A Wonderful Father (by Mr. Nick B)

Summary:  While watching the episode “Boots with my Father’s Name” one day, a comment Heath made got me to thinking.  Here is the result…
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  3200


Cattlemen’s Hotel, bar. Heath and Victoria are conversing…

“I’d do anything for you. Anything. You know that don’t you? And I meant what I said. Whatever he was to me, to my mother, I know he was a great man to others, to his children, to you.”

“He was a great man, a wonderful father.”

“A wonderful father and husband. I never meant for you to question that.”  Heath paused.  “When I was a boy, Strawberry was a boomtown, busting with life, then the mines slowly gave out. Now it’s all but a ghost town living with memories. When I was a boy it seemed my mother laughed a lot, talked a lot, about him. Talked in a way that made me think my father was the greatest man who ever lived.”

(The above are excerpts of dialogue from “Boots with my Father’s Name”)

*****

She trudged from the hotel feeling very tired. It had been a long day. The hotel was full of wealthy mine owners in town for Founder’s Day that weekend. Martha complained she needed help serving in the dining room because she was again understaffed, so along with Leah’s other duties of cleaning the twenty room hotel, she also had to waitress in the dining hall until well past six and on this very special day.

It was indeed a very special day, and Leah thanked the Good Lord for her dear friend, Rachel Caulfield, who had offered to bake her boy’s birthday cake in Leah’s absence. Rachel and George Caulfield had been her closest friends since Leah and her half-brother, Matt, first settled in Strawberry. The Caulfields were a childless couple who had taken Leah and her little boy, Heath, into their loving hearts.

******

Leah came out west with her brother after her parents died. Matt and Leah shared the same mother but different fathers. When Matt’s father died under mysterious circumstances, his mother married Leah’s father, Caleb Thomson. The young Matthew didn’t have much use for his stepfather and promised himself that one day he would light out on his own to seek his fortune. The opportunity didn’t come to him until both parents died leaving the fourteen-year-old Leah as Matt Simmons’ unwelcome charge. It was then he headed west in search for gold like many others of his day.

Matt Simmons’ plan was to strike it rich in the boomtown known as Strawberry, but soon found it harder work than he cared for. Instead, he met and married Martha Trask, who had enough ambition for the two of them. Martha had foreseen an opportunity to make money from the prospectors, and she had latched on to an old coot of a man who owned the only hotel in Strawberry. Old Buck Trask had been thirty years her senior, but she charmed him into marriage. Buck died five months later, and Martha found herself the sole owner of the very successful Strawberry Hotel. She hired Matt Simmons as a handyman and his sister, Leah, as a hotel maid. It wasn’t long before Martha Trask realized that if she married the handyman, it was one less person she had to pay, so after a suitable mourning period she became Martha Simmons. Life was good for Martha Trask Simmons; she enjoyed success, money and a social standing in the town.

*****

As Leah made her way to the door of her little cabin she was met by her friend, Rachel, who carried a large basket in the crook of her arm. Leah’s light brown eyes sparkled when she heard her name called.

“Leah! Goodness, you’re late. I thought sure you would be home by now and cooking your evening supper,” Rachel remarked as she waited for her friend to open the cabin door.

“With all the mine owners in town, Martha was short handed so I had to waitress in the dining room too,” Leah answered with a tired smile.

“Oh that sister-in-law of yours, she’s a slave driver.”

“Well, one thing is good about working in the hotel kitchen, I brought home our supper; no need to cook tonight.” Leah reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a large napkin. She unveiled the contents to show a large size steak.

“Woo-wee, girl. Don’t tell me that stingy witch let you have that?!”

“It wasn’t cooked well enough to suit one of the customers, so he sent it back. I saw no good reason to throw it away, so I took it. My boy and I will eat fine tonight.” Leah looked around the one room cabin. She lit an oil lamp on the table. “Where is that boy of mine? He should have been home from school by now. It’s almost dark.”

