Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 8500
Heath shivered and groped for the quilt that had been discarded at the end of his bed the night before. Tugging on the homemade patchwork, presented to him as a gift for his birthday last month by his youngest sister Audra, Heath sighed, pulling the coverlet over his bare shoulder, snuggling into its warmth, contented for a little bit longer.
It was the end of September and the Valley had experienced a rather humid, hot month with scattered rains that seemed to just make things sticky and uncomfortable. Heath had gone to bed early the night before, as was his custom, wearing his favored muslin sleep pants, sans shirt, after a grueling day of riding and repairing endless stretches of fence, not to mention gentling two new prime pieces of horseflesh bought by Nick and himself the day previous at auction in Pinewood. Now, this morning, a damp chill was in the air, a direct opposite from the stifling heat of the day before.
Despite the fact that Heath was now swaddled in comfort and warmth, and besides the point that it was Sunday, so the family would not be expected at the breakfast table at the customary time of 5:00, the blond cowboy could not bring himself to indulge in extra shut-eye. Oh, he tried, but in the end, he could not fight his body’s urge to get a move on. Resigned, Heath pulled himself into a sitting position, with his bare feet resting on the cold, wood floor beneath him. Not wanting to give up the warmth that the quilt gave, Heath pulled the comforter snug around his shoulders and waist. Standing and holding the cherished quilt, he walked to his bedroom window and looked upon the yard and corral below.
The sun had just presented itself, or had made an attempt to do so but was still struggling to emerge through a thick layer of gloom that seemed to envelope every visible thing. Known to locals as tule fog, this weather phenomenon created by unstable weather patterns that developed in the marshy delta and river areas of the Central Valley, it often formed on the first or second clear night after a rain, where skies had cleared, and winds were light. When this “fog” that started from the ground up, rolled in, a man couldn’t see his hand inches in front of his face. During a fog spell, there always seemed to be a report or two of some unwary traveler on horse or even stage, who had not seen a bend in the road due to the thick haze, and who had met their demise at the bottom of some steep ravine. These poor unfortunates were often not discovered until the fog deemed to lift, sometimes two or more days later. Of course, by that time, it was usually too late for them.
Heath sighed. He recalled the passing rainstorm of two days ago and then the stifling humidity that had been here yesterday. Just as well, he thought gazing out his window onto the soupy scene below. At least it’s Sunday, and the men wouldn’t have to work in the miasma. Heath stood and continued to consider the yard. Suddenly he caught sight of a horse and rider coming near the stable barn. Squinting, he peered sharply, trying to identify the shadowy figure on the horse below him. Abruptly his face broke out in a momentary smile, and he relaxed. It was only Audra on Lady. His brow quickly wrinkled again, questioningly. “Wonder what little sister’s doing up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday and in this weather?”
Hoping to catch Audra coming in from her early morning ride, Heath abandoned his quilt and hurried into his pants and a fresh shirt. He donned a pair of heavy socks and pulled on his tan boots. He quickly scuttled down the grand staircase, all the while, buttoning the cuffs of his shirt. Audra opened the heavy oak door just as Heath’s boot touched the foyer floor. Audra seemed startled to see her blond brother. She quickly ducked her head, seemingly embarrassed. Heath, in an instant, knew that something was amiss with his little sister. He came to her and rested his hands gently but firmly on her shoulders.
“Audra? What’s wrong?” Heath’s voice was awash with concern.
“N…nothing. I just, just had an early morning errand to run,” Audra answered, averting her gaze away from her brother’s.
“In this weather?” Heath asked, incredulous. “You know how dangerous it is out there when the fog rolls in and half dark outside at that. Couldn’t your errand have waited?”
With her head still bowed, Audra did not reply.
“Audra?” Heath lifted her chin to face him with his index finger. He knew at once, seeing her red, puffy eyes that Audra had been crying. “Audra, what’s wrong?”
“I told you, it’s nothing.”
“Sis, you’ve been crying.”
“It’s, it’s……nothing, really.” Audra took a deep breath and smiled charmingly at her brother, hoping he would be reassured. With a new strong voice, she proclaimed, “Honest. I’m just fine. Thank you for watching out for me big brother. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I, uh, I’d better start getting ready for church. Will you be coming with us this morning?” she asked hopefully.
Heath stepped back slightly, always a little uncomfortable with this question, which seemed to pop up now and again from different members of his new family. He knew they all would like for him to accompany them to Sunday services, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do so. Not yet anyway. Too many bad memories of organized worship for a boy who had been hailed as Satan’s spawn by good people who worshipped in stained glass buildings on Sunday, but who would just as soon spit on his sinful birth than look at him the other six days of the week. He preferred to worship his Creator amidst His creation, in the great outdoors. “No, I, uh, I don’t believe so. Got some work to do in the tack room. I’ll join you for breakfast though.” Heath reached out playfully and tapped the end of his sister’s nose, a move designed to diffuse the disappointment he knew she would feel in his declining her invitation.
