Not Quite Strangers (by Nancy)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6300


Jarrod sat at the desk in his office catching up on some paperwork when his secretary knocked on the door.  “Excuse me Mr. Barkley.  One of your brothers are here to see you.”

“Well show him in Miss Stellar.”  Jarrod order.  He was expecting it to be Heath or Nick, so he was surprised when Eugene walked through the door.  “Well my boy! It’s good to see you, but why are you not in school.”

“I have decided to take a few days off school.  I have something very important to tell the family and just could not wait until spring break.”  Eugene said as he beckoned to someone in the waiting room to come in.  A Pretty red head, with green eyes entered the room.

“Jarrod I would like you to meet, Joanna Johnson.”  Eugene introduced the girl.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you miss.”  Jarrod said as he took the young lady’s hand.

“Please call me Jo.”  The girl said as she took Jarrod’s extended hand.  “I never like the name Joanna.”

“Very well, Jo it is.  So what is this very important news that you want to tell the family Eugene?”  Jarrod asked.  Although he had a pretty good idea what it was.

“You will just have to wait until we get home to hear it.  I want to tell the whole family together.”  Eugene informed Jarrod.

“Well in that case let us go home now.”  Jarrod stated as he put a hand on Eugene’s shoulder and pushed toward the door.  Jarrod and Eugene went to the livery stable to get Jarrod’s horse and buggy.

As they then drove over to Jarrod’s to pick up Jo Jarrod said.  “It is a good thing that I brought the buggy into town today instead of riding Jingo.  You should have let us know you were coming”

“I wanted to surprise everyone.”   Eugene said

“Well you sure surprised me.”  Jarrod laughed.

After picking up Jo they headed to the ranch.

*****

“Eugene!”  Audra squealed with delight and threw herself at her brother.  “It’s good to see you.  We were not expecting to see you until spring break.”

Coming down stairs Victoria saw Audra hugging her younger son and concern filled her heart.  “Eugene what is wrong?  What brings you home in the middle of a school year?”

“Nothing is wrong.  I just wanted the family to meet Joanna Johnson.”  Eugene said as turned and offered his arm to the young lady standing behind him.  Both Audra and Victoria greeted the young lady.

“Eugene also has something very important to tell us, but he won’t tell until he has the whole family together.”  Jarrod said with a mock whine in his voice.

“That is right.  Where are Nick and Heath anyway?”  Eugene asked.

“They are still out on the range, but they should be home any minute for super.”  Victoria answered.

Just then Nick burst through the door and slammed it behind himself.  “Nick!  Must you slam the door? Where is Heath?  Victoria asked.

“Oh he still out in the barn.  Charger threw a shoe and Heath is just making sure he didn’t hurt himself.  You know how he is with that horse.”  Nick said as he noticed the pretty redhead standing next to Eugene.

 “Eugene my boy who is this pretty young lady.”  Nick did not even question he fact that Eugene was home early.

“This is Joanna Johnson, my fiancée.”  Eugene had wanted to wait until everyone was assembled to tell them about his engagement, but the way Nick was looking at Jo made Eugene Jealous.  He wanted Nick to know that this girl was spoken for.

“Fiancée!”   Everyone said in unison.

“Yes, Jo and I are engaged to be married.  We are planning to get married this summer.”  Eugene informed them.

“Well my boy! This calls for a toast.”  Nick’s voice boomed as he walked over to the bar and poured everyone a round of wine.

“I think we should wait for Heath to be here.  I think he would like to be in on the toast.”  Victoria said and everyone agreed to wait.

Heath finally came in from the barn.  Eugene met him at the door.  “Boy howdy!  Eugene what are you doing home.  I thought that fancy school of yours didn’t let out until the end of March.”  Heath was surprised to see Eugene back home so soon.

“It doesn’t, but I would like you to meet someone.”  Eugene said as he led Heath into the sitting room to where Jo stood waiting with the rest of the family.

“Heath I would like you to meet Joanna Johnson.”   Eugene introduced Jo.

“Please call me Jo.  I hate Joanna.”  Jo said smiling as she extended her hand.

Heath did not take the extended hand, instead he backed away from it as if it was fire and it was going to burn him.  His head was spinning and his heart was pounding heavily in his chest.  It felt as if the room was closing in on him.  He had to get out of here.