“Maybe he’s playing with his school friends, Leah. By the way, don’t you want to see the cake I made for our boy?” Rachel asked as she placed the large basket on the table.

“Oh, of course, I’m sorry, Rachel. I can’t thank you enough for baking Heath’s birthday cake.”

“Oh, it was a labor of love. You know there isn’t anything I won’t do for that angel boy of ours.” Rachel carefully lifted the cake out of its protective basket. It was frosted with white icing and had red trimmings along the edges. It had ‘Happy Birthday Heath’ written on top.

“Rachel, you are a wonder. It looks like one of those cakes you see in those fancy stores back east.”

“I copied it from a ladies’ magazine. The one in the picture had fancy looking flowers, but I thought our Heath wouldn’t welcome a cake like that so I left a lot of that out.”

“Heath is going to be so pleased. I wish that boy would get home soon.” Leah couldn’t keep the worry out of her voice.

*****

Grubby fists grabbed the curly blond locks and pushed his head into the dirt, but the smaller boy brought his knees up and pushed the bigger child off him. Heath quickly struggled to stand and towered over his assailant. “I’m tellin’ ya for the last time! I do have a Pa! And he’s a great man! My Ma told me, and she never lies! Never!”

“Ahh, you’re Ma’s nothin’ but-” Heath stopped his tormentor with a fist to his jaw.

“Don’t you say it! Iff’n ya wanna live, don’t ya say that word to me! Or I swear I’ll kill ya with my bare hands! You see if I don’t!” Heath threatened.

Small hands grabbed onto Heath’s torn shirt. “Come on, Heath! Let’s go!”

Heath looked into the blue eyes of a girl about his age. She had red curls framing her cherub face. “I’m gonna finish what I started, Libby! Let go of me!”

“No! Come on, Heath! Before he gets his friends! Then you won’t stand a chance with all those bullies!”

Heath looked back on the ground. Jack, the boy he punched, was crawling away from another confrontation. Heath turned to Libby and gave her a proud crooked grin. “Guess I taught him good, huh?”

“Ya sure did, Heath. I’m proud of ya. Come on, yer Ma’s gonna tan yer hide for being late from school.”

Heath wiped the blood from his chin onto his shirt sleeve. “Not today, Libby. Today’s my birthday.”

“Well, if that don’t beat all! Happy birthday, Heath!”

“Can ya come to my birthday party? Aunt Rachel is making me a cake. She thinks I don’t know it, but I do.”

“I wish I could, Heath, but I have my singing lessons. You know I go every Friday. My Pa would whip me iff’n I missed a day of it.”

“I don’t blame him, Libby. Ya got the prettiest voice I ever did hear.”

“Aw, Heath, do you mean that?”

“I swear, Libby, the prettiest voice ever.”

 “Come on, you can walk me as far as the general store.” Libby promised.

*****

Despite having a fight with his school mate Heath Thomson was in a happy mood. It was his seventh birthday and everyone told him seven was a lucky number. “This is the year my wish is gonna come true, I just know it.” Heath said to himself as he passed by Hannah’s freshly washed laundry hanging in front of her little cabin. The child didn’t see the black woman behind the wash line until she poked her smiling face out to greet him.

“Youse got money in the bank, boy? Youse talkin’ ta yaself agin.” Hannah chuckled.

“Yup, I got me four bits in an old tin can I got in my special hiding place.” Heath grinned proudly.

“Well, now, you is a rich boy that’s fo’ sure! Whatcha gonna do with all that money?”

“I’m saving it for Christmas to buy Mama a real store bought present.”

“Would you like to earn some mo’ ?” Hannah asked the child.

“Sure would.” Heath gave her an uneven toothy smile. His new front teeth were just starting to grow in.

“I got me here a copper penny iff’n ya tote that big laundry basket in da house.”

“Aw, Hannah, I do that for ya all the time. Ya don’t need to pay me for it.” Heath obediently brought the laundry basket into the house and set it near Hannah’s chair where he knew she liked to sit and fold.