“Well, all right.” Audra said, deflated but immediately became cheerful again. “Breakfast is at 8:00. Don’t you be late.” She quickly gave Heath a peck on the cheek and turned to go upstairs. Heath watched and listened after her until he could hear her bedroom door close. He still wondered what she had been up to so early in the morning and on an errand that couldn’t wait until this blinding fog lifted.
Satisfied that his sister was safely in her room, Heath walked across the foyer into the sitting room. He rubbed his cold hands together briskly in an attempt to warm them. The large marble fireplace sat empty and dark. With the heat of the past summer and now early fall, there had been no need to have a fire going. Now, suddenly, the whole house seemed damp and cold. Heath peered over at the decorative brass box along the hearth that held fire logs and kindling. The rancher frowned slightly when he saw that the box was empty. “Suppose there’s no cause to have wood in the room with the heat we’ve been having,” he reasoned. “Guess I’ll warm up by chopping some wood.” Walking with purpose out of the room he approached the grand staircase, and taking the steps two at a time, he quickly entered his room. Reaching into his wardrobe, he pulled out his sage green shearling jacket lined with lamb’s wool that extended to a trim around the neck.
Back downstairs, Heath looked out the long picture windows that framed the formal sitting room. The fog looked like it wasn’t going away any time soon. The blond cowboy moved toward the large front door of the mansion, but then something made him stop. Turning heel, he proceeded out by way of the verandah, where, to exit, he would have to walk through Victoria’s meticulously kept flower garden. Heath didn’t know what made him choose this course to the woodshed, for it was not the most direct way to approach this particular building. Somehow, though, his feet simply lead him by way of the garden path, and once he stepped outside and his nostrils took in the fragrance of the various perennials and annuals, he was pleased with his decision to detour through the garden to get to the work at hand.
With coat on and buttoned, Heath stood a moment in the paradisiacal sanctuary Victoria tended so lovingly, she, enjoying many hours here. Savoring the subtle perfume of the numerous flowering buds, he was lead to a wrought iron bench that graced the tranquil haven. He was about to sit a short spell when his eye caught a pair of leather gardening gloves on the bench and a pair of snipping shears lying there with them. Heath creased his brow, puzzled. Mother would never leave a pair of her best work gloves out to be played roughly with by the weather. Nor would she be careless about leaving her gardening implements out in the elements to be rusted by the valley’s dewy mornings or its unpredictable ground fog. Looking with a sharp eye, Heath carefully surveyed the garden. At first, it looked undisturbed and completely unmolested. Upon closer look, however, Heath noticed the area where Mother’s calla lilies thrived. It appeared that a dozen or so of the flowers had been snipped deep from their stems. “I don’t remember seeing a bouquet of these in the house,” he pondered. Heath scanned the verandah once more until he lit on yet another disturbance amidst the blooms. The daisies, nestled in clumps in a prominent spot of the garden, had also bore evidence of being recently “tended” to. Why, daisy petals seemed to be scattered in almost a path about two feet long in the direction of the horse barn. “Wonder who the flowers were for?” Heath asked himself as he rubbed his hands together once more, feeling a bit chilled even in his heavy coat.
With the soul aim of getting warm, Heath quickly picked up the gloves and the shears left on the garden bench. Putting them into his pocket, he hurried away from the verandah and went around the house toward the barn and his original destination. He stopped by the tack room first and put the items from his pocket in their proper places and then went on to the woodshed where large logs lay stacked just waiting to be split into smaller more manageable sized mini-logs.
The hard work of chopping wood had done the trick for Heath. After only a few swings of the small axe he used to break up the wood, he had warmed up enough to shed his sage-colored coat. After about a half hour, the cowboy’s face fairly shone with perspiration, and the job was finished. Stacking the wood neatly, Heath took a piece of sturdy rope and secured it all together so he could carry it under his arm with ease into the house.
Heath was halfway across the yard when he heard hooves beating against the hard-packed earth, coming in closer. He shifted his load and raised a hand to shade his eyes against the swirling fog. He soon recognized horse and rider. “Wonder what Jarrod’s doing up this early? Big brother usually enjoys his Sunday morning sleep-in time.” Heath shrugged as he turned to go to the house. He was starting to get cold again. He needed to get that fire going. Thinking on seeing his eldest brother, he mused as he opened the front door. Must have been some important client to get the Counselor up so early on a Sunday morn.
