’ up as a matter of fact.”

“Is the water nice?”

Heath looked around with discomfort. The last thing he wanted was to get caught talking to this little girl without a stitch of clothing on. Granted, the water was covering all but his upper chest, nonetheless this was an uncomfortable situation to be in.

“Uh,…listen, honey, you’d better run along. I’m sure whoever you came fishing with must be wondering where you are.”

“I didn’t come with anyone.”

“You didn’t?”

“Nope.”

Before the cowboy could ask any more questions the little girl beat him to it. “Say, mister, what’s your name?”

“Heath. Heath Barkley.”

“Heath? I have a bro,….,” the child stopped in mid-sentence as though she realized she was about to reveal something she’d rather keep to herself. “Heath. That’s a nice name.”

“Thank you. And how about you? What’s your name?”

“Amber.”

“Amber?”

“Yep.”

“Well now, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that name before. It’s a pretty handle for a pretty little gal.”

Amber blushed and dipped her head. “Thank you, Heath.”

“Listen, Amber, I need to get out of this river and get dress,……take care of a few things so we can have a proper conversation. Would you mind turning your back for a minute or so.”

“Nope. I don’t mind. I know you’re naked.”

Now it was Heath’s turn to blush as he wondered just how long this child had been watching him while he swam. “You do?”

“Sure. After all, everyone swims naked. Well, except for some of those really rich people who live far away in Boston. They wear somethin’ called bathing suits when they go to the swimmin’ hole. Don’t that beat all you ever heard of? That someone would sew a suit of clothes just for swimmin’?”

“And where’d you hear this?”

“My momm,……..I read about it in Anderson’s Ladies Journal.”

Heath arched an eyebrow. “You read about it in Anderson’s Ladies Journal?”

“I surely did, Heath. That’s the God’s honest truth, cross my heart and hope to die.”

“No, don’t hope that. I believe you.” Heath moved his index finger in a circle. “Now turn around and stay that way with your eyes facing that big tree over on the hill until I give the word.”

“Okay.”

If nothing else the child was obedient. She did as Heath requested and remained in that position while he dashed from the water. He grabbed his clothes off Charger’s saddle, ducked behind a clump of bushes, and made quick work of pulling his pants on. The man’s movements were considerably less frantic as he put his socks and boots on. Heath couldn’t help but smile as he slipped into his shirt and fastened the buttons. His little visitor was warbling ‘Oh! Susanna’ while hopping back and forth from one foot to the other in what Heath took to be an improvised jig.

“All right, Miss Amber. You can turn around now.”

The little girl pivoted and skipped to Heath’s side. She eyed Charger and reached up to stroke his nose. “He sure is a beautiful animal. What’s his name?”

“Charger.”

“I bet he’s what, about sixteen hands high?”

Heath was startled by the child’s knowledge. “Huh,…yeah. About that.”

“Is he a good cutting horse?”

“One of the best.” Heath’s hand joined Amber’s in petting Charger. “As a matter of fact this fella is good at just about everything he does.”

“That’s the mark of fine horse flesh, Heath. Mighty fine horse flesh. Where’d you get him? At one of the auctions down in San Diego?”

“How do you know about those auctions?”

“Oh,……I just get around.”

Heath laughed. “Yeah, I see that you do. And speaking of gettin’ around, how’d you make your way to my swimming hole?”

“On Toby.”

“Toby?”

The girl turned, pointing to a thick grove of trees. Heath squinted, finally spotting the Tobiano Paint gelding happily munching on some bushes.

“And he’s your horse, huh?”

“Yep. He’s kinda old, but he’s my friend. I learned to ride on him.”

“I see.” Heath reached down and took the little girl by the hand. “Well, Miss Amber, I’d say we’d better put you on Toby’s back and get you home.”

“I can’t go home.”

“What do you mean you can’t go home?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have a home?”

Amber hung her head and scuffed the toe of one cowboy boot against the dirt. “No. I don’t have no home. I don’t have no one. I’m an orphan.”

Heath had to hand it to the child, she was doing her best to look pitiful but she’d already dropped too many clues that would indicate to him she was far from an orphan. Granted, she was dressed in boy’s clothing, but her shirt and trousers were clean and pressed. Heath’s eyes traveled to Amber’s footwear. Her cowboy boots were a bit worn, but only in a way that indicated to Heath that they, like the rest of her clothing, had probably belonged to an older brother at one time.

The cowboy crouched down in front of the child. “You know, Miss Amber, I’m having a hard time believin’ your story. What with that fine horse you’re riding, and these clean clothes you’re wearing, and the fact that you look well tended to. Now maybe you’d like to think a little more about where it is you call home.””

Amber stamped her foot, her green eyes flashing defiant anger. “I am an orphan, Heath! I am! And nothing you can say will change that. It’s a hard cold fact and that’s all there is to it.”

“That’s all there is to it, huh?”

“Yep. And besides, didn’t your momma ever tell you a gentleman doesn’t question a lady?”

“I reckon she mighta mentioned that a time or two. Is that what your momma told you?”

“No, but she told that to my broth,…..” Amber bit her lower lip and dropped her eyes to the ground. “I just heard it somewhere, that’s all.”

Heath was sure his next threat would crack the child. “Amber, if you won’t say where you live I’ll have to take you home with me.”

Amber grinned from ear to ear. “That would be just dandy! I already like you, Heath.”

“And I already like you, too, honey,” Heath smiled, “but I sure hate the thought of someone worrying themselves sick over your whereabouts.”

“But I just told you there is no one to worry about me. I’m an orphan.”

Heath shook his head. “No, what you are is stubborn.” The man sighed as he stood. He placed a hand on Amber’s back and led her toward Toby. It was almost like lifting a feather pillow when he hoisted her into the saddle.

“Up you go.”

The cowboy untied Toby’s reins and gave them to the girl. He walked over and picked up her fishing pole and hat. The pole he secured to her saddle, the hat he plopped on her head.

“Am I going home with you, Heath?”

“Looks that way. Unless, after thinkin’ about it reeeeal hard, you’ve remembered you do have a family after all.”

“Heath, if I’ve told you once already I’ve told you a million times. I’m an,…”

“Orphan. I know. And I do apologize for questioning you on that fact. As you pointed out to me, that’s not the mark of a gentleman.”

“I’m glad you’re finally starting to see things my way.”

Heath hid his smile as he untied Charger’s reins and swung himself onto the horse’s back. He paused when he came abreast of Toby. “You ready?”

“Sure, Heath. I’m ready.” The girl gave Toby’s sides three soft thumps. The old horse fell into step with Charger as Heath led the way to the Barkley ranch.

BV BV BV BV BV BV BV BV BV

Nick was shouting before Charger and Toby had taken four steps into the ranch yard.

“Where have you been! I expected you back two hours ago! Do you know how much work we have to get done before the sun goes down! Do you know how,………who’s he?”

Amber stared wide-eyed at the irate man. She swallowed hard and looked at Heath. The blond ignored his brother as he climbed off Charger and took Toby’s reins.

“Heath! I asked who is he?”

“He’s not a he, he’s a she. Her name is Amber.”

“Come again.”

“Amber.”

“Amber? What kinduva name is that? It sounds like a color Audra would pick for a dress.”

Amber’s lower lip quivered. She didn’t like this dark, loud man. She didn’t like him one bit.

“I think it’s a pretty name. A pretty name for a pretty young lady. And lower your voice, Nick. You’re scaring her.”

“Oh,…..oh, yeah,….well,…..sorry, kid.” Nick followed his brother into the barn. “So anyway, why are you so late?”

Heath plucked Amber from her saddle. He settled her on her feet, then led her mount to a vacant stall. “Toby here doesn’t move so fast.”

Nick eyed the animal with open disdain. “Boy, I’ll say. This old nag looks like he’s two steps away from going to horsy heaven.”

Amber clenched her fists while tears welled up in her eyes. “Don’t you dare say that about Toby! He’s the bestest horse there’s ever been! I learned to ride on him! He’s a roping horse. One of the greatest in his day! He won lots of prizes for my pap,…..he won lots of prizes!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa there, little lady,” Nick soothed. “Don’t go gettin’ your britches in a bundle.” The man looked to his brother. “She sure is a hot tempered little spit fire, isn’t she.”

Heath smiled while removing Toby’s saddle. “Takes one to know one.”

“What! What’s that supposed to mean? And where did she come from anyway? And what’s she doing here besides?”

“She came from down by the Diamond River.”

“Me and Heath got acquainted while he was swimming,” Amber said, her tears momentarily forgotten.

“Oh you did, did you?” A twinkle lit Nick’s eyes. Knowing exactly what his brother wore, or didn’t wear rather when swimming if there were no ladies present, brought a mental picture to Nick’s mind that was too funny to ignore. Nick moved to take care of Charger for Heath while questioning their young visitor. “So what were you doing by the Diamond River?”

“I was fishin’. Fishin’ and then I saw Heath in the water. We exchanged howdies, and then he made me turn my back so he could get out of the water and get dressed.”

“You didn’t peek, did you?”

“Nick!” Heath glared at his brother.

Nick swallowed his laughter while Amber solemnly shook her head. “No, sir. That wouldn’t be ladylike. And my momm,….at the orphanage I was taught to be ladylike.”

“Orphanage?”

“Yep. I’m an orphan in case you haven’t figured that out yet. That’s why Heath had to bring me home with him. I got no place of my own to go. I got no momma, or no papa either. Not four brothers even, or a dog named Gracie. I don’t have any of that stuff.”

Nick cocked a doubtful eyebrow. “You don’t, huh? Well, kid, if you don’t have any of those things then what you do seem to have is a vivid imagination.”

Amber crossed her arms over her chest and smiled with satisfaction. “Yep, that’s the one thing I got. I got ‘magination.”

Heath laughed at the way the little dynamo had bested his brother.

Nick glowered at the child. “You know, kid, when I was your age if I had talked that way to an adult my behind woulda’ been good and sore.”