“Ah, deal’s a deal. I gave ya my word. Iff’n ya can’t be true ta ya word, ya can’t be true ta nothin’. ‘Sides I gotcha somethin’ special fer ya, birthday, boy.” Hannah handed Heath a brown paper sack she had on her bed. Heath opened it and smiled.

“WOW! A new shirt! Thank ya kindly, Hannah!”

“It’s time ya had a new shirt. I had me some nice blue material left over from dat dress I made Missus Wilson. She was good enuf ta say I could have da scraps and it was just enuf ta make ya a shirt, Heath.”

“Boy howdy, wait until Mama sees it. I best be goin’; Mama’s gonna be mad iff’n I don’t get home right quick,” Heath replied.

“Ya mean ya haven’t been home yet, boy? Ya best be goin’ now,” Hannah warned. “Ya Ma’s gonna be worried afta ya!”

“Are ya coming ta my birthday party, Hannah?” Heath said as he opened the cabin door.

“I wouldn’t miss it, son,” she said smiling back at him.

“Hannah, remember ya said seven was a lucky number?”

“Sure do.”

“Good! That means my wish is gonna come true! Bye, Hannah!” Heath rushed out the door letting it slam behind him. Hannah asked what his wish was but he didn’t hear her.

Within minutes Leah was greeting her wayward boy at the door. “Heath Thomson, you should have been here long before this young man! Goodness, look at that dirty face, boy.” She complained as she cupped her chin in his hand.

“Can’t see my face, Mama.” Heath teased happily.

“Never you mind, young man! Go wash off that dirt,” she demanded. “Wait a minute, is this blood I see on your shirt?” Her hand held him by the collar, stopping his retreat.

“Yes, Mama. It ain’t mine though.” Heath smiled proudly.

“And just who’s is it?”

“Jack Sneesby.”

“You been fighting again?”

“I tried not to, but he made me!”

“And how did he do that?”

“He said I don’t have a Pa! I told him I did cuz you said so! But he said I was lying, so I punched him. I have a Pa, don’t I, Mama? Just cuz he don’t live with us don’t mean I don’t have one, huh, Mama?”

“Well, of course you have a Pa. Everyone has a father. And he’s a wonderful father. He just can’t be with us, but that don’t mean he don’t love you. Because a good father loves his children.”

“Does Papa know it’s my birthday today, Mama? Do you think he’ll come? I sure do wish he would come. I’m gonna make it my birthday wish. I know ya not suppose to tell yer birthday wish, but you always say a boy can tell his Mama everything and I can tell you. It can still come true, can’t it? Seven is a lucky number. I’m seven today! Right, Mama?”

“Goodness, Heath, all these questions. I can’t answer them all. Go on now, go wash up. Supper’s waiting, and I got you a fine supper tonight.” Leah turned away as her son scurried off. She wiped a tiny tear drop from the corner of her eye. ‘Yes, your father would love you if he knew about you, Heath. I hope someday you will forgive me for not telling him about you, but I could never risk losing you to a man like your father. A wealthy, powerful man who would take you away from me if he knew you existed. And I could never allow that. As much as I love you son, I could never give you up to your father. Not yet.’

*****

After a satisfying supper, Heath celebrated his seventh birthday with his little family, his mother, Hannah James and Rachel Caulfield.

“I know you all wanted to wait for George, but he’s working the late shift at the mine and won’t be coming. I think we should let our boy blow out his candles and open his birthday gifts,” Rachel said with authority.

“Good idea, Aunt Rachel, cuz this year my wish is gonna come true. I just know it is!”

“Now, Heath, dear,” Leah warned.

“Well, go on then, make your wish, son. I bet it’ll come true too!” Rachel smiled. She didn’t see the warning look her friend, Leah, gave her.

The young boy took in a deep breath, filling his lungs with as much air as they could hold. He was determined to blow out the birthday candles and prove his luck true this year. This year, Heath’s father would come home. I’ll show that ole Jack Sneesby,’ Heath thought to himself. ‘I’ll make him eat those words he said to me! Today is my lucky seventh birthday, and it’s gonna come true!’