The fire was just beginning to roar when Jarrod walked into the house and placed his hat on the little table by the stairway. Heath heard the door shut and rose up off his haunches to greet his oldest sibling. “Mornin’ Jarrod.”
“Good morning Heath. Ah! A fire. A warming sight, indeed.”
“Saw ya ride up.”
Heath knew better than to pry into his brother’s business, especially when it might include the confidence of a client, so he was vague in his questionings. “You’re up pretty early this mornin’, Counselor. Important client?”
“Well, er, not a client, exactly.”
Heath raised a curious eyebrow. “Oh? Anyone I know?”
Jarrod shifted and turned away from his brother, feigning extra interest in the fire that Heath had built. “No, Heath. No one you would know.” Turning suddenly, with an enthusiastic boom to his voice reminiscent of brother Nick, Jarrod smiled brightly and declared that he was ready for a good strong, hot cup of coffee. He invited Heath to join him and didn’t wait for Heath to continue their prior conversation. Heath knew that besides Silas, they would be the only ones in the dining room as it was still quite early in the day and the ladies would be upstairs for at least another hour getting into their Sunday finest. Heath knew the conversation of Jarrod’s whereabouts was over. Jarrod was a lot like himself in some ways. He was a private man, and what he did on his own time was nobody’s business but his own. Heath would respect his brother in wanting to keep his private matters to himself. Taking his first cup of Silas’ excellent coffee, Heath joined Jarrod for a little quiet solitude in the mansion’s drawing room before the rest of the family made an appearance.
The two brothers sat together amicably, yet saying little, each with his own hot beverage, each with his own thoughts. Heath, naturally a man of few words, pondered how this particular morning had raised up to greet him. Jarrod was just as closed with his lips and also reviewed in his mind how the morning had treated him thus far. Two men lost in their own thoughts and yet both felt companionship, one from the other. They enjoyed each other’s presence.
Heath was rather surprised when his normally boisterous middle brother entered the drawing room and sat down with a sigh. Not a word from Nick. Just his head bowed and very, very silent. How unlike him, Heath observed. After a few long minutes, Heath could no longer endure the silence so uncharacteristic of his brother. After studying his sibling briefly, Heath attempted to launch into some friendly banter. “What’s the matter, Nick? Cat got your tongue?”
Nick blinked and looked up, hearing his name. “Huh? What d’you say?”
“I said, ‘Good morning, brother.’ Heath tried to read the dark cloud of Nick’s face. He continued to try to communicate with his strangely incommunicable sibling. “Seems to me that I’m usually the one YOU’RE trying to shake a sentence out of. I’m not used to playing the part of lead conversation maker. Something wrong, Nick?”
Nick didn’t answer at first. It was as though he was formulating just the right reply to his youngest brother. Finally he answered. “Nothing, I guess. This fog sure isn’t gonna help to get work done today.”
“Nick,” Heath said in his own quiet way. “It’s Sunday. The men are off today. The fog should lift by tomorrow. We’ll tackle the ranch then. I’m gonna do some work in the tack room. When you get back from church, why don’t you just relax?”
Nick looked up sharply. “You’re not going with us?” he said in a low growl.
When Nick looked up, Heath could plainly see that his brother had not slept well the night before. And despite the fact that Nick’s comment about Heath’s spirituality, or lack of it, had hit a nerve, Heath quickly bit back the caustic rebuttal on his tongue and simply replied, “Not today.”
Nick grunted in acknowledgement and slumped back in his chair, rolling his hand across his eyes.
Heath thought he detected a knowing look pass between Nick and Jarrod, but he could not be sure. Still, he felt, somehow, some way, that he was being left out of something important. The fact was, this particular Sunday had manifested itself in a most mysterious way, and as it progressed it was leaving Heath more and more out of sorts, and he didn’t know why.
The blond rancher was so into his own thoughts that he didn’t hear Silas quietly come into the drawing room to announce breakfast. Startled, Heath looked up at the kindly black servant.
“Mr. Heath, I made your favorite grits. Ya’ll get to the table now, before theys gets cold.”
“Thank you, Silas,” Heath replied softly.
Jarrod took notice that Heath was again mentally with them. “Glad to see you amongst us again, brother Heath.”
“I…I guess my mind was somewhere else,” Heath acknowledged, though he did not apologize for his thoughts wandering.
Nick was the first to stand up with the proclamation that he was hungry enough to eat a grizzly bear.
Both Heath and Jarrod chuckled as they followed their brother into the dining room.
“And he could do it too,” Jarrod remarked with a new round of laughter.
Heath agreed, laughing quietly as they entered the breakfast area.
Victoria and Audra were already seated when the three men came to the table. When Heath saw the woman whom he now called “mother” sitting at her normal place at the table, his heart flinched. Victoria, though dressed smartly in a gown suitable for church, looked tired and drawn. Like Nick, she looked as though she hadn’t slept a wink the night before.