“I have to go check on my horse.”  He stammered and bolted to the door.  He raced to the barn.  Once in the barn he leaned against Chargers stall.  “It can’t be her,” he thought. “It is just a coincidence that she has the same name.  Lots of girls are named Joanna, and probably many of them would prefer Jo.”  He told himself as he entered the stall to check Charger’s leg.  He was fighting to get control of his emotions.

*****

“You will have excuse Heath.  He cares a lot about that horse.”   Nick tried to excuse his blond brother’s behavior.

“A sick horse is no excuse for rudeness.”  Eugene said coolly.

“Yes Eugene it is not.”  Victoria agreed.  “I am very sorry Jo.  I am sure he will apologize once he realizes what he has done.  Eugene would you please show Jo where she can freshen up.   Nick would you please go tell Heath that super will be in twenty minutes and that I expect him to be there.  Tell him his horse can wait.”

As Eugene led Jo upstairs he thought to himself.  “I’ll make sure Heath apologizes to Jo.”

Nick went to the barn and found Heath in the stall looking at Chargers leg.  “How is he.”  Nick asked the blond.

“He should be fine in a few days.”  Heath answered.  His voice sounded tense.  Nick sensed that something was bothering his brother

“Heath what is wrong?”  Nick asked

“Nothing is wrong Nick.”  Heath lied, but Nick didn’t buy it.

“It’s something about Jo isn’t.  You meet her somewhere before haven’t you?  Nick questioned Heath.

No he had never met the red headed girl before his life, but he knew her and she had the power to destroy him.

*****

As Heath tended Charger’s leg his mind wandered back in time.

“Hey kid how old are you?”  The tall skinny red head asked the blond boy.

“Eighteen.” The blond replied

“I’ll bet you are no more that three years older than my younger sister Jo and she is ten.”   The red head rebuked.

“I said I am eighteen.  What kind of name is Jo for a girl anyway?”   The blond kid asked trying to change the subject from his age.

“Jo is short for Joanna.  My sister hates the name Joanna and insists on being called Jo.  She is bit of a tomboy and she has a temper to match her red hair and green eyes so everyone calls her Jo.   Hi, I am Steve Johnson, but everyone here calls me Hawkeye.”  The older boy said as he held out his hand to Heath.

The blond returned the handshake.  “Names Heath Thomson. Why do they call you Hawkeye?”

“Because I am the best shot it this here outfit.”  Hawkeye boasted.  “I still think you are only thirteen.”   He added letting Heath know he wasn’t that easily swayed.

“I said I am eighteen and now that I am here you won’t be the best shot for long.”  Heath challenged.

“Okay, Okay you are eighteen, not to mention a bit cocky. ”  The older boy laughed.

*****

Heath shook his head.  No he wouldn’t, he couldn’t remember him.  He would not allow a coincidence to take him down that path again.  He unmercifully slammed the memory back behind the dam that he had built to protect himself from the pain of his past.  But the damage was already done, the dam now had a crack in it and it was only a matter of time before it burst.

 When Heath didn’t answer right away Nick asked.  “You did meet her and you think she is trouble don’t you.  You think that she will hurt Eugene somehow?”

“No, Nick.”  Heath answered.  “I have never meet this girl before today.  I don’t think she is going to hurt Eugene.”

“Then what is wrong.”  Nick yelled in frustration

“I told you that nothing is wrong.  I am just worried about Charger that is all.”  Heath lied again.

Realizing that he was beating a dead horse Nick gave up.  “Okay.  Mother told me to tell you that super will be ready in twenty minutes.  You better go get cleaned up.  She said she expects you there.”  Both brothers left the barn.

When they reached the house Heath went up to his room.  He removed his gun belt and hung it on the bedpost.  He removed his boots and then his shirt.  He sat down on the edge of his bed and placed his face in his hands.  He fought to get his emotions in check.

Eugene saw Heath enter his room.  He decided that now was a good time to confront Heath about his behavior toward Jo.  Without knocking he entered Heath’s room.  Heath was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands.  Heath did not look up when Eugene entered the room.

“Your behavior toward my Finance was extremely rude.  Putting the welfare of a horse before social graces is just bad manners, but what should we expect from the like of you.”  Eugene rebuked Heath.

Heath’s head snapped up at Eugene’s words.  “The likes me, Eugene.  What do you mean the likes of me?  Do you mean Bastard.”  Heath’s voice was tight and full of pain as he spoke.