Amber ran for Heath. She hid behind his legs begging, “Don’t let him spank me, Heath! Please don’t let him spank me!”

“Nick’s not gonna spank you, sweetie.” Heath untangled the arms clutching his knee caps. He lifted Amber up and settled her on his hip. “You don’t pay him no mind. You’ll soon discover Nick’s bark is much worse than his bite.”

Nick stomped after his brother as Heath exited the barn carrying Amber.

“Just what are you gonna do with her?”

“What we do with any guest who visits us. I’m gonna have Silas fix her something to eat, offer her a hot bath, and then see if I can find some clothes for her. Doesn’t Mother still have a trunk full of Audra’s old stuff in the nursery?”

“Yeah, I think so. But, Heath, you can’t keep her. Why this child is no more an orphan than I’m Santa Claus.”

“I know you’re not Santa Claus ‘cause he isn’t mean and he doesn’t go around shouting all the time either. But as for me, I’m an orphan no matter what you say.”

Nick scowled at the little girl as he spoke to his brother. “If you had to bring a kid home you could have at least found one who had some manners.”

“You know, Nicholas, the only problem between you and Amber is that you’re too much alike.”

“Alike! Oh right, we’re about as alike as vinegar and sugar.”

Heath smiled and looked at Amber. “You being sugar, and Nick being vinegar.”

The child giggled while Nick continued. “If you haven’t noticed, she’s a girl and we’re men.”

“So?”

“Mother and Audra are in Denver. Just how do you propose we take care of a little girl with no women in the house?”

“I expect the same way we’d take care of a little boy with no women in the house.”

“Look, Heath, I don’t know anything about little girls. Big girls, yes. I know a lot about them, but little girls are a foreign animal.”

“I’m not an animal!” Amber declared from Heath’s hip.

Nick ignored the child’s outburst. “Besides, if Jarrod were here he’d tell you there’s gonna be trouble if you keep this child.” Nick shot Amber a pointed look. “And I use the word child loosely in this situation. Nonetheless, you’d better find out who she belongs to and find it out fast before someone comes gunning for you.”

“Well, Jarrod isn’t here now, is he. He’s in San Francisco trying a case and he will be for another week so I guess I’m gonna have to make this decision on my own.”

“But you can’t keep her!”

“Yes, he can,” Amber said. “I’m an orphan so that means I don’t belong to anyone. I’m free to pick who I want to live with and I pick Heath.”

“Well, little miss, you can’t live with Heath. I don’t care what you say, I know you belong to someone. Now why don’t you just make this easier on all of us and tell us where you live.”

Amber buried her head in Heath’s shoulder and began to cry. “I am an orphan. I am. Why doesn’t he believe me? Why is he so mean?”

Heath rubbed a hand over the girl’s back. “Ssssh, sweetie, ssssh. There’s no need to cry. I believe you so that’s all that matters.”

“Heath! For heaven’s sake you can’t,….”

“All in good time, Nick,” Heath said softly while carrying the sobbing Amber into the kitchen. “All in good time.”

*****

An introduction to Silas, a roast beef sandwich, a cold glass of milk, and Nick’s absence chased away Amber’s tears. She sat at the kitchen table with Heath, her eyes roaming the homey room filled with knotty pine cabinets, beamed ceiling, and copper pots and pans. She pointed toward the stairs.

“Where do those go, Heath?”

“Up to the bedrooms. We can get there through the foyer as well. I’ll show you when you’re done eating.”

“Wow! You’ve got two ways to get upstairs? We don’t have two staircases at my hous…..at the orphanage.”

Heath smiled while peeling an apple with his pocket knife. He sectioned it into slices that opened like a blooming rose, then set it on a plate in the center of the table.

“There. When you’ve finished your sandwich we’ll share that apple.”

“It’s pretty, Heath. Like a flower. Where’d you learn how to do that?”

“Oh, like you, Miss Amber, I get around.”

Amber’s green eyes followed Silas’s movements as he bustled around the kitchen beginning supper preparations.

“Silas, are you a slave?”

The black man turned, his soft voice offering an honest explanation. “No, little one, Silas ain’t a slave no more. A man by the name of Mr. Abraham Lincoln outlawed slavery, Miss Amber. But Silas was a slave at one time way back when you was just a twinkle in your daddy’s eye.”

“I don’t have a daddy, Silas. I’m an orphan.”

“Why, child, everyone has a daddy.”

“Nope, not me.” Amber said while eating around the crust of her bread.

Silas caught Heath’s wink. “Whatever you say, miss.”

“You said you were a slave, Silas. How did you get away from the bad people that made you work for them?”

“I ran away. I ran all the way from Virginia clear to California. It took a lotta months of traveling it did. Over a year. And when I got here I stumbled onto Mr. Barkley’s land and asked him for work.”

“You mean Heath?”

Silas laughed. “No, missy, not Mr. Heath. Mr. Heath’s daddy, Tom Barkley. I started working for Mr. Barkley when Mr. Nick wasn’t any older than you are now. Mr. Jarrod was just a little boy then, too, and Miss Audra and Mr. Eugene weren’t born yet.”

“Were you born yet, Heath?”

“Yeah, I reckon I was, Amber. But I didn’t live here then.”

Heath’s answer caused Amber’s brow to furrow. She was about to ask more questions when, from behind Heath’s back, she saw Silas shake his head at her and put a finger to his lips. She wasn’t sure what was wrong, but understood she wasn’t to probe further regarding this subject. She shifted her thoughts back to Nick.

“Silas, was Nick as mean when you first came here as he is now?”

“Well, Mr. Nick had a temper if that’s what you’re asking, miss. He and Mr. Barkley used to go ‘round and ‘round sometimes when Mr. Nick’s anger would get the best of him.”

Heath and Amber shared the crisp, sweet apple. When they’d finished Amber carried her dishes to the sink. “Thank you, Silas.”

“You’re welcome, Miss Amber. You come back and visit old Silas any time.”

“Oh, I will. I’ll visit you a lot. I’m going to live here now you know.”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“Well, I am ‘cause I’m an orphan and Heath rescued me.”

Heath cocked a surprised eyebrow. In a matter of a few hours he’d gone from simply being someone Amber had stumbled across at the river to being her rescuer. He had a feeling that didn’t bode well for his chances of finding out where she belonged any time in the near future.

*****

Heath gave Amber a tour of the Barkley mansion. The girl oooed and aahed as she viewed one beautiful room after another.

“This is one whopper of a house, Heath. Like the kind a king would live in. Are you a king?”

Heath chuckled. “No, Amber, I’m not a king. I’m just a cowboy.”

“Still, it’s awful pretty. And even bigger than the orphanage where I used to live.”

Heath took the girl’s hand. Together they climbed the winding staircase. Amber danced up the steps as far as Heath’s arm would reach, then danced back down to him.

“A girl could have herself some fun on these stairs all the day long I bet.”

“I bet a girl could. But right now I know a girl who needs to take a bath.”

“Okay.” Amber dropped Heath’s hand and started down the stairs.

“Where you goin’?”

“To the kitchen for my bath. Isn’t that where you keep your washtub?”

“That’s not how baths are taken in this house. Come on. Let’s go upstairs.”

Amber eyed the second story of the home. “Heath, if you want my opinion it will be a lot easier if I take my bath in the kitchen. This sure will be a long ways to haul water otherwise.”

“We won’t be hauling any water. The water will come to you with nothing more than a turn of your wrist.”

“Like magic?”

“Something like that.” Heath held out his hand. “Now come on.”

Amber took Heath’s hand and let him lead her up the remaining steps. They walked down a hallway that seemed to have no end. Amber counted open doors as they passed.

“One,……two,………three,…………four,…………five,…………six,……..

Land sakes, Heath, how many bedrooms does your house have?”

“Ten. Eleven if you include the one that belongs to Silas.”

“Well, I’ll be. Lots of orphans could live here I expect.”

“I suppose you’re right about that.”

Heath stopped when he came to the last doorway on the left. “Here we are.”

Amber looked from floor to ceiling with awe as she dropped Heath’s hand and stepped inside the huge room. The marble floors and walls caused her voice to echo.

“What’s this?”

“The bathroom.”

“You have a whole room in your house just for taking a bath?”

“Yep.”

“Wow! In all my born days I ain’t never seen a room like this before.”

The girl ran her hand over the deep white bowl of the pedestal sink, then moved to the claw footed porcelain tub she was sure could easily hold six kids her size. She marveled at the shining faucets. She peered closer, seeing her face reflected back at her. “Are these made of real gold?”

Heath nodded. “They came right out of one of our mines.”

“Well, Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat is all I’ve got to say.”

“While you’re jumpin’ I’ll have you jump right in this tub. Let me get your bath water run, then find you some fresh clothes to wear.”

Heath put the plug in the drain, then turned the faucets. He held his hand under the running water until he had it adjusted to a temperature he deemed just right for a six year old. Amber watched with fascination as water gushed from the gold spout.

“How’s it do that?”

“Do what?”

“Come out of there.”

“A pump brings it up from the ground.”

“Heath, I’ve just gotta be honest and tell you something.”

“What’s that?”

“I sure do think I’m gonna like living here.”

Heath smiled at his little guest while wondering if he was doing the right thing. At this rate she’d continue to vow she was an orphan for weeks to come.

“You stay here and keep an eye on that water.” The cowboy put his hand a quarter of the way up the tub. “If it gets any higher than this call me.”

“Okay. But where ya’ goin’?”

“To get you some clothes. I’ll be right back.”

Heath made quick work of digging through the trunk in what had been the nursery. The crib had been taken down and put in the attic when Eugene grew too big for it, but twin beds still resided in here that Audra and Gene had slept in as young children. As well, this room remained filled with many of toys they had played with. Those toys were now used by any young visitors who might stay with the Barkley family for a few days.

Heath went back to the bathroom carrying a pink dress, black boots, and little girl’s underclothes. He laid the items on the granite counter then shut off the water. He checked the temperature one last time.

“All right, Amber. The tub’s all yours. When you get out you can put on these clothes.”