Audra was dressed impeccably, however Heath could still see the remnant of tears from the early morning. His sister’s bright cheerfulness could not conceal the red puffiness of her beautiful blue eyes. For the nth time that morning, Heath wondered what was really going on.
While Heath Barkley was a man comfortable with quiet, he felt strangely uncomfortable at this moment. Here his normally loquacious family, all of whom were gathered around the table and, barely speaking. The somber mood of his family made Heath feel downright prickly inside. Clearing his throat to break the silence, Heath did his best attempt to start some conversation. “I see you ladies are ready for church, looking lovely as always.”
Audra dimpled shyly. “Why, thank you, big brother.”
“I meant it, sis. Mother? Do you want me to hitch up the surrey for you? You’d be best to have a little shelter over your heads in this muck.”
“Thank you, Heath,” Victoria answered quietly. “However, I do have some business to attend to after church. If you would be so good as to hook up Misty Girl to the surrey, I’d appreciate it.”
“Consider it done, m’lady.” Heath bowed his head reverently toward his mother.
“Business?” Audra inquired with an edge of anxiousness in her voice. “I’d be happy to ride with you, mother, if you’d like some company.”
“No. No, dear. That won’t be necessary. This is something I must do by myself.”
“I’ll leave ol’ Coco home and drive the surrey for you,” Nick volunteered. “This weather’s no good for the old boy, anyhow.”
“Thank you, Nick,” replied Victoria. “That is very kind.” She continued, “Then you and Audra can come home together. I was nervous about Audra maneuvering a team in this fog.”
“I could have handled it, Mother.”
“I know you could have, dear, but all the same, I’m pleased that you’ll be with Nick.”
“Uh, I’ll get to that surrey,” Heath said as he rose from the table and excused himself.
“I think I’ll give Jingo a rest today too. Mind if I ride with the family today?” Jarrod asked.
“I would be pleased to have all of you ride with me,” Victoria answered, but her reply was followed by a shadow that swept across her face. “I just wish…”
“Wish what, Mother?” Jarrod asked.
“Oh, nothing, I guess,” Victoria responded. “I just wish that Heath would reconsider and come to church with us, so we could all be together as a family.” Victoria put soft emphasis on the word ‘all’.
“Well, who knows? Maybe someday he’ll surprise us,” Jarrod replied. “Heath really is quite a spiritual man in his own way, but sadly people in his lifetime haven’t given “church” a good name. Heath told me once that ‘it’s one thing to be religiously minded and quite another to be spiritually motivated.’ And then he reminded me that you don’t have to have four walls and a man with a turned around collar and a choir to worship the Creator.”
Victoria had to smile. That sounded exactly like something Heath would say.
“Mother, are you sure you want to be out riding alone in the fog?” Nick broke in, trying to steer his mother’s thoughts into a more practical direction.
“Nick,” Victoria interrupted in a voice that all present could only discern as weary. “I’ve lived here a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of this type of fog. I am confident that I can take care of myself.” In a softer, more motherly voice, she added, “You children just take the surrey home after church, and I’ll be back after I’ve concluded my business.”
Nick was about to object, but Victoria flashed him her ‘I said’ look, which indicated to all present that this conversation was over.
“I better find a tie for this,” Nick said as he picked at the collar of his starched white shirt. He turned to his eldest brother. “I do believe you were wearing the black one that goes with this jacket last week for your outing with Miss Olivia, Jarrod?”
“Ah, yes. You are correct, brother. I believe it accidentally ended up in the top drawer of my bureau.”
“Accidentally,” Nick snorted with a tinge of anger. “Every time I lend you something of mine, it ends up yours forever.”
“Well, why do you indulge me then, brother Nick, if it displeases you so?”
“Boys! Boys!” Victoria was not in the mood to hear her grown sons bicker.
“Well, because…..because…..well.” Nick sighed in resignation. “I’m sorry, Jarrod. I didn’t mean to bite your head off. I just didn’t sleep well last night and, well, I didn’t mean to bark at you.”
Victoria looked at the faces of her children seated around her. “I think we’re all tired. It’s a tough day, I know, for all of us.” Drawing a shaky breath and bowing her head, she said almost to herself, “I wonder if he knows?”
The fog was still swirling when the surrey carrying the four Barkleys departed through the massive iron gates of the mansion’s entrance. Heath watched as the carriage disappeared quickly into the fog. He rubbed his hands together briskly to try to warm them. He buttoned his coat up to his neck and pulled the collar up and around his ears. Reaching into the coat’s side pockets, he hoped to find a pair of gloves, but was disappointed when his hands came back out empty. Must have left them inside the house, he reasoned to himself. Heath sighed, resigned to the fact that he would need to detour to the house first to fetch his gloves before getting onto the work at hand in the tack room. Heath headed toward the house and on the way, thought of another piece of warming cloth that was hanging in his wardrobe, Sally’s muffler. Today sure was a good day for that.