As soon a Eugene had said the words he wished he could take them back.  He was angry with Heath for the way he treated Jo, and he wanted Heath to know how he felt.  In confronting Heath and trying to make him apologize to Jo, Eugene had crossed a line that he should not have crossed.  He had cut Heath to the quick and he now was sorry.

“Heath, I am sorry.  I did not mean that.”  Eugene tried to apologize.

Heath glared at Eugene from the bed where he sat.  Eugene saw the pain and anger burning from Heath’s eyes, and there was something else.  Eugene had seen Heath mad before.  He was here the night Heath rode in and claimed to be their fathers son.  Heath was angry that night, but the anger Eugene saw tonight had a dangerous edge to it that was not present that first night six months ago.

“I said I am sorry Heath.”  Eugene tried again.

Heath slowly stood and took a few steps toward Eugene.  His hands were curled into a fist.  “Get out Eugene, before I throw you out.”  He said through clenched teeth.  Eugene left the room feeling even worse for the words he had said.

*****

The family went into the dining room for supper.  Victoria noticed Heath’s chair was empty.   “Where is Heath.”  She asked.

“I told him super was ready ma’am, but he said that he was not hungry and that he was going to bed.”   Silas informed Victoria.

“Nick didn’t you tell Heath that since we have a guest I expected to attend diner?”   Victoria asked Nick.

“Yeah I told him and he told me that he was just going to get cleaned up.”  Nick answered

“What has gotten into that boy today? ”  Victoria questioned.  She was beginning to worry about Heath.  It wasn’t like Heath to behave the way he was behaving today.

“I think I am the reason he did not come down for super.”  Eugene confessed

“What do you mean Eugene.”  Victoria asked.  Eugene explained what had happened in Heath’s room.

“Eugene Barkley that was uncalled for.”  Victoria yelled at her younger son.

“Eugene!  How could you be so cruel.”  Audra cried as tears threatened to spill from her dark blue eyes.

“You are lucky he did not knock you head off.”  Nick added.  “You know how sensitive he is about his parentage.”

“I know, I know.”  Eugene said starring at his plate.  “I feel bad for what I said.  I was just so mad at him.”

Jo, who was listening to the conversation, was confused so she asked.  “What did you mean by the likes of him and why is he so sensitive about his parentage.”  She asked.

Since Jo was going to be a member of the family and they felt she should know they told her about Heath’s background.

“So he’s not a Barkley?”  Jo asked when they were finished explaining it to her.

“As much as any of the rest of us.”  Nick snapped.  How dare this woman question Heath being a Barkley?

“No, that’s not what I meant.  I mean he was not born with the Barkley name.”  Jo said.

“No, but he has the Barkley name now. ”  Victoria answered before Nick could.

Jo turned slightly pale.  “That could explain it.”  She thought she had said this to herself, but she had mumbled it out loud.   Nick was just about to confront her when Silas came in with super.

Victoria shot Nick a look and mouthed.  “Drop it.”  Then out loud she said,  “let us give thanks.”  They ate the meal in silence.

After super they went to the billiard room where the boys played pool.  Audra and Jo played a game of cards while Victoria sat watching her children.  There was a tension in the atmosphere.   Finally Jo said she was tried and left to go to bed.

After Jo left Nick felt it was time to say what he was thinking.  “She is one of them you know.”

“One of them.  What do you mean Nick.”  Eugene angrily asked his older brother.

“You know the kind that puts Heath down because of the circumstances of his birth.  Those who think they are better than him and treat him like dirt” Nick said

“Jo is not like that.”  Eugene defended his Fiancée

“Isn’t she.  You saw how she paled when we told her.  You heard what she said about it explaining everything.  Heath probably sensed she was that type when he meet her.  That’s probably why he bolted for the door.  I could tell that there was something that Heath did not like about that girl.”

Eugene stood angrily glaring at his brother.  He wanted to tell Nick that what he said was a lie, but he had seen how Jo reacted and heard what she had said.  He wasn’t sure if he knew her at all.  But then was he any better.  In anger hadn’t he implied to Heath that he wasn’t as good as the rest of them?  Even if he didn’t really mean it that way.  That is the way Heath had taken it.

“Nicholas, that is enough.”  Victoria stopped Nick’s speech.  “I think that we are all tired and we should go to bed.”   With that everyone adjourned to his or her rooms.