Amber eyed the bathtub that stood almost as tall as she did. “I’m gonna need your help getting in.”

“Well,……huh,…..” Heath looked around, then remembered something he’d seen in the nursery. “I’ll be right back.”

The cowboy returned carrying a child-sized wooden step stool. He set it by the edge of the tub.

“There you go. Now you can climb in by yourself.”

“Okay. But can you undo my suspenders?”

“Sure.” Heath knelt in front of the girl and unbuttoned the suspenders from the waist of her pants. “All done.”

“Thanks, Heath. My momm,…..Miss Kim at the orphanage always undoes my suspenders for me.”

“Well that’s right nice of Miss Kim, isn’t it.”

“Yep, she’s pretty nice. Most of the time that is. She can be downright mean, though, when you very accidentally forget to lock the chickens in their coop for the night.”

“She can, huh?”

“Yep. You can even lose dessert for that.”

Heath opened the linen closet door. He pulled out a clean towel and washcloth and draped them over the edge of the tub. “You can use these. And there’s soap in the dish on the ledge, and shampoo in this bottle right here. But be careful. That bottle’s slippery when your hands are wet.”

“Shampoo?”

“To wash your hair with.”

“You have special soap to wash your hair with?”

“Yep.”

“Are you sure you’re not a king or something, Heath?”

Heath smiled. “I’m sure. Now get a move on. Get your bath taken before the water gets cold.” The cowboy headed for the hallway. He grabbed the doorknob and swung the door closed as he exited. “If you need me I’ll be right out here in the hall.”

“All right.”

Amber removed her clothing and left it in a heap on the middle of the bathroom floor. She hung onto the thick lip of the tub and with the aid of the step stool lowered herself into the warm water.

Heath could hear the little girl laughing with delight. By the sounds coming from the bathroom he could only imagine how much water he’d find on the floor when she was finished. But he couldn’t say he faulted her for her fun. He’d been shocked by the opulence of the Barkley bathroom when he’d first come to live here as well. And now Victoria was talking about adding a second bathroom elsewhere in the house, something most people had never heard of let alone could imagine.

Amber dove and splashed and played until Heath knocked on the door.

“Is there any washing going on in there?”

“No! But I’ll start right now!”

“Good girl. And don’t forget to scrub behind your ears.”

“Heath, now you sound like Miss Kim.”

Heath made no reply, but soon heard what sounded like a fair amount of scrubbing taking place. When it grew quiet he knocked again.

“Amber?”

“Yeah?”

“How are you doin’?”

“Fine. But I’m gonna need help with the buttons on this dress.”

“All right. You get it on and do as many as you can. Then let me know and I’ll come in and do the rest for you.”

“Okay.”

Less than a minute passed before Amber called for Heath’s aid. He peered in the room first to make certain she was dressed. White petticoats and socks showed beneath the full pink dress that came to the girl’s shins. She turned around when Heath entered the room and lifted her wet hair off her back.

“I could only do two buttons.”

“I can see that. It makes a fella wonder at the sense of putting buttons up the back of a dress. What do you say about that?”

“It’s always seemed pretty dumb to me.”

Heath knelt behind Amber. His big fingers fumbled with each tiny button until he finally got them all fastened.

“Now tie the ribbon, please.”

The cowboy took the ends of the white satin ribbon Amber handed him and turned her around. When he started to tie it in the front of the dress she giggled.

“Not there, silly. It goes in back.”

“Oh.”

Amber turned around again so her back was to Heath. He tied the ribbon in a bow then reached for a hairbrush off the counter. He held onto each section of hair as he carefully brushed the tangles out of the wet mass. When he was done it laid flat against the middle of Amber’s back.

“There now, don’t you look just like a little girl ought to.”

Amber eyed herself in the big oval mirror that sat in a stand in the corner of the room. “This is a beautiful dress. Who’s is it?”

“It belonged to my sister Audra when she was a little girl.”

Amber held the dress’s hem from her body and twirled in circles while Heath cleaned the tub.

“Do you think I’m pretty, Heath?”

The man turned from where he was depositing the towel and washcloth in the wicker laundry basket.

“Well now, I’d have to say you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Gee willickers, now I know I’m gonna like livin’ here.”

Heath grinned and shook his head. “You’re something else, little miss.” The blond man got down on his knees. Amber clutched his shoulders for support as she lifted first one foot off the floor and then the other so Heath could put the black boots on for her. He laced the boots, tied them, then crooked an elbow Amber’s way. “Can this lowly cowboy escort a lovely lady to dinner?”

Amber giggled and slipped her arm through Heath’s. They walked down the stairs together, Amber beaming as though she was a princess making a grand entrance beside her prince.

*****

Amber had a comment about everything that adorned the Barkley table that night. Nick finally let his fork drop to his plate.

“Kid, have you ever heard the phrase children should be seen and not heard?”

Amber’s lip started quivering again. She slid from her chair and sought refuge at Heath’s side. He scooped her up and sat her in his lap.

“Nick, pick on someone your own size, will ya’?”

The dark headed man gave a snort. “I can see what kind of father you’re gonna be already. Your kids will be spoiled senseless. When that day comes remind Uncle Nick he doesn’t want to babysit.”

“If this is how you treat children on a regular basis I doubt my kids will want Uncle Nick to babysit.”

Dessert brought a well-needed change of subject and seemed to sweeten Nick’s mood. When supper was finished Amber helped Silas clear the table while Heath went to the barn to feed the family dog and cats that Audra normally took care of when she was home. The blond man was surprised to find Amber and Nick gathered around the parlor checkerboard when he returned. He sat down without comment and watched the game progress.

From her perch atop three seed catalogs Amber jumped the last of Nick’s checkers. She threw her arms up in victory.

“I won! I won! Heath, did you see? I won!”

“That’s great, honey.”

Nick started setting the board up again. “Okay, kid, let’s have another go at it. Best two outta three.”

Heath intervened with a firm, “No, not tonight.” He stood and plucked Amber from her seat. “It’s time for our visitor to get ready for bed.”

“Aw, Heath,” Amber pouted from the cowboy’s hip. “Please. Just one more game.”

“Yeah, Heath, come on. Let me and the kid play one more game.”

“No. It’s after eight o’clock and time for this little cowgirl to be in bed.”

“But I’m on my own now. I don’t have a bedtime.”

“As long as you’re stayin’ with me you do.”

“Oh drat. And here I thought there’d never be any rules again in my whole life.”

Heath gave the girl’s nose a light pinch between his thumb and forefinger. “Well, Miss Amber, you thought wrong. Say goodnight to Nick.”

“Good night, Nick.”

“Night, kid. Want me to come up and tell you a good ghost story?”

Amber’s eyes lit with enthusiasm. Before she could answer Heath jumped in.

“No.”

“Whatta ya’ mean no? Here I’m offering to help you with your guest and you turn me down.”

“Yeah, Heath, whatta ya’ mean no? I like ghost stories. My bro,…Blake,…..another kid at the orphanage, he tells the bestest ghost stories in the whole wide world.”

“Good for Blake. But he’s not here to stay up half the night with you when bad dreams keep you awake. And somehow I’ve got the feeling Nick doesn’t intend to share in that duty either.”

Nick didn’t argue that fact which put an end to the suggestion of a scary bedtime tale.

Heath carried Amber to the nursery. He set her on her feet, lit the lamp that resided on the stand between the two beds, then rummaged in the trunk until he found a nightgown just her size. He untied the ribbon on her dress and helped her undo the buttons. He stepped into the hallway then, instructing Amber to call him when she’d changed into the gown. In less than a minute he was told he could return. He found the girl jumping up and down on the bed closest to the door. He let her have a few minutes of fun as he picked the clothes she’d been wearing up off the floor, folded them, and returned them to the trunk.

“This is lottsa fun, Heath! The beds at the orphanage surely don’t bounce this dandy.”

Heath grabbed the girl in mid-flight. He playfully tossed her down on the mattress, her small body bouncing three more times before it came to a stop. Her face was flushed and her hair splayed in four different directions as she giggled. When she finally calmed down Heath pulled the bedspread and covers back.

“All right now, you climb in there.”

Amber crawled over the top of the bed, then burrowed beneath the covers like Heath ordered. When she was settled Heath tucked her in and perched on the edge of the mattress.

“There you go, Miss Amber. You sleep well. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“But aren’t you going to tell me a story?”

“A story, huh?”

“Yeah. My pap,……at the orphanage, someone always tells me a story before I go to sleep.”

“I see. Well now, I guess I can give it a shot, though I’m not gonna promise I’m much of a storyteller.”

“I know you’ll do a good job, Heath. You’re good at everything you do.”

Heath chuckled. “You’re sure about that?”

“Yep. As sure as the sky is blue.”

“I don’t suppose I can disappoint a lady who’s so free with the compliments.”

“No siree, I should say not.”

Heath thought a long moment before his story began.

“Once upon a time there was a boy named Heath.”

“Was he you, Heath?”

“Oh,….not necessarily. That’s just the name of the boy in my story. I told you I’m not too good at this.”

“It’s fine so far, Heath. Real fine. Keep goin’.”

“All righty. Like I said, once upon a time there was a boy named Heath. And like you, Heath had adventure in his soul and a good bit of wanderlust in his spirit.”

“Yep, that’s what I got all right.” Amber hiked herself up on an elbow. “I got adventure in my soul and a hankering to wander.”

Heath smiled and used a hand to gently push the girl’s head back to the pillow. “Quit interrupting or we won’t get to the end of this story until daybreak. Now as I was saying, Heath was driven to go wandering. He’d always been a lonely boy. Never felt like he belonged in the town he grew up in. He didn’t have any brothers or sisters, nor a father that he knew of,….”

“Was Heath an orphan like me?”

“Not exactly. Or leastwise not just yet. Heath had a mother who had cherished him and loved him from the day he was born. As long as he could remember his mother was there for him. Sometimes he did naughty things and was punished for them,…..”