Heath smiled when he thought of Sally, a reformed ‘scarlet woman’ learning the ways of a domesticated young miss. Heath’s smile turned to a frown when he thought of the circumstances of how he had met Sally. Sally had been run out of a small “decent” town for touting her wares, so to speak. The stage Heath had been traveling on with Mother and Audra had stopped for Sally, whose fare was paid for in full, by the good women of the town she’d just been tossed out of. Sally sobbed out some of her story on the stage. She truly wanted to change her life. She was hoping this stage would be taking her to a fresh new life.
It was at a stopover in a little town called St. John where the trouble began. Heath met up with an old friend there who was now the town’s marshal. Funny what a little power can do to a man. Heath shook his head sadly as he headed for the house, going once more by way of Victoria’s garden. Tom Wills had changed, and changed a lot since Heath had seen him last. When Heath and Tom became reacquainted, and Tom had told him about cleaning up St. John, at first, Heath was proud of his friend. Heath didn’t think Tom had it in him to settle down. Yet, here he was, marshal of a whole town. Soon enough though, Heath learned that Wills ran his town with an iron fist and a deadly double draw.
Standing in the garden once more, Heath recalled the events that had happened in St. John and how in the end, it had come to a draw, his gun and Tom Wills’. So many times before when Heath and Tom had been partners, it was play for them to mock draw on each other. It always appeared that Tom was just a sliver quicker on the trigger than his young friend, as his gun would expel its shots at Heath’s feet. This time though, the men facing each other were not play-acting. This time the action was real. This time, someone would end up dead. Heath grimaced slightly, recollecting what had happened next. He had tried to warn Tom that all those times they had drawn on each other in fun, that Heath had let Tom win. “I let you win.” Heath let his mind recount his words to the marshal. “And now you’re dead,” he breathed in an undertone and let himself be seated on a garden bench. “What a shame. Ah, but Sally.” Heath brightened when he thought of the pretty girl who was able to truly make a new life for herself after the incident in St. John. “She’ll do just fine.” Heath smiled as he looked onto the garden.
For the second time that day, the beauty of his mother’s cherished sanctuary made Heath sit and linger. The puffs of fog mist swirling about made the verandah look truly beautiful in an eerie sort of way.
As a child, Heath hadn’t seen a lot of the beauty of God’s creation, indeed, nor did he have time for such, as he was mostly too busy trying to help his mother scrape out an existence in the dirty mining camp of Strawberry. He began working in the mines, beginning at the tender age of seven years old. Instead of enjoying the subtle shades and vibrant hues of God’s glorious palate, Young Heath toiled endlessly in dark caves of mud brown and hard rock gray.
Even as a grown man, Heath scarcely had time to drink in the beauty of the golden hills and green meadows with their abundance of colorful blooms. Life as a tumbleweed rarely afforded him the luxury of soaking in the magnificence of God’s green earth. Though Heath worked mostly out of doors, bosses would consider it burning daylight and derelict to his duties if he were to linger over the beauty of his surroundings. An honest day’s work for a pinch of meat and maybe a soft bed once in a blue moon. Enjoying nature was an extravagance he could ill afford.
Things were different now. Heath had stability. He had a family who loved him and whom he loved with his whole heart and soul. With the certainness of belonging somewhere, Heath felt he could finally take time to smell the roses, so to speak, and to drink in God’s beautiful things like a thirsty man would clean sweet water.
Heath gazed at his Mother’s prized roses. A special place had been reserved for several varieties. Red ones, pink ones, white ones, yellow. Heath peered sharply where teems of yellow buds, just beginning to open, had been firmly planted just that morning. Now the glorious, fragrant flowers were all but gone. They had been snipped clear to their plant’s base.
Heath remained in the garden, mystified as to what might have happened to his mother’s flowers. With brow wrinkled in concentration, his elbow rested on his leg, fingers gripped around his chin in deep thought. Today was Sunday, September 29th. A special day, apparently, but why couldn’t he remember? It wasn’t anyone’s birthday that he knew of. Certainly, it wasn’t his, for he had celebrated his birth in grand Barkley style just last month. Heath chuckled to himself. “Boy howdy, this family knew how to give a real la-de-da shindig, that’s for sure.” Mother’s? Audra’s? No, that wasn’t the case; for Heath had marked carefully in a small journal he kept in his nightstand important dates, such as births and special events, sot that he could prepare carefully for each occasion.