*****

Heath lay awake for many hours.  He finally fell into a disturbed sleep.  He dreamed he was on the streets of Strawberry.   At first he was alone, but then people started coming out of the buildings.  They were coming toward him.  They were shouting all the insults that he had ever heard thrown at him through out his life.  He backed away trying to get away, but they kept coming.  He ran, but they where right behind him.   Suddenly the gates to his private Hell loomed before him.  He stopped and tried to retreat from the gates, but the mob of people was behind him.

“This is where the likes of you belong.”  The People shouted.  “You even drag good people in there with

You.”  They said as they pointed toward the gates.  Heath looked to where they were pointing and saw a person with his arms stretched out between two posts and tied over his head.   Then he saw the person’s face covered in blood.

“Hawkeye!”   Heath screamed as he raced through the gates.  Once through the gates, the gates closed behind him.  He looked around to find his friend, but Hawkeye was no where to be seen.  “Hawkeye!”  Heath screamed again as he franticly looked for his friend.

*****

Dawn’s early light was shining through the window when Nick was aroused from a deep sleep by loud screams coming from his brother’s room.  Nick got up and went to Heath’s room.  When he entered the room Heath was sitting up.  Sweat poured from the blond man and he had a look of frantic terror on his face.

Nick went over and shook Heath’s arm.  “Heath wake up it’s just a bad dream.”

At Nick’s touch Heath exploded.  “You leave him alone, or I’ll kill you.”   Heath swore as he attacked Nick.  Nick again tried to wake Heath.  Heath knocked Nick down and raced for the door.  By this time everyone in the house was up.  Jarrod and Eugene both tackled Heath as he tried to race down the hallway.  Nick came out of Heath’s room and helped his two brothers hold Heath down on the floor.  As Heath fought them trying to regain his freedom, he kept screaming out Hawkeye’s name and swearing at some unknown foe.

They all kept yelling at Heath to wake up.  Finally their voices reached him and Heath awoke to find himself in the hallway half dressed with his brothers piled on top of him.  “Get off me.”  He ordered.

The three brothers holding him down got off him and Nick helped him to his feet.  When he stood up his back was facing Victoria and Audra.  They both gasped when they saw the scars covering his back.

“Oh God!  Heath what happened to your back?”   Victoria asked.  At Victoria’s question everyone looked at Heath’s back to see what she meant.

“It’s nothing.”  Heath said flatly and retreated into his room and closed the door.  Nick tried to follow him, but Heath had locked the door.  “Leave me alone.”  Heath yelled from behind the door.

Realizing that everyone needed something to calm their nerves Victoria suggested that they go down to he kitchen and she would make them all some hot chocolate.  They all went down to the Kitchen except Nick who decided he needed something stronger than hot chocolate to calm his nerves and headed for the bar in the sitting room.

*****

Alone in his room, Heath fought a losing battle with his emotions.  The burning rage he felt inside of himself scared him.  He kept seeing his brother’s faces looking down at him when he awoke to find them holding him down to the floor.  He had seen the fear and concern in their eyes.  He realized that he must have been having a bad dream and they had tried to wake him.  In his dream state he had mistaken them as enemies and fought them.   Oh God what if it had been Audra or Victoria who tried to wake him.  He could not risk that happening, so decided that he had to leave.  Heath packed his belongings and headed for the stairs that lead to the kitchen.

Heath just reached the top of the stairs when he heard voices coming from the kitchen, so he decided to go out the front door.  He had just reached the bottom of the stairs when Nick saw him.

“Where do you think you are going boy?”  Nick’s booming voice caused everyone in the kitchen come to see what was going on.

“I have to leave.”  Heath said as he headed for the door.

So you are just going to sneak out without telling anyone.”  Nick bellowed, as he blocked Heath’s path.

 “I was a fool to think I could belong here.  The likes of me don’t deserve family.”  Heath said as he pushed past Nick and continued to the door.

At hearing Heath say, “The likes of me,” Eugene felt even guiltier for what he had said to Heath the night before.  He blamed himself for Heath’s sudden decision to leave.  “Heath I am sorry for what I said, I did not mean it.  Please don’t leave.”  Eugene pleaded, but Heath did not stop.

Heath was just about at the door when a voice stopped in his tracks.