“Like forgetting to lock the chickens in the coop?”

“Exactly like forgetting to lock the chickens in the coop. But even when he was being punished for the naughty things he did he never forgot how much his mother loved him. Then when Heath was about thirteen he started giving his momma trouble. At first it was little things like playing hooky from school and getting into fights with the other boys. Then the trouble got bigger like trouble often does and he was breaking store windows, stealing clothes from wash lines, and letting horses loose from the livery stable.”

“Why did Heath do bad things like that?”

“Because he was unhappy. As much as he loved his momma he wanted more. He wanted a father and brothers and sisters like his friends had. He wanted answers from his momma as to why he didn’t have those people in his life, but those were answers that were hard for her to give. So all that unhappiness just stayed inside Heath and churned round and round until he had to let it out somehow. That ‘somehow’ was always in the form of misdeeds until finally, he was too big for his momma to punish any longer. When Heath was fourteen he quit goin’ to school altogether even though that decision broke his momma’s heart. She kept tellin’ him the only way to better himself, the only way he’d get out of the mining town he was growing up in, was to get an education. But like most teenage boys, Heath thought he knew more than his momma about the ways of the world. When he was just three days past his sixteenth birthday he got on a horse and rode away from that town for good.”

Amber’s eyes grew round with wonder. “He left behind his momma? The only person in his whole wide world?”

“Yep, he left behind his momma. She was crying as he got on his horse, but even her tears couldn’t stop him. He thought of himself as a man, and he was bound and determined he was going to find his happiness elsewhere.”

“What happened to him?”

“Oh, he drifted from job to job. Joined the army and fought in the war for a while, then went back to driftin’. But funny thing was, no matter where Heath went or how far he traveled that happiness he was looking for was never quite within his grasp. One day when Heath was a grown man of twenty-four he rode back into that town he’d left so many years before. He’d learned a lot in the eight years he’d been gone. A lot about himself, a lot about the world, but most of all he’d learned happiness was not something you found, but rather something you built for yourself in kinda the same way you build a house. You have to have a strong foundation and work your way up. You can’t be so foolish as to think the wind, or the rain, or the snow, won’t occasionally seep in.”

“And so Heath went home to his momma and lived happily ever after right?”

Heath gave the girl a small smile. Even at her young age she could tell his mind wasn’t completely in the room any longer.

“No, Amber, I’m afraid that’s not how this story ends. When Heath returned home he found his momma very, very sick. So sick that she only lived a few days after his arrival. If she was angry at him for being gone so long she never spoke of it. She simply held him with what little strength she had left, cried into his shoulder, and told him over and over again that she understood when he tried to explain what had made him leave her in the first place. She told him she loved him very much, and she kept on telling him that until she died three days later.”

Amber looked up at Heath. She swore she could see unshed tears in his eyes, but before she could be certain he stood and blew out the lamp.

“Good night, Amber.”

“Heath?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry about your momma.”

“You don’t need to be sorry. It’s just a story. Just make believe. Sleep well.”

Amber laid awake long after the door closed behind Heath. For some reason, she didn’t think he was telling the truth when he said the tale he’d just woven was make-believe. She thought it sounded too real to be made up and besides, if it was made up why would it cause him to cry?

Amber turned on her side and stared into the darkness. Heath’s story put a lot of thoughts in her head she didn’t like. Not scary thoughts, or bad thoughts, but rather thoughts that were just a little sad and little sorry. When she finally fell asleep she dreamed of a boy who had left home in search of happiness, but arrived back so many years later without having ever found it.

*****

Amber was exiting her bedroom the next morning just as Heath was coming out of his. He eyed the child, dressed today in what could only be some of Eugene’s cast off clothes she’d found in the trunk.

“Well, boy howdy, Miss Amber. What happened to the little lady who was visiting us last night?”

“Heath, I can’t wear a frilly dress when I have to work on the ranch.”

“Oh, I see. So you’re plannin’ on giving me a helping hand today, is that it?”

“That’s it.”

“Then I guess I’d better get you fixed up here so your pants and suspenders aren’t draggin’ the ground.”

Heath got down on one knee and grasped the suspenders that trailed behind Amber’s back. He buttoned first one to the waistband of the trousers she was wearing and then the other. He rolled up both pant legs twice until they were held in place just above the ankles of her cowboy boots.

“Would you brush my hair for me, Heath? I got lots of tangles back there.”

“I’d say so. It looks like Charger’s mane after he’s made a visit to a briar patch.”

Heath led Amber to the bathroom. It took him five minutes to get the chestnut hair free of tangles. He then searched the linen closet until he found a new toothbrush. He pulled a can of tooth powder out of the medicine chest and handed both items to the child.

“Here. I should have given these to you yesterday so you could brush your teeth.”

Amber looked way up until she could meet Heath’s eye. “Is this another one of those rules I gotta follow for as long as I live with you?”

“Yep, this is another one of those rules.”

“Gee whiz, you have almost as many rules as my momm,….as Miss Kim.”

“Well, I expect both me and Miss Kim like you so much that we’d rather have you angry at us for makin’ you brush your teeth as opposed to having you suffer from the pain of a toothache. Whatta ya’ think about that?”

Amber gave a thoughtful nod. “Yeah, I guess you could be right.”

Heath placed a hand atop Amber’s head. “I know I’m right. Now you brush your teeth and wash your face and hands, then come down to the dining room for breakfast. I can already smell the bacon cooking.”

Nick and Heath were seated at the dining room table when Amber appeared. With wide eyes she took in the plates of eggs, bacon, pancakes, blueberry muffins, toast, and orange slices. She slipped into her chair exclaiming, “Boy howdy, would you look at this spread.”

Nick almost spit out his coffee. When he finished choking he threw his head back and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Heath asked.

“Your guest hasn’t even been with us twenty-four hours and already she’s starting to sound like you.”

Heath shrugged his shoulders and dipped a corner of his toast into the broken yoke of his egg. “There’s nothin’ wrong with that.”

Amber copied Heath’s every movement. “Nope. There’s nothin’ wrong with that.”

Nick simply shook his head. He had a feeling he was going to be in for one very long day.

*****

Amber sat on the top rail of the corral fence. She watched as Nick, Heath, and three ranch hands tried to get an unruly stallion under control.

The animal bucked and fought the ropes that tugged at his neck as he was led to a narrow paddock. When he was secured within its confines Nick removed the lassos. He jogged across the corral and hoisted himself up on the fence next to Amber.

“Nick, if you want my advice you should geld that animal.”

Nick stared down at the little girl.

“What’d you say?”

“You know. Castrate him.”

Nick could feel the heat of a blush traveling up his face. Castrate was hardly a word he’d expected to hear come from a six-year-old girl’s mouth.

“I know what gelding is,” came the cowboy’s gruff reply. “What I want to know is how do you know what gelding is?”

“My pap,……Mr. Conner at the orphanage told me.”

Nick shot the child a disbelieving smirk. “Mr. Conner at the orphanage told you?”

“Yep. We had lots of horses there.”

“Look, kid, this orphanage story is wearing a bit thin. Now you might be able to get away with telling a tall tale like that to my younger brother over there since he’s got considerably more patience than I do, and he’s too soft-hearted for his own good besides. But just between you and me let’s quit playing this game. Why don’t you tell Uncle Nick just who it is you belong to.”

“Nick, if you were my uncle I wouldn’t be an orphan.”

Nick took a deep, calming breath. “And if you were my niece I’d put you over my knee and give you a good spanking until I got the truth out of you. Now come on before you force me to get tough with you. Just tell me your last name and we’ll,…..”

Amber knew when a change of subject was in order. She interrupted Nick’s command with one of her own.

“Look! Heath’s gonna try to ride that stallion.”

Nick’s eyes followed Amber’s pointing finger to the paddock. He was well aware Heath was going to be the first person to attempt to break their new stallion and watched as his brother gingerly lowered himself to the saddle.

Amber grimaced and covered her own eyes with her hands. As one of the ranch hands swung open the paddock gate she spread her fingers just enough so she could watch Heath’s wild ride.

Nick’s shouts of encouragement to his brother blended with those of the hired help. Amber held her breath, certain Heath would be killed before it was all over. Dust billowed her way as the stallion bucked around the corral. Heath’s ride didn’t last more than thirty seconds, but to his six-year-old admirer, it seemed to go on forever. The stallion gave one final mighty heave that tossed the blond man from its back. Heath’s hat went in one direction while Heath went in the other. He was thrown into the corral fence face first.

“Heath!” Amber cried when the blond man staggered to his feet. Blood ran freely from a gash on his forehead.

Nick grabbed the girl as she started to jump to the ground.

“Whoa there, missy. You stay right here with me.”

“But Heath’s hurt.”

“Amber, we have a motto around the Barkley ranch that goes like this, – if Heath’s still walking he’s not hurt.”

Nick sat with one hand firmly wrapped around Amber’s arm until the stallion was back in the paddock. Ignoring the blood running down his face, Heath walked over and picked up his hat then turned toward his brother.

Nick released Amber. She scrambled off the fence and ran to Heath’s side.

“Heath, are you okay? You’re bleeding!”

The cowboy put a reassuring hand on the little girl’s back. “I’m fine, honey.”

Nick smiled down at Amber from his perch. “Heath bleeding is almost an every day occurrence around here. If we got upset each time he needed a little patching up we’d never get any work done.”

Heath smacked his brother’s knee with his hat. Nick jumped off the fence to have his turn at breaking the stallion. As he passed Heath he growled, “Go get that cut washed and bandaged before it gets infected. All I need is for you to get sick on me at our busiest time of the year.”

The blond cowboy couldn’t help but smile. According to Nick all three hundred and sixty-five days of the year were their busiest time.

Amber shot Nick a piercing scowl as she took Heath by the hand and led him toward the house. She looked up at her patient.“Why is he so mean sometimes and other times he’s nice, like last night when he played checkers with me ?”

“Nick’s not mean, sweetie. It’s like I told you yesterday. His bark is worse than his bite.”