What was it then? Why did the family seem so solemn? Solemn. With that word in his mind, Heath recalled a memory that unexpectedly gripped his heart. Suddenly he felt as though he had been stabbed all over. His mind reeled back in time to that day. The day that he had been riding through a forested wood and had come upon a lone grave.
Heath shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. He bowed his head. The blond rancher was feeling cold and it wasn’t simply from the inclement weather. Heath truly felt chilled inside, clear to his bones. Why, he wondered, did he feel this way about the man who was his father? He’d never felt anything but contempt for him before. A man who had waltzed into his mama’s life, oozed his charm, planted his seed and then waltzed right back out like a finished dance. Only after the deed had been done did this man mention that he had a wife and two little children at home. Heath shook his head. His mama was a good woman. She had done nothing bad but to help make that man well after he had almost been beaten to death behind the Strawberry Hotel. And yet there he was, handsome and persuasive. Oh, how he was persuasive. As his mama had tended to this stranger’s wounds, how did he repay her? By chipping away at her heart and molding it until it was putty in his hands, until there was no turning back. Only after her secret began to show did she know with a sad certainty that Tom Barkley, the father of her unborn child, was never coming back to her.
Oh, the vile feelings the product of that illicit union had felt about his father, a man he never knew. Anger, contempt, and yes, even hate. Heath recalled how he had shown that scorn vehemently when he had found out whose son he really was last year. He had been so angry when he first saw the inside of the Barkley mansion and saw that man’s portrait hanging above the mantle. “The old stud, himself. You know, I bet he was buried in those clothes.” Heath now bit back his hateful words to a family innocent of his existence. He realized now that he wasn’t being fair to any of them at the time, and even thought, in hindsight, that if he had been Nick, he would have tried to throw him out too.
So, why was he suddenly feeling something for a man who had wanted nothing to do with him? A man who had let a young boy grow up in a rough and poor mining camp? Heath answered his own question with his next train of thought. Because he didn’t know about me, that’s why. Victoria, er, Mother had learned that little bit of vital information when she had up and rode to Strawberry to find out more about me, an orphan, a reminder of her own husband’s infidelity. It was an important time in Heath’s life, though he was stoic about it when Mother read the letter she had been given by Hannah, that Tom Barkley, had written to Leah, his mama, all those years ago. ‘You must marry. You must have children. You were meant for that.’
“He didn’t know.” That’s all Heath would say on the subject, but the message that letter had brought that day changed some of Heath’s deep down feelings about his missing father. Still, there was a measure of resentment living in Heath’s soul, and he was rather surprised by how sad he felt presently, now fully realizing exactly what day it was. It was an important day for his family. The day they had buried a great man and hundreds of people came to pay their respects. Heath pondered his feelings. His family, could that be it? Could he be feeling sad because his family was mourning and he hated for anything to make them unhappy? Heath loved his new family so deeply and now realized that it was necessary for them to grieve and remember him, her husband and their loving father, on this day. The tenderhearted cowboy simply wanted to draw each and every one of his new family into his embrace and share their sorrow. Maybe he didn’t grieve for Tom Barkley, but he surely grieved for his family.
Heath knew now why his sister had risked the fog to go on her early morning ride. The calla lilies were surely her offering for the day. He knew, too, that Jarrod hadn’t been with a client, but rather had been at the gravesite of their father. Heath also knew that although Jarrod didn’t fancy most buds and blooms, daisies were his flower of choice. Heath knew where the clump of missing daisies from the garden now rested. And the yellow roses? Of course. Mother would certainly be spending some time with her deceased husband and would be sure that her best roses were well arranged at his resting place, a token of her love.
Heath continued to contemplate his feelings toward his new family versus the feelings he had for Tom Barkley as he held him in his present memory. He thought on these feelings as he completed his work in the tack room. So involved he was with the work at hand, that he didn’t hear the surrey arrive in the yard and didn’t hear his siblings approach the barn. He was startled to hear the boom of Nick’s voice.
“I thought I’d find you out here, boy. You sure have this place lookin’ tidy, and that’s a fact.”
“Thank you, big brother. I’ll take that as a compliment.” Heath reached for a clean rag on a shelf and proceeded to wipe the perspiration from his brow and then finished off by rubbing it over his hands. “Did ya have any trouble with the team in this fog?”
Heath addressed Nick, but Audra answered. “It’s so thick, you just can’t see a thing but Nick, here, did a wonderful job of getting us to church and back in one piece.”
“Well, what do you expect? We were doin’ the Lord’s work. Ya don’t think anything could have happened to us, do you?” Turning to Heath, Nick smirked good-naturedly. “Besides, I happen to be an excellent driver.”