“Hey Kid!”  Jo said in the same tone of voice and way Hawkeye use to say it.  “You are not running away from your family.  You are running away from Carterson.”

Heath fell to his knees as if Jo had shot him and he buried his face in his hands.  His shoulders shook as he tried desperately to stop the memories from breaking through the dam.

*****

When Jo’s older brother Steve joined the army at nineteen, he promised his little sister that he would write.  He kept that promise.  In the letters Steve wrote he told her of how the troops called him Hawkeye, because he was the best sharp shooter in his regiment.  He even started to sign his name as Hawkeye.  In the letters he told her of a boy named Heath Thomson, who joined the army claiming to be eighteen, but could not have been more than thirteen.  Steve wrote about how this boy had laughed at the thought of a girl named Jo.  The letters spoke of the friendship that her brother had formed with the boy.  In the letters Hawkeye always referred to the boy as ‘Kid.’

When she first came to the ranch with Eugene and everyone was talking about the brother called Heath she did not connect him to the boy in the letter.  After all they had different last names.  When Heath refused to shake her hand, she thought him to be ill mannered.  When they told her at the dinner table of the

Circumstances of Heath’s birth, she realized that this could be the boy her brother wrote about.   When she heard him yelling out Hawkeye in his sleep, she knew with out a doubt that he was the boy.  When she saw the scars across his back she also knew that he had been in the same prison camp that took her brother’s life.

As she stood watching Heath push past Nick and head to the door, a voice from deep with in her said.  “Help the kid.”  She knew it was her brother’s voice and she called out to Heath.

*****

Nick seeing Heath go down to his knees wanted to go to him, but Victoria placed a restraining hand on his arm.  Somehow she knew that Jo had to be the one to help Heath.

Jo walked to where Heath knelt on the floor.  She took his face in her hand and made him look at her.   “That place killed my brother don’t let it destroy you.  Let me help.  Let your family help.  Stop running.   Don’t hold inside anymore.”  She softly pleaded.

As he looked into her deep green eyes that were so much like his friends, Heath found the courage to face his past.  Heath knelt on the floor of the Barkley mansion with Jo beside him, as the memories burst through the dam.

The day was hot as they worked digging the holes.  They had been working for hours in the hot sun with little water.  The guards stood over them forcing them to dig the graves to bury those who had died in this Hellhole.  The place smelt of death and flies landed on the dead and the living.  Heath could not stop thinking to himself that those who were dead were the lucky ones.

Hawkeye collapsed beside him.  Exhausted from the heat and lack of water.  A guard grabbed Hawkeye to force him to his feet, but Heath stopped him.  “Leave him alone, or I’ll kill you.”  Heath threatened.  The guard just laughed at Heath.

“You are in no position to make threats Boy.”  The guard sneer.  “This prisoner is lazy and will be punished.”

“You can’t expect us to work without water in this heat.  He is just dehydrated.  Please give him some water.  Then he will be able to work better.”  Heath pleaded.

“Oh you both want water do you.  Well let’s see what we can do to grant your request.”  The guard said as he beckoned the other guards over.

The guards grabbed both Heath and Hawkeye and dragged them to a post.  The guards then forced the two boys into sitting position, and they tied the boy’s hands behind their backs, to the posts.  The guards then took turns urinating into a bucket.   After they were done they scooped some of it into a cup.  A guard put the cup to Heath’s lips.  Heath turned his head away.

“Hey boy!  I thought you were thirsty.”  The guard snapped.  “We went to all this trouble to get you a drink.  Now you don’t want it.  I guess we will just have to make you drink it.”

The other two guards grabbed Heath’s head to keep him from turning it away.  The other guard forced open Heath’s mouth, poured the vile liquid into his mouth and forced him to swallow it.  After they were finished with Heath they did the same to Hawkeye.   The guards untied the two boys and dragged them over to the whipping posts.  The boys were tied to the posts, and whipped.

Heath started counting each time the whip dug into the flesh of his back, but he lost count after twenty.  He began to think they would never stop.  Finally they did.  They left him and Hawkeye tied to the posts.  Heath tried to get Hawkeye to answer him, but could not.  He did not know how long he hung there.  He began to believe that he would die there, and he wished he would.