“But he doesn’t even care that you’re bleeding. He just wants you to put a bandage on so you can keep working.”

“He cares. He just doesn’t have an easy time of showing it. Besides, all big brothers pick on their little brothers. It’s just the way things are.”

“Tell me about it. Big brothers pick on their little sisters, too.”

“Well now, I reckon that’s true enough since I’m forced to confess I do my fair share of pickin’ on Audra. But if you’re an orphan,….”

Amber pointed a finger upward. “Don’t ask.” She tugged on the hand she was holding. “Come on. We gotta put a bandage on your cut before you get blood all over your shirt.”

Heath allowed his little nurse to tend to him that morning. When she was finished he looked in the bathroom mirror and saw a small white bandage taped on his forehead surprisingly straight considering a six-year-old’s hands had done the task.

“You do good work, Miss Amber.”

“I’m always patching up Sage.”

“Sage?”

“Another kid at the,….”

“Don’t tell me,” Heath said. “Let me guess. Another kid at the orphanage.”

“You got it.”

Heath put the roll of bandages back in the medicine chest. Amber hopped up and down on one foot, trying to hurry him along.

“Come on, Heath, let’s go.”

“Where are you so anxious to hightail it to?”

“Back outside. I love your ranch! There’s so much to do, and lots of neat stuff to see. It’s not like at home,…..the orphanage,….where I have to do the same old chores day after day.”

Heath didn’t reply to the child’s words. She ran ahead of him, charging down the stairs and out the door before he even exited the bathroom. That fact didn’t bother the blond man. It allowed him time to mull over her words in peace.

It’s not like at home,…..the orphanage,….where I have to do the same old chores day after day.”

Heath smiled as he headed outside. Maybe it was past time to make Amber feel at home.

BV BV BV BV BV BV BV BV BV

Silas served fried chicken for lunch that day. Amber happily munched on a drumstick while Nick and Heath discussed the work they planned to do that afternoon.

Amber half listened to the men’s conversation. She thought back over her morning. She’d fed and watered horses, ridden on Charger with Heath to a pasture where he checked on some new heifers that were under quarantine, played with a litter of kittens Heath introduced her to in the hay mow, and held onto a handful of nails for Heath while he fixed some loose boards on a fence. The girl could hardly get through lunch fast enough. She knew the afternoon on this huge ranch would be just as much fun as the morning was. Heath had said they’d even sneak away from Nick and go swimming.

“We might as well ride to the line shack and replace those rotten shingles,” Nick said to his brother as he reached for another piece of chicken. “If we don’t do it today we’ll be cussing ourselves out in two weeks when we bunk down there. Just our luck it’ll rain all night on us if we don’t give that roof the attention it needs.”

“Good idea,” Heath agreed. He took a long swallow of milk, then ate the last bite of food from his plate. “While we’re there I wanna give it a good airing out, too. Pete was the last one to use it and you know what an aversion he has to water.”

Nick wrinkled his nose. “So I’ve noticed. Oh, and say, remind me when we get out that way I wanna check the creek bed to see if it’s dry.”

Heath wiped his mouth on his napkin and stood. Within seconds Nick was doing the same. The two men acted as though they’d forgotten all about their visitor as they headed for the hats and gunbelts they’d left on a table in the foyer. Amber hopped out of her chair, ready to join Heath on Charger for the afternoon’s adventures.

“Wait for me!”

Heath stopped and turned around. “No, Amber, you’ll be stayin’ here.”

“But why?”

“ ‘Cause there’s chores you need to do.”

“But I am going to do chores. I’m going to ride to the line shack with you and Nick. I’ll hold the nails while you put the shingles on.”

“No,” Heath shook his head. “Since you intend to stay here,….you know to live here and all, you gotta start pullin’ your weight.”

“Pulling my weight?”

“Yeah, kid.” Nick buckled his gun belt around his waist. “When my sister Audra was your age she had to help Silas in the kitchen, help him in the garden, help him straighten up the house,….you know, girl things like that.”

“And clean the chicken coop,” Heath added.

Amber looked from Nick to Heath. At first, she thought they were teasing her, but the way they went about getting ready to leave the house as though she was no longer there told her they meant business. She scurried in front of Heath, blocking his path to the door.

“But I thought you said I could go with you this afternoon. You said we’d even sneak away from Nick and go for a swim.”

“Sorry, honey, change in plans. Nick and I have a lot of work to do before the sun sets.” Heath turned. “Silas! Silas!”

The black man came from the dining room.

“Yes, Mr. Heath?”

“Silas, please set Amber to doing whatever chores are necessary this afternoon.”

“But I thought Miss Amber was a guest, Mr. Heath. You know Mrs. Barkley doesn’t ask our guests to help while they’re visiting.”

“Amber isn’t a guest anymore.”

“She’s not?”

“Nope. She’s decided she wants to live here so that means she’s got to do her part in keeping the ranch running.”

With a wave of his hand Nick agreed. “Yeah, Silas, put her to work. You know, doing whatever it was Audra did at her age to help around here.”

Silas have a dubious nod of his head. “Okay, Mr. Nick. I’ll do that. Come along, Miss Amber. You and me will clear the dishes from the dining room table first thing, then we’ll get ourselves set up washing them.”

Amber turned tear-filled eyes to the blond Barkley. “Heath, please. Please let me go with you. I don’t wanna stay here by myself. I’m scared.”

Heath’s answer was short and gruff. “No reason to be scared. Silas won’t hurt you and he needs your help besides.”

The girl clutched Heath’s hand. She clung to him, trying to prevent him from walking out the door. Heath gently loosened her fingers. He nodded to Silas who grasped Amber by the shoulders. The black man held onto the crying child until Coco and Charger were galloping out the front gates.

When the Barkley mansion was nothing more than a distant speck Nick slowed Coco to a trot. Heath did the same with Charger.

“You had no choice,” Nick said. “You had to do it.”

“I know.” Heath stopped Charger and looked back as though he could still see a little girl standing in the doorway crying.

Nick brought Coco to a halt and waited until Heath turned back to face him. He gave his brother a smile and patted him on the arm.

“Come on. Let’s head to the line shack and get those shingles on.”

When Heath did nothing more than nod his head Nick shot him an exasperated look.

“Like I said last night at the dinner table, I shudder to think of the day when you become a father. Your kids will be spoiled senseless.”

“Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Nick scowled. “You think not, huh?”

“At least my kids will always be assured of one thing.”

“And what one thing would that be?”

“That their father loves them and will always be there for them.”

The subject of paternal attention was often a touchy one between the two brothers. After all, Nick had grown up under the influence of their father’s guiding hand while Heath had grown up not knowing who his father was. Though Nick had come to understand the pain this still caused Heath, he wasn’t always sympathetic to it if he perceived Heath was being disrespectful of Tom Barkley’s memory.

A bird chirped overhead while Nick held his temper and thought over his reply. When he spoke all he said was, “I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with loving your kids and being there for them through thick and thin.”

Heath’s reply was so soft his brother could barely hear it. “No, Nick, there’s not. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

Heath urged Charger back into a gallop. Nick did the same with Coco. The brothers didn’t speak again until they started their work on the line shack’s roof.

*****

Amber didn’t like being left behind with Silas to do ‘girl’s work’ as mean old Nick had phrased it. She ended up doing enough girl’s work at home. She thought things would be better when she was on her own. But slowly she was discovering that though the place she called home might be different from what it was just two days ago, the rules and responsibilities that came her way weren’t changing. She had a bedtime at home, and Heath made her have a bedtime here. She had to take a bath at home even when she didn’t feel dirty, and Heath made her take a bath here. She had to brush her teeth at home, and Heath made her brush her teeth here. Now she was standing on a chair in front of the kitchen sink up to her elbows in soap suds with a big ugly apron tied around her tiny waist just like often happened at home. While she washed the dishes Silas took them from her, dried them, and put them in their proper places.

It had taken Amber’s tears a while to stop after Heath left. She hadn’t really been scared like she’d told Heath. Well, maybe a little because she didn’t know Silas very good, but in reality she’d cried because her feelings were hurt. She thought Heath was her best friend. She thought he planned to take her everywhere he went. Didn’t he understand that she liked working outside better than she liked being stuck in the kitchen doing dishes?

Silas had been patient with the little girl. He allowed her all the time she needed to dry her tears before urging her to join him in the kitchen. She reached for another plate with practiced skill. That didn’t stop her from eyeing the mounds of dirty dishes still awaiting their turn in the soapy water.

“Silas, when you fix supper tonight don’t use so many dishes, okay?”

Silas smiled while he put the drinking glasses away. “Now, Miss Amber, Silas has to use as many dishes as it takes to feed Mr. Nick and Mr. Heath.”

Thinking of the large amounts of food she’d seen the two cowboys consume Amber rolled her eyes. “Oh, brother. At that rate I’ll never get out of this kitchen.”

“You and me both, missy, if we don’t move it along. Here, you let Silas wash for a while. You take this clean towel and dry.” Silas lifted the girl from her perch and moved the chair aside. “Put the dishes on the table, but be careful and don’t break any. Then when we’re all finished we’ll put them away together.”

Amber thought that sounded like a better deal than the one she currently had. She’d dried plenty of dishes in her six years on this earth and knew how to handle them with care. Not one was broken when all was said and done.

Silas smiled at the girl. “That was a very good job you did. I’ll be sure to tell Mr. Heath what a big help you are.”

“Silas, please don’t do me any favors.”

“Oh now, come on. Don’t you pout like that. Why you’re so pretty when you smile.”

“I can’t help but pout. I’m mad at Heath.”

“Mad at Mr. Heath? Whatever for?”

“ ‘Cause he made me stay here and do girl’s work instead of doin’ ranch work like I wanna.”

“Well now, little miss, we don’t all get to do what we want to every minute of every day. No siree, that’s just not how the good Lord intended things to be. Why there’s been plenty of times in Mr. Heath’s life when he hasn’t gotten to do things he wanted to.”