“You are?” Heath looked at Nick in mock astonishment. “If you’re so handy with the reins, how come I’m the one who does most of the driving around here?”
“I said I’m a good driver, little brother, but it’s you that sweet-talks those horses the best. Why, you’re just plain entertainment when you get the horsy dialogue goin’. Naaaaaay.”
Heath laughed at Nick’s ribbing and when Nick, per chance, turned to look at something on a nearby shelf, Heath took the opportunity to snap the rag he held, stinging Nick clean on the right thigh.
“Ouch! Why you!”
Audra joined in the laughter of Heath’s zipping Nick. “Maybe Heath will teach you some horse grammar, Nick.”
“Yeah, I bet he will.” Nick sounded gruff, but there was a twinkle of laughter in his expressive hazel eyes. “Let’s get in the house. It’s daggone cold out here.”
“I’m with you there, brother,” agreed Heath.
The three siblings headed companionably towards the house, the thick mist wafting around them.
The afternoon proceeded at a leisurely pace. The family, minus Victoria who had not returned from her errand, found themselves gathered together in the library. While Audra concentrated on her needlework, Jarrod went over some documents he had brought home for a land deal he was conducting with Emmett Johnson. He would be meeting with Emmett tomorrow to wrap up business. The checkerboard had been brought out where Heath and Nick now competed hotly for the title of Checker Champion.
“Make your move, brother,” Nick grinned like a cat who was about to eat the canary.
“I am. I am. Don’t rush me,” Heath protested. He knew he was about to be double jumped and wasn’t in a hurry to hear his brother’s gloating. Finally, unable to delay the inevitable any longer, Heath reluctantly moved his red piece to single jump Nick’s black one.
“Ah ha!” Nick gleefully took his checker and resoundingly jumped two of Heath’s red pieces. “I got ‘em now, Jarrod.” Nick turned to Jarrod, who was sitting at his desk with his brow furrowed in scrutiny over the Johnson deal.
“Huh? Got what? Got who?” Jarrod unenthusiastically looked up from his documents, knowing that Nick wouldn’t give him any peace until he did.
“Looky here, Jarrod. You are seeing a champion in action. Ha, a double jump. Just like taking candy from a baby.”
Nick was so busy rubbing his ego that he didn’t suddenly see his younger brother’s eyes light up.
“Uh, Nick?” Heath quietly beckoned.
“Yeah, boy? Do you just want to concede to defeat now and declare me the winner? Is that it?”
“Um, not exactly.”
“Well, what then?” Nick took a sharp look at the checkerboard and his Cheshire cat grin suddenly melted from his face.
Now it was Heath’s turn to grin, and grin he did. “I believe it’s my move now, so if you’ll pardon me, I’ll just get to the business at hand.” Shooing his brother’s countenance away from the board with his hand, Heath proceeded to take his checker and in triumph make his move, and after completion, he swept three black checkers from the board. Then in a quiet manner, almost humble, but with a gleam of satisfaction, he directed his opponent to “king me.”
“Aw, now wait a minute! How could you? I mean, how did you? What I mean is…” Nick huffed and puffed and didn’t get anywhere. He knew he’d been licked.
Heath, never afraid of Nick’s bluster was, on the other hand, quite amused. He felt just in the right mood to take his position a step further. “Ya see, the trouble with you, Nick, is that you’ve got to have strategy. You can’t just jump into the game like a bull in a china closet.”
“Strategy? All you need for checkers is luck, and don’t forget it.”
“Nope, I ain’t buyin’ it, brother. Checkers is like chess without all the royalty. You need to play strategically and make those little discs work FOR you.”
“I still say it’s luck, and you just got lucky. Come on, boy, we’ve got a game to finish here. Let’s see how your strategy keeps you from losing your shirt now.”
“I’m ready for ya, oh black knight. I believe it’s two pieces you have there to do battle with my five, two of which are now blue bloods, so to speak.”
“I’ll show you blue blood,” Nick grumbled, as he considered his next move.
Victoria quietly let herself in the front door. She didn’t immediately see her any of her children but soon enough, she heard the distinctive bawl of her middle son.
“You CHEAT, that’s what! Jarrod, you tell him. The boy cheats.”
Victoria followed the blare that lead her straight to the library where Heath had his hands full trying to simmer down his agitated brother.
“Now, Nick, you saw for yourself that we both played fair and square. I told you about having strategy. You can see it won over your luck this time. Give it a break, brother. It’s only a game.”
“Well, I see you two have been busy this afternoon.” Victoria walked tactfully into the center of the brotherly skirmish and planted a motherly kiss on each son’s cheek. “Now suppose you tell me what this is all about.”
Nick was the first to speak. “Well, you see, mother, I, uh, well, we, uh.”