Finally the guards came and cut him down.  They dragged him back to where the graves where being dug and pushed a shovel in his hands.  They forced him to dig a new one.  Then they dragged Hawkeye over and threw him into the grave along with six others.  They then forced Heath to cover the bodies.  When he was done Heath dropped to his knees by the grave he said a few words that he remembered hearing at funerals and he wept.  It began to rain and the guards ran for shelter leaving Heath by the grave.  He was still there when the guards came back and forced him to leave Hawkeye’s side.

A week later the war was over and the prisoners that survived were taken to an army hospital where they could heal. While in the hospital, Heath locked the memories of Carterson and Hawkeye away deep inside him, where they remained until now.

*****

“Please forgive me?”  He asked Jo when he finished his story.

“Forgive you for what.”  She questioned

“If I did not ask for the water they might of left Hawkeye alone.  He might have survived too.”  He explained as his eyes pleaded for her forgiveness.

“You have nothing to be forgiven for.  You asked for water to help your friend, but instead you got punished.  It is those animals that are to be blamed not you.   But if you need to hear me say it so that you can forgive yourself then I forgive you.”  She said.

“Thank you.”  Heath said as he collapsed into her arms and they both cried.  This girl was the dynamite that blew up the dam and set free the memories that could have destroyed him, but she had also thrown him a lifeline and kept him from drowning.

The Barkleys knelt down around he two and hugged them.  Kneeling on the floor in the arms of Hawkeye’s sister and surrounded by his family Heath began to heal.  They all remained that way for a long time.    Finally Nick helped the emotionally spent Heath to his room.  It was not long before Heath fell into a deep sleep.  This time he dream of good times he had with Hawkeye.  Of the first time they met, of Hawkeye teaching him to play poker, giving him his first taste of whiskey, teaching to roll a cigarette, playing practical jokes on the rest of the troops.

When Nick had left the room with Heath the others asked Jo how she knew about Carterson.  She told them about the letters her brother wrote her and how her brother had died in Carterson.  Eugene put his arms around his Fiancée to comfort her as she burst into tears at the retelling.

*****

Latter that night after everyone had gone to bead Victoria could not sleep.  She kept thinking of the scars on Heath’s back and the story he had shared.  Early this morning they had all seen the ugly scars that covered his back, but those scars didn’t compare to the open wounds he still carried on his soul.   “Oh God!”  She cried  “How could you allow him to suffer such a horrible ordeal at such a young age.”  Victoria thought of her other boys and thanked God that they didn’t have to live through what Heath had.

Victoria also thought of Jo and how young she would have been when her family received the devastating news that Hawkeye would not be coming home.  That he had died in a prison camp.  How brave that girl was tonight as she sat there listening to Heath retell the horrors of how her brother had suffered before he died.  Jo had confronted her own pain so she could help Heath.  Victoria would be proud to call this girl daughter.

*****

Eugene and Jo stayed at the ranch for the rest of the week, so the family could get to know Jo better.  Eugene was still feeling guilty for what he had said to Heath and was finding it hard to face Heath.  He began avoiding Heath without realizing that he was doing so.    Whenever the whole family was together Eugene was distant toward Heath and would not look him in the eye.  Heath was hurt by Eugene’s behavior and did his best to stay out of Eugene’s way.

Victoria noticed the distant that was forming between Heath and Eugene.  The night before Jo and Eugene were going to leave; Victoria confronted Eugene in his room while he was packing.

“Eugene you have to talk to him.  You can’t leave it like this.”  Victoria said

Eugene looked down at the suitcase he was packing.  “I don’t know what to say to him.  He hates me and he has every right to.  I just can’t face him.  I don’t know what to say to make this better.  Sorry isn’t enough.” Eugene said

Jo, who was also concerned about the rift that was forming between her fiancée and his brother, decided that she would talk to Eugene.  She was about to knock on the bedroom door when she over heard the conversation between her Finance and his mother.  She burst into the room.

“Eugene I would give my life to be able to talk to my brother again don’t let a few words spoken in anger cause you to lose your brother.”  Jo cried.

“But I hurt him so much.”  Eugene said

 “You are hurting him more by not talking to him.”  Victoria rebuked him

Jo went and hugged her fiancée  “Talk to him before we leave tomorrow.”  She pleaded  “The time we have with those we love is so short and shouldn’t be wasted.”  She then kissed Eugene on the cheek and left the room.

“A good husband Eugene listens to advice of his wife.  I think you should start practicing.”  Victoria said and left the room.