Heath shut determined blue eyes and blew air over the candles as hard as he could. When all the candles went out, the little family cheered the smiling Heath. Someone rapped on the door of the small cabin, and Heath stared at it expectantly then jumped up from his seat.

“I knew it! I knew it!! My wish came true!” Heath scrambled to the front door and threw it opened. “Papa!”

The man behind the door knelt down on one knee and hugged the child. “I wish I was your Papa, son. I really wish I was.”

Heath wrapped his small arms around his Uncle George and sniffed back disappointed tears.

Leah’s quick swipe of her own tears did not go unnoticed by Rachel who quickly gave Leah a reassuring hug and mouthed words of “I’m sorry.”

*****

That evening Leah sat by Heath’s bed, as she did every night, and listened to her little boy’s prayers.

“God bless Mama, Aunt Rachel, Uncle George, Hannah-,” Heath paused after Hannah’s name and squinted up at his mother from behind his clasped hands.  She gave him a mother’s look and Heath mumbled disgustedly, “and Uncle Matt and Aunt Martha too! Amen.”

Heath scrambled under the covers, but just as quickly pushed himself out from under them and knelt at his bedside again. “And God bless Papa where ever he is, and let him know that it’s all right that he didn’t come see me on my birthday. I know he’s busy and all, cuz Mama says so. Amen.”

The boy snuggled under the covers again, and Leah leaned down to give him a kiss.

“Good night, sweet boy.”

“Mama?”

“Yes, son?”

“Tell me again about Papa.”

“Sweetheart, I tell you so often you must know it by heart by now.”

“I still like the way you tell it, Mama.” Leah gave him a resigned smile, and Heath stretched out on his bed expectantly.

“Your papa is a very great man who has many friends and business associates. So that takes him away from us all the time. Why, he knows Senators and Presidents and Kings. It’s very important that he sees and speaks to them all. His work takes him away from us and he travels all over the world.”

“I’m gonna travel all over the world too someday, just like Papa. Maybe I’ll meet up with some King that knows Papa. Wouldn’t that be somethin’?”

“It sure would, Sweet Boy. Now you best get to sleep, it being Saturday tomorrow you’ll have plenty of chores to do at the hotel. There’s lots of rich mine owners staying at the hotel. They may offer a generous tip to you if you work extra hard.”

“I like it when the big business men come to town. Sometimes I pretend one of them is Papa, and I’m helping him with his important work. Mama, do you think someday Papa’s business will bring him back to Strawberry?”

“I don’t know, baby.”

“Tell me again what Papa looks like.”

“He’s about six feet tall, and he has blond hair like yours. Of course he keeps it combed, not like you.” Leah laughingly teased him with a tickle under his chin.

“What else, Mama? Tell me more about him.”

“He has smile that can light up a room, and his laugh is deep and rich. People can’t help smiling when they see him. He is the handsomest man I ever did see and strong. Oh my, he’s the strongest man. I always loved to watch him chop wood for my fire. He’s not afraid of hard work, and he would be very proud of you because you’re just like him, Heath. You really are.”

“Do I look like him?”

“Yes, son. Yes you do. You have his eyes, as blue as the Good Lord’s sky above. Now, you best close those eyes, young man. It’s been a long day for you. I hope you weren’t too disappointed that your wish didn’t come true.”

“It came close to coming true.”

“How so?”

“I got you to talk about Papa. I love when you talk about him, cuz you always smile a lot.  I like it when you smile, Mama.”

“You make me smile, son.” She leaned down and kissed his forehead.

“Is it because I remind you of Papa?”

“Yes, son. Everyday you remind me of your Papa, and that makes me smile because I love you and he is a wonderful father.”

“Why do you always say he’s a wonderful  father when he’s never here for us, Mama?”

“He’s a wonderful father because he gave me a most wonderful son.”

***The End***

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