Amber handed the dessert plates to the black man. “How come?”

“That’s just the way things was is all.”

While Amber passed off the remainder of the dishes to Silas she thought back to the story Heath had told her the previous evening.

“Silas, did Heath always live here? I mean ever since he was a little boy? Ever since he was a baby?”

Silas put the last dish away then turned to face Amber. “What makes you ask that?”

“He told me a story last night at bedtime. It was about a boy named Heath. He said it was just make believe, but when he finished it he looked really sad. Like maybe it wasn’t make believe after all.”

“No, Mr. Heath didn’t live here when he was a child. He didn’t come here until he was a grown man of twenty-four years old. But don’t you go sayin’ nothing to him about that. It’s hard for him to talk about.”

“So it’s kind of like a secret?”

“Kind of like that, yes.”

Amber lifted her arms so Silas could remove her apron. “But Nick is Heath’s brother, right?”

“Yes, miss, he surely is.”

“And the girl whose dress I wore, – Audra – she’s his sister?”

“Yes. And Mr. Jarrod and Mr. Eugene are his brothers, too.”

“But if all those people are Heath’s brothers and sister and they lived here when they were kids how come Heath didn’t live here?”

“Silas ain’t got no answer for you but to say he just didn’t.”

“Was he naughty? Did he do something bad like forget to lock up the chickens and then his momma sent him away?”

“What notions you do have in your head, missy. Why I don’t think any momma would send her child away just because some old chickens wasn’t locked up, do you?”

Amber dropped her eyes and shuffled a toe of her boot across the floor. “Well, no. I guess not.”

“Mr. Heath didn’t do nothin’ that caused anyone to send him away. Like I said before, it’s just how things was.”

“But,…”

“Enough questions. Mr. Heath left you with a whole list of chores we need to do. You grab that big pan over there on the counter. Yes, that’s the one. We’re gonna pick us some beans for supper.”

“Yuck! I hate picking beans.”

“So did Miss Audra when she was your age. But that didn’t matter much to Mr. Tom Barkley so I doubt it will matter much to Mr. Heath Barkley. Whether that boy knows it or not he’s got plenty of his daddy in him. You come along with me now.”

Amber heaved a sigh but dutifully followed Silas out the kitchen door. All the while she picked beans from the big garden, and then tomatoes, her mind never wandered far from Heath. She wondered why he hadn’t been allowed to live here with his family when he was a boy. She wondered if he’d done something wrong that caused him to run away. And most importantly, she wondered if anyone had missed him.

*****

Heath was surprised to see Amber race from the house to greet him at seven o’clock that evening when Charger and Coco galloped into the ranch yard. The girl was fresh from the bathtub and wearing a yellow dress that had belonged to Audra.

Heath whistled. “My, my, my, but aren’t you a pretty sight for sore eyes.”

“I just got cleaned up for supper.”

“I can see that. Why I can’t imagine that me and Nick are even gonna be fit to sit at the table with such a beautiful young lady. Whatta ya’ say to that, Nick?”

“Nope, I expect not,” Nick agreed as he swung off Coco.

Amber took Heath’s hand. She walked with him as he led Charger into the barn.

“I helped Silas make supper. I picked the beans and tomatoes we’re gonna eat.”

“In that case I’ll look forward to every bite.”

“And I helped Silas straighten up the house like you said I should, even though if you ask me your house doesn’t need any straightening up. Plus I cleaned the chicken coop, and fed the dog and the cats, too.”

“It sounds like you’ve been busy.”

“I have been, Heath. I’ve been so busy that I’m just plum tuckered out.”

“That’s good for you,” Nick said as he passed Amber carrying Coco’s saddle. “It’ll grow hair on your chest.”

Amber smirked with distaste. “I don’t think I want hair on my chest.”

“Regardless of whether you want it or not, I have a long list of things you can do again tomorrow,” Nick responded.

“Tomorrow?”

“You bet. This is a working ranch, missy. I don’t feed anyone for nothing, you know. You live here, you earn your keep.”

“But I thought maybe me and Heath would go swimming tomorrow.”

“No, no,” Nick shook his head. “No time for that. Work, work, work. That’s all we have time for around here.”

Amber turned pleading eyes to Heath. The blond man simply shrugged his shoulders and continued to curry Charger. “Nick’s the boss, Amber. What he says goes.”

“You know something, Heath?”

“What’s that?”

“This adventure stopped being fun right around lunchtime today.”

Heath’s eyes caught Nick’s. Both men turned away from Amber so she wouldn’t see their smiles.

Amber stayed in the barn until the brothers were ready to go to the house for supper. The two men stopped at the outside pump and washed their hands and faces. Silas had towels waiting there for each of them to dry off with. When Heath’s hands were clean he swung Amber up to his hip. He walked beside Nick, tossing his hat on the foyer table as he passed by.

Nick made Amber help Silas with the dishes that night, though Heath finally took pity on her and offered a hand as well. When everything was put back in its proper place the girl engaged Nick in another game of checkers. The six-year-old was once again the victor. She wasn’t allowed to revel in her success very long before Heath sent her upstairs to brush her teeth and change into her nightgown. When she didn’t return within ten minutes he went looking for her. She’d managed to change into the gown like Heath had instructed, but she’d never made it out of the nursery to brush her teeth. She was sound asleep on the bed she’d used the previous night.

Without waking the girl Heath got her tucked under the covers. He walked over to the windows and pulled the shades on the setting sun. He studied the child through the semi-darkness. He hated the thought of what her parents must be going through. He was certain by now she’d have told him who she was. If that situation didn’t change by morning he would have no choice but to take her to town and talk to the sheriff.

Nick must have been having similar thoughts. When Heath walked into the parlor the dark headed man looked up from the newspaper.

“Amber asleep?”

“Sure is.” Heath sat in a chair across from his brother. “All those chores I left her to do must have worn her out.”

“Heath, I know we thought she’d crack for sure if she was left behind with Silas this afternoon, but evidently that wasn’t the magic solution. She might not have been too happy about it but I’ll say this much for her, she’s a resilient little cuss. You’re gonna have to take care of this tomorrow regardless of whether or not she tells you who she is. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I know that. I was just hopin’ she’d come around and tell me she wants to go home. What if someone was hurting her or something? What if she had reason to run away? I don’t want to send her back to something ugly if that’s what was goin’ on.”

“Oh, come on, that child is far from abused. If she’s anything she’s too precocious for her own good. And too darn stubborn, as well.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“I know I’m right. Look, I know you want to make certain her parents are good people and all, but the only way you can do that is to go into Stockton and talk to the sheriff. By now someone has to have reported her missing. Fred might know who she belongs to, or be able to put you in touch with someone who does.”

Before Heath could answer there was a knock on the door. He stood and crossed the foyer. When he opened the big oak door the ranch foreman was standing on the other side of it.

“Hey, Phillip. Come on in.”

Nick stood and joined his brother. Phillip Jelson had been Tom Barkley’s foreman since Nick was a young boy.

“Phillip,” Nick greeted, as he wondered what problem brought the man to their door after the working day was over.

Phillip nodded in return. “Nick. Heath. I hate to bother you fellas at this time of night but I thought I should tell you what the Mrs. heard in town today.”

“And what might that be?” Nick asked.

“Seems there’s a new family living over on the old Koldeway ranch. They just got settled in a few weeks ago. Haven’t had time yet to get to know anyone in the area.”

“And?” Heath prompted, though he had a suspicion what was coming next.

“Their little girl turned up missing yesterday. She’s six years old – name is Amber. Amber Talmann. I thought you’d want to know, Heath.”

Heath nodded his head. He thought a moment, then instructed, “Send someone into Stockton to see the sheriff tonight. Someone you can trust not to stop off at the saloon first. Have him tell Fred the missing girl is here with me and Nick. By the time Fred’s able to get a message to her folks it’ll be daybreak. I’ll have her ready to leave when they come to pick her up.”

“I’ll do that, Heath.”

“Thanks.”

Nick shut the door behind the departing man. He crossed his arms over his chest. “So what are you gonna tell the kid’s parents?”

“The truth. That I found her on Barkley property and that she wouldn’t tell me who she was. That I brought her here and was gonna take her to the sheriff’s office in the morning.”

“That’s all good and well, but I hope for your sake her old man doesn’t have a temper like mine.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because you kept her here one day longer than you should have. When she wouldn’t tell you who she was yesterday afternoon you should have plopped her little rear end on that old horse of hers and taken them both straight to Fred.”

“Maybe so. But for some reason, I think it’s important that Amber wants to go home, as opposed to being forced to go home.”

“And just why do you think that?”

Heath shrugged. “I just do, that’s all.”

Nick shook his head. “At the risk of repeating myself, I shudder when I think of the day you become a father. You kids will be spoiled,…”

“Senseless,” Heath finished for his brother. “I know. But at the risk of repeating myself, it’s like I told you this afternoon. They’ll be loved.”

Nick watched his brother climb the stairs. When he saw Heath’s bedroom door close he muttered, “You take things to heart that are best left alone sometimes, Heath Barkley. But I suppose that’s why I’ve taken a shine to you.”

Nick returned to his paper. He didn’t pay much attention to the words written within. He was too busy wondering what tomorrow would bring.

*****

Heath wasn’t sure what time it was when he felt someone shaking his bare arm. He was about to cuss Nick out for waking him from a sound sleep when he realized the hand he brushed at was much too small and delicate to belong to his brother. He opened his eyes to find Amber sitting on the bed beside him. She was carrying a blanket and pillow from her own bed.

The blond man rose on one elbow. “Amber, what are you doing awake at this time of night?”

“I don’t know. I think I heard Nick come upstairs. He makes a lot of noise when he brushes his teeth. Like he’s gonna choke himself to death or something. Ever since then I haven’t been able to fall back to sleep so I figured you wouldn’t mind if I came in here and visited for a spell.”

“Oh, you figured that, huh?”

“Yep.” Amber put her pillow against the headboard of Heath’s bed and got under the blanket she’d brought along. “So now that we’re both comfortable maybe you could tell me another story.”