After Jo and Victoria left Eugene’s room.  Eugene thought about what the two women had said.  He knew Jo was right, that he had to talk to Heath before they left tomorrow.  If he didn’t it would be two months before he would have another chance.  He also knew the longer he waited the harder it would be.  He had to make it right before he left.  He threw the shirt that he had been folding onto the bed and went to find his brother.

*****

Eugene found Heath in the billiard room playing pool with Nick and Jarrod.

“There is no way you are going to make that shot Heath.”  Nick laughed.

“Just watch me.” Came Heaths retort.  Heath carefully studied the layout of the balls on the table.  His number seven ball was hidden behind Nick’s number ten ball.  Nick was right this was going to be a difficult shot.

“Will you shoot already.  We don’t have night.”  Nick yelled.

“I’ll shoot when I am ready.”  Heath rebuked.  “If you keep distracting me it will just take longer.”

Finally Heath bent over the pool table with his left arm out in front of him and the cue stick resting between his thumb and index finger.  He pulled back the cue stick with his right arm and made his shot.  “Eight ball in the side pocket he said as he hit the cue ball with his stick.    The cue ball rolled down the table bounced of the end of the table and knocked the number seven ball into the corner pocket.  The number ten was knocked out of the way, and the cue ball continued up the table where it glanced off the eight ball, which caused the eight ball to drop into the side pocked.  Heath stood up, placed the cue stick on the table, crossed his arms and looked at Nick with a smug look on his face.

“Great shot Heath.”  Jarrod said with admiration in his voice.  “Nick I believe you owe Heath twenty dollars.”

“How about double or nothing.”  Nick asked.

“Sure, if you are that willing to lose your money.  I’ll oblige.  Rack them up.”  Heath answered.

“We’ll see who loses their money.”  Nick shot back as he started retrieving the balls from the pockets of the table.

“Before you play another game I would like to talk to you about the other night Heath.”  Eugene said.   At Eugene words every muscle in Heath’s body became tense.  He slowly turned to face Eugene.

Nick seeing the tension in Heath’s body threw a worried look at Jarrod, which said,  “be ready.”  Nick knew how much Eugene’s words he other night had hurt Heath.  He had also noticed the growing tension between his two brothers over the last few days.  Nick was afraid that Eugene had just walked into the hornet’s nest.  Nick believed that Jarrod and himself where going be breaking up a fight.

“There is nothing to talk about Eugene.”  Heath said in a cool tone.

“Heath we can’t leave it like this.  I am sorry for what I said the other night I did not mean it.”  Eugene apologized.   “Look if you want to hit me go ahead.”

Heath’s steel blue eyes stared into Eugene’s dark brown eyes.  He turned back to the pool table and picked up his cue stick.  Then he slowly turned with the stick in his hands to face Eugene.  Both Jarrod and Nick tensed readying themselves to grab Heath.

“I don’t know what you are talking about Eugene.”  Heath turned and held the stick out to Eugene.

 “It’s your break.”  He said as a lopsided grin formed on his face

Realizing his older brother was telling him that all was forgotten and forgiven, Eugene took the pool stick from Heath.  “Okay rack them up.”

Nick and Jarrod both relaxed as they watched their two younger brothers engage in a friendly game of pool of which Heath won.

*****

A few weeks after Jo and Eugene had left, Audra came back from town with a letter for Heath.  She gave the letter to Heath.  When he saw whom it was from his hands started to shake.  He tried to open the letter but could not.  Audra asked if he wanted her to read it for him.  He nodded his head and he handed it back to his blonde sister.  She read him the letter.

Dear Heath:

Our daughter told us of her visit with her fiancée’s family.  She told of meeting you and what had happened.   It has always troubled my wife and I to think of our son dying in that horrible place alone.  It brought us great comfort to hear that he had not been alone, but had a friend at his side.  We are sorry for what you suffered for trying to help him.  It also brought us comfort to know that someone that cared for him was there to say some words over his grave.

I am proud to know that my daughter is marrying the brother of a man like you.  We are looking forward to meeting you at our daughter’s and your brother’s wedding.

Yours truly,

Mr. Lee Johnson

After Audra finished reading the letter she put her arms around Heath.  “Are you okay.”  She asked.

“No, but I will be.”  He answered.

*****

That summer, Eugene and Jo were married.  When their first boy was born they called him Steve Hawkeye Barkley.

***The End***

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