Heath moved over to give the girl more room. He generally liked to sprawl in the middle of the bed. Therefore being shoved to the side was hardly what he deemed comfortable. Nonetheless, he found himself doing what the child demanded. He was glad Nick wasn’t in here to see this. He hated to admit it but his brother was probably right. No doubt his kids would be spoiled. Not spoiled in the sense that they’d be disobedient, or unruly, or given everything they asked for, but spoiled in the sense that they’d have their father’s undivided attention from the moment they were born.

The blond man leaned back against his own two pillows. “All right, I’ll tell you a story but it’s gonna be a quick one.”

“That’ll do.”

“A long, long time ago there lived a giant in a land far, far away and…”

“No, that’s not the kind of story I wanna hear.”

“All right. Then how about this? An Indian girl named Little Dove was walking through the forest and came upon,…”

“No, that’s not the kind of story I wanna hear either.”

“Amber, it’s after midnight and I’m beat. Why don’t you help me out by tellin’ me just exactly what kind of story you do wanna hear.”

“I wanna hear a story about a boy named Heath. When you finished last night Heath seemed real sad. I just gotta know if he ever found that happiness he went lookin’ for.”

Heath was quiet so long Amber thought he might have fallen asleep on her. Sometimes her papa did that when he was in the middle of telling her a story. But then with the aid of the moonlight shining in through the bedroom windows Amber saw his eyes were open. She reached over and held his hand. The little girl’s voice was barely louder than a whisper as she prompted, “When the story ended last night Heath’s momma had died.”

Heath cleared his throat and nodded. “You’re right, she had.” The man gave Amber’s hand a gentle squeeze, then released it. “After Heath’s momma died he only stayed in the town he’d grown up in long enough to give her a proper burial. By then the town was almost deserted.”

“Why?”

“Because the mines had gone dry. All the ore and gold had been stripped from them during the years Heath was growing up. There was no way for a man to make a decent living any longer. The graveyard, which during Heath’s boyhood had been so well kept and always filled with fresh flowers, was rundown and desolate. Heath hated,……”the storyteller had to stop and swallow the lump in his throat,….. “Heath hated having to put his mother in such an ugly, lonely place, but he had no choice. He didn’t have the money to take her anywhere else. At that time he didn’t even have the money to buy her a tombstone. The only people that came to her funeral besides her son were her closest friends, Rachel and Hannah. Any other friends had long ago moved away. Even her own brother didn’t attend the service.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I guess because he’d been mad at his sister for many years.”

“How come?”

“Because of Heath.”

“What did Heath do to him?”

“Nothing. Heath was born,….Heath was born out of circumstances that his Uncle Matt said were sinful. Or at least that was the excuse Uncle Matt used to turn his back on Heath and his mother.”

“But how can a baby have sin? My mom,…Miss Kim says babies are gifts from God. And if you’re a gift from God how can you do something to make someone angry with you?”

“I don’t know, Amber. That’s just the way things are sometimes. People are quick to judge another person from afar. They might resist the urge to do that if they were forced to live the person’s life.”

Amber steered the story back on course. “Did Heath cry at his momma’s funeral?”

“No. No, he didn’t. He,….I guess he was kind of afraid to.”

“Why? ‘Cause he wanted to be brave in front of Rachel and Hannah?”

“That was some of it I suppose. But mostly he was afraid to because he knew if he started to cry he’d never be able to stop.”

“Because he was sad. And because now he was an orphan.”

“Yes. Because he was sad and he was alone. And even though he would have never admitted it to anyone, the thought of being alone, truly alone with no one who loved him, scared Heath.”

“So what did Heath do next?”

“He took a newspaper clipping his momma had him take from her Bible right before she died and he left Strawberry. He worked when he needed to, and when he’d earned a few dollars to put in his pocket he took off travelin’ again. He was bound and determined he was gonna get what he deserved.”

“What was that?”

“At first he thought it was money. More money than he’d ever seen in his life. Money, a last name he could be proud of, and a heritage that would make people stand up and take notice of him. But funny thing was, when Heath was finally given all those things for the taking he discovered none of them were nearly as important as he’d always thought. Because when he found those things he also found a family. He found brothers, and a sister, and woman he’d eventually come to call mother.”

“And were those brothers and sister his real brothers and sister or were they make believe?”

“You mean kinda like you make believe you’re an orphan?”

Amber turned her head on her pillow and met Heath’s gaze before looking up at the ceiling. “Yeah. Yeah, kinda like that.”

“No, Amber. Heath’s brothers and sister weren’t make believe, they were real.”

“What were their names?”

“Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Eugene.”

“And was the woman his real mother?”

“No, she wasn’t. She was his father’s wife, but she wasn’t his mother. Or at least not in the sense that she’d given birth to him. As time went on though, she became a mother to Heath just like he became a son to her.”

“So she loved him just like he was her own little boy?”

“Yes, she did.”

“And he loved her just like she was his own momma?”

“He surely did.”

“And where was Heath’s father?”

“He had passed away some years before Heath found his family.”

“And then what happened?”

“What happened?”

“Yeah. In your story. What happened next?”

“Heath made a place for himself with his new family. He lived with them, worked beside them, shared both good times and bad with them. Just like we all do with our own families.”

The quiet of the house enveloped the storyteller and the child. When Amber finally broke the silence she whispered, “Heath?”

“Yeah?”

“I have a secret. And,…..well, if I tell it to you, you might not like me anymore.”

“I can’t imagine what kind of a secret you could have that would cause me not to like you anymore.”

“Even if I was a bad girl and had told you a whopper of a lie?”

“Even if you were a bad girl and had told me a whopper of a lie.”

“Okay. Here goes. I,…..Heath, I’m not an orphan. My name is Amber Talmann. My papa’s name is Conner and my momma is Kim. I have four brothers. Blake is fifteen, Jordan is twelve, Heath,…..that’s my third brother’s name just like you,…….Heath is nine, and Sage is four.”

“I see. Why’d you tell me you were an orphan?”

“Because sometimes being the only girl with all those brothers ain’t so much fun.”

“No, I don’t suppose it is.”

“And I left the chicken coop door open and a coyote killed some of the hens. My momma was pretty mad at me for that. And then I forgot to feed and water Gracie, that’s our dog, and my papa was mad at me for that ‘cause Gracie’s my ‘sponsibility. And then Jordan and Heath were teasing me, and Blake was ignoring me, and Sage got into my private treasure box,….and boy howdy, I’ll just tell you it was a bad day all the way around. I got on Toby when everyone was busy doin’ other stuff and I took off for parts unknown. I wanted to have me a real adventure, and I guess I sure did. I found you, and you brought me here, and I’ve had barrels of fun, Heath. Well, barrels until you made me do girl’s work with Silas, but other than that it’s been terrific.”

“I can understand that. We all need a vacation now and again.”

“A vacation? What’s a vacation?”

“The opportunity to take a trip that gets us away from the people and places we see every day.”

“Yeah, that’s what I did. I took a vacation.”

“But eventually vacations have to come to an end.”

“So I bet that means mine’s about over, huh?”

“That’s what it means. Your parents are looking for you, Amber. I imagine they’re worried sick. I sent someone to Stockton to tell the sheriff where they can find you. I’m guessing they’ll be here sometime tomorrow.”

“I’ll probably get a good licking for this.”

“If you do you’ll deserve it, you know.”

“I know.”

“But don’t fret about that for now. I’ll see what I can do about keeping that from happening.”

“Really, Heath? You will?”

“I’m not making any promises, mind you, but I’ll do my best.”

“Thanks, Heath.” The girl chewed on her lower lip. “I do miss my family.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. I like it here and all, but there’s no other kids to play with and you people take way too many baths.”

Heath chuckled.

“Besides, Silas told me we’d do laundry tomorrow. I hate laundry day worse than I hate picking beans.”

“Then I think you’d better get while the getting’s good.”

“I think so, too,” Amber agreed. The girl thought back over Heath’s story before she spoke again. “No matter how mad I get at my family I wouldn’t want to be gone so long that when I got back someone was sick. You know, like Heath in your story. When he finally went back home his momma was sick and then she died a few days later. I wouldn’t want that to happen to me. I’d be all torn up inside if it did and cry my eyes right outta my head for days and days and days.”

“I’m sure you would.”

Nothing further was said between the pair. The symphony of chirping crickets outside the bedroom windows lulled the blond man back towards sleep. When he was just about to drift off he heard a small voice beckon.

“Heath?”

“Hmmmm?”

“You never told me the end of your story. What happened to Heath after he found his family?”

The cowboy hiked himself up on an elbow. His eyes met Amber’s and he smiled.

“Well now, I’d have to say he lived happily ever after.”

The girl rolled sideways and wrapped her arms around Heath’s neck. He felt her kiss his cheek as she said, “That’s just what I was hoping for.”

Heath hugged the child in return.

“Me too, Amber. Me, too.”

*****

The next morning Heath allowed Amber to do all the things she loved best. They fed and watered horses, played with kittens, and rode together on Charger while Heath went to check the quarantined herd. Nonetheless, the blond cowboy could tell Amber was nervous about the consequences she’d face when her parents arrived.

After lunch had been eaten Heath led the girl up to the nursery. “Why don’t you pick a dress out of the trunk you’d like to take home with you. Maybe you’d even like to put it on now so you look real pretty when your family gets here.”

“You think that will keep me from getting a lickin’?”

A small smile played at the corners of Heath’s mouth. “I don’t know about that, but it wouldn’t hurt to try, would it?”

“No, I guess not.”

Amber picked out a beautiful white linen dress. Heath stepped out of the room so she could take off the clothes of Eugene’s she was wearing in exchange for the dress. Like the first day Amber had been at the Barkleys’ Heath was pressed into duty to button up the back of the dress and tie the baby blue sash that encircled the waist. Amber found a matching blue ribbon that she asked Heath to tie in her hair. He sat on the trunk and did as she requested. When he was finished he turned her around so they were eye to eye.

“Boy howdy, I do believe you’re the prettiest girl in the entire valley, Miss Amber.”

Amber twirled on the toe of one black boot for her admirer, momentarily forgetting the trouble she was sure to be in when her parents arrived.

The light-hearted fun came to an abrupt end when the front door opened and Nick bellowed, “Heath! A wagon’s coming through the gates! By the number of boys I counted riding in the back I’m guessing it’s Amber’s family!”

The expression on Amber’s face told Heath she was both happy and frightened at the same time. He took her by the hand and led her from the room. She stopped in the hallway. When the cowboy looked down at the six-year-old she confessed, “I’m scared, Heath. Really scared. Not like yesterday when you left me here with Silas and I told you I was scared,….that was only a little scared. This time I’m scared real big like when you find a rattlesnake in the barn.”

“I imagine you are. No doubt your folks are gonna be happy to see you, but no doubt they’re gonna be pretty upset, too. But you can’t avoid what you gotta own up to so let’s go out and greet them.”

Right at that moment, Amber thought of at least one hundred ways to avoid owning up to her misdeeds. The Barkley house was so large she was certain it would take her parents several days to find her if she hid within one of the mansion’s many rooms. But Heath wasn’t about to let that happen. Before Amber could wrench her hand from his grasp and take off running he swung her to his hip.

The wagon was just coming to a halt in front of the house when Heath stepped out the door with Amber in his arms. No explanations were immediately demanded. Amber was swarmed by her mother, father, and brothers who poured out of the wagon as one.

Heath transferred the girl from his arms to the arms of the man Amber called Papa. The girl was kissed, and hugged, and patted, then kissed and hugged and patted again before finally being set on her feet. Amber’s mother looked over every inch of her as only a mother will do when a child has been from her sight for too long.

When the joyous reunion began to wind down Nick took charge. He held his hand out to Amber’s father. “I’m Nick Barkley. This is my brother Heath.”

“Conner. Conner Talmann,” the rancher said as he shook first Nick’s hand and then Heath’s. “And this is my wife Kim.”

Kim smiled and said, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Barkley” while shaking first Nick’s hand, then shaking Heath’s.

Conner moved from child to child next, briefly placing a hand on each shoulder. “This is our oldest son Blake. This is Jordan. Our son Heath. And our youngest Sage.”

“Nice to meet you, boys,” Heath smiled.

“Boys,” Nick nodded in way of greeting. He didn’t bother to repeat their names, he knew he’d never be able to keep straight who was who amongst this brown headed tribe.

Like Phillip had told Heath and Nick the evening before the Talmann family was new to the area. Conner had ranched with his brothers in Oklahoma Indian Territory while his wife taught school. When they’d saved enough money to buy their own place they set out for California’s central valley.

“I’m sorry we weren’t able to meet before now,” Nick told his new neighbors. “I knew the widow Koldeway had her place for sale, but I didn’t realize it had changed hands.”

“We just got settled in a few weeks ago,” Conner replied. “We didn’t want to move until the children’s school term ended.” The man looked down at his daughter. “Now, young lady, I’d like an explanation as to how it is you got so far away from home.”

Amber’s eyes dropped to the ground. “Well,….I,….”

“I found her,” Heath jumped in. “Here on our property by the Diamond River. She was real upset. When I finally got her calmed down she told me she was lost.”

Amber looked up at Heath. He gave her a wink only Nick saw.

“Amber,” Kim scolded, “why didn’t you tell Mr. Barkley where you lived?”

“Well,….umm,….”

“She tried, ma’am. Only she was a little mixed up, I guess. You know, because of your recent move. She wasn’t certain what direction she’d come from and like my brother said, we didn’t realize the Koldeway property had changed hands otherwise I’d have known where it was she’d wandered from.”

“Yeah, that’s just what happened, Momma. I was mixed up and turned around in circles even. I was so mixed up I couldn’t even remember my last name.”

Heath gave the child a discreet poke in the back. If she didn’t keep her mouth shut she’d blow it for both of them.

“Amber, you know perfectly well what your last name is,” Kim said.

“At the time she didn’t, ma’am,” Heath said. “She was crying so hard she could barely tell me anything. So I brought her home with me in the hopes that once she calmed down she could tell me where she belonged. She was still pretty shook up, but then last night I was finally able to get the information from her I needed in order to have the sheriff find you.”

Kim and Conner exchanged glances. They knew their high-spirited daughter too well to believe she could have forgotten her own last name. The last few weeks had been tense and busy as the whole family adjusted to a new home far from where they’d been born and raised. For now they’d go along with the story that Amber had simply gotten lost. They’d been assured by the sheriff that their daughter couldn’t have been taken in by a better family than the Barkleys, and that the man who found her, Heath Barkley, wouldn’t harm a child if someone put a gun to his head and threatened him with death to do so.

“From what I heard Heath’s treating your daughter like a princess,” the sheriff had told Kim and Conner. “Believe me, after she’s spent a day or two at the Barkley ranch you’ll likely have a challenge convincing her to come home with you.”

For now Kim and Conner simply rejoiced in the safe return of their child. There would be time enough later to discover the why’s and wherefore’s behind her disappearance.

Nick invited the family into the house for cake and coffee. The boys and Amber hurried through the dessert, then with Heath’s permission Amber took her brothers outside to show them all the treasures the Barkley ranch contained.

When Kim and Conner were ready to take their brood home the Barkley brothers walked them to their wagon. Conner cupped his hands to his mouth and called, “Kids! Kids, come on! We’re leaving now!”

Five children came from five different directions. Or so it seemed to Nick. Amber and Sage each held two kittens while Blake led Toby from the barn.

Jordan tied the horse to the back of the wagon while Blake stowed Toby’s saddle and Amber’s fishing pole in the wagon’s bed.

Silas stepped from the house with Amber’s cowboy hat, boots, and the clothes she’d been wearing the day Heath found her. Heath took the items and passed them to Kim.

“Amber, put those kittens back where you found them and come here. You need to change your clothes before we leave.”

“Momma, I can wear this dress home. Heath said I could have it.”

“Now, Mr. Barkley, that’s not necessary. It’s a beautiful dress. There’s no need to give it to Amber.”

“I want to,” Heath assured. “Besides, it hasn’t fit my sister Audra in a good many years now and there’s no other little girls who live here who are gonna be in need of it so Amber might as well get some use out of it”

“Thank you. Though I should scold you for spoiling her so.”

Nick couldn’t resist nudging Heath with his elbow when Kim said the word, ‘spoiling’.

Heath ignored his brother. He looked down at Amber and Sage. “Would you kids like to take those kittens home?”

Amber’s grinned from ear to ear. “Can we?”

“I don’t see why not. That is provided your parents say it’s okay.”

Conner wasn’t too thrilled by the prospect of four kittens being added to his ranch but Nick, who was all too eager to get rid of a few cats, extolled the virtues of felines for rodent control. He soon had Conner convinced, or at least reluctantly agreeing to the fact that four kittens were just what he needed out in his barn.

Silas disappeared long enough to layer two towels in a covered basket. He helped Amber and Sage place the kittens in the basket for the journey home.

“Now, Miss Amber, you’ll have a reason to come back and visit us when you return that basket.”

Amber smiled at the black man. “I’ll come back, Silas. I promise. Only not on a day when you need help doing the dishes.”

Silas laughed. “You come back when Mrs. Barkley is here then. I know she’ll want to meet you, missy, and I can promise she never puts her guests to work.”

Kim placed a hand on her daughter’s back as Silas reentered the house.

“Say goodbye and thank you to Nick and Heath.”

Amber held her hand out to Nick. “Goodbye, Nick. Thanks for playing checkers with me. And thanks for letting me win.”

“Letting you win? I didn’t let you win.”

“Nick, I’m not that good of a checker player. I know you let me win. Even though you act like you don’t like kids, I really think you do.”

Nick tried to sound gruff. “Yeah,….well,……most of the time I enjoyed having your here. Like Silas said, you come back for a visit.”

“I will.”

The girl moved to Heath. This time a handshake wouldn’t do. She crooked her finger at him until he crouched down in front of her. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. He heard her quiet voice in his ear.

“Thanks, Heath, for everything. Especially for keeping me from gettin’ a licking. I’m really gonna miss you something fierce.”

“And I’m gonna miss you, too. But I’ll see you again. I’ll ride over to your place in a couple weeks for a visit. You can show me around.”

“And then I’ll come visit you.”

“That’s fine just as long as you promise me one thing.”

“What?”

“That the next time you come see me you have permission.”

“I will.”

“Good girl.”

Heath released the child and stood. The boys were scrambling into the back of the wagon. Conner helped his wife climb on the seat, then reached for Amber. Before he could swing her into the wagon’s bed she turned and ran back for Heath. She wrapped her arms around his waist and said, “I love you.” Like a delicate butterfly, she flitted away as fast as she’d arrived. She scampered to her father, lifted her arms, and was hoisted into the wagon.

Final goodbyes and thank yous were exchanged, then the family was headed out the front gates. Heath was still blushing as he and Nick stood and watched the wagon disappear from sight.

Heath was certain he was going to get teased over Amber’s last declaration when Nick turned to face him. That was not the case, however. Nick studied his brother’s profile a few seconds before speaking.

“You’ll make a good father someday.”

Heath turned and met Nick’s eyes. “I thought you said my kids would be spoiled senseless.”

“They probably will be. But regardless, you’ll make a good father someday.”

Nick’s spurs jangled as he walked away from his brother. When he was almost to the barn he turned around and smiled. “You’ll give them the one thing they need more than anything else. Love. And don’t you ever doubt that about yourself for a second.”

The blond cowboy stood on the front porch a moment longer. He recalled a boy named Heath who was sure he’d never find happiness, then thought of a little girl named Amber who had reminded him that all the happiness he ever needed revolved around the people he called his family.

Heath silently thanked Amber and hoped she wouldn’t wait too long before visiting him again.

***The End***

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