Heath picked up the dialogue. “Uh, I just whooped big brother here in a couple of games of checkers. Won fair and square too,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.
“Nicholas? Is this true? Did Heath beat you honestly?”
“Well, uh, yeah, I guess so.”
“Then there’s nothing to dispute now, is here?”
“No, there isn’t, but I still hate to be beat.” Changing the subject abruptly, Nick said, “Mother, I’ve got to do something, but I’ll be back in time for supper.” Turning to his sister, he added, “And, Audra, watch that blond scoundrel. He plays dirty. Strategy, my eye,” he grumbled. Turning to his mother, he bent down and planted a kiss on her cheek and stepped back to leave.
Heath could only guess where his brother was going. Nick was going to make a trip to their father’s grave. The blond son of Tom Barkley determined that this time he was not going to be left out.
Heath met his brother at the front door. “Nick? Can ya wait up a second?”
Nick was pulling on his black leather gloves and was about to reach for his black Stetson.
“Well, uh, sure, Heath. What is it? Don’t want to waste anymore daylight on what I need to do, though.”
“Nick.” Heath unobtrusively stepped in front of Nick so that his elder sibling would have to look him in the eye. “I know, Nick. I know. Please, don’t keep secrets from me. Please, don’t any of you keep secrets from me, even if you think you are protecting me. I was his son too. I can take it, Nick. Please, don’t molly-coddle me. I know where you’re going. I know that today is the day that they buried your…our father. Please, Nick. Let me go with you. While Tom Barkley may have not been much to me, it was because I never knew him just as he never knew me. Still, he was my father, and a great man to many, I’m sure. I’d kinda like to maybe pay my respects to him, if ya don’t mind the company.”
Nick couldn’t help the emotion that welled up in his throat. How often he had wished that Heath would see his father as he did. How often Nick had wanted to talk about his father to his newest brother. Only, up until today, that had been all but impossible, for the bitterness that Heath had felt for the man. Maybe the boy never would go far enough to embrace their father, but here he was willing to at least pay his respects to the man who had caused his birth. To Nick, this was certainly a start.
In a low voice, trying to hide his feelings of elation, Nick replied, “I’d be honored to have you come along, little brother. Very honored, indeed. Just one thing before we go. I need to bring a gift. Why don’t you come with me to Mother’s garden? I’m sure we’ll find something suitable.”
So out to the garden the two men went. Nick went to a section of the garden that grew the most gorgeous wild flowers in a cornucopia of colors. Taking his knife, he carefully cut the flowers down to their stems and along with some wheat grasses interlaced amongst the petals; Nick soon had created a most handsome bouquet. While Nick was gathering his gift, Heath saw some particularly lovely purplish-blue flowers in another corner of the garden, and using his own knife, he cut the blooms and carefully concealed them in his sage coat.
The fog swirled and the mist showered down on the two brothers as they stood before the lone grave decorated with white picket fence and a handsome headstone. Heath stood back a bit as his brother paid his respects to a man he revered and loved.
Removing his hat and bending down to a squat, Nick started to converse with the ground and to talk with the man buried under it. “I miss you, Father. I sure do wish you could see the ranch now. We’re growing and diversifying more than you ever imagined. A good part of our success is really due to your son, Father. No, I’m not talking about Jarrod or Eugene. I’m talking about your son, Heath Morgan Barkley, Father. You missed meeting him, Father, but I’m telling you, he’s something. Really something. Why, you should see the horse operation we’ve got going now, thanks to Heath. We’ve got some of the best breeding stock in all of California. You’d be proud of him, Father, I know you would. Why, he even has your blond hair and that quirky grin you have, y’know, with that upturned half smile? And your eyes, he has your eyes, too, and your deep sense of right and wrong. Father, this son of yours is one hell of a man and the best friend any man could have. He’s my best friend, Father, and I thank you for sending him to me.”
Nick stood up, his legs stiff from crouching and from the damp cold. Looking over at his brother, the dark-haired cowboy walked over, his spurs jingling, to where Heath stood looking caught up in his own thoughts and perhaps in his own memories.
As Nick approached, Heath asked with his head bowed, “Did ya really mean it, that talk about me being your best friend?”
“Did I mean it?” Nick thought Heath knew how he felt about him and for a moment forgot he was supposed to be reverent, standing at his father’s grave and all. “Did I mean it?” Nick hollered.
“Uh, Nick, don’t you think you’d better keep your voice down? I mean, in respect to father and all.”
Heath’s reminder jolted Nick back to his surroundings. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry. But, boy, I want you to get something straight in your head right now. ou are a valued member of this family and mark my words, boy, you will always be my best friend!”
“Thanks, Nick. I will always want to keep that trust as your friend. You’re the best brother a man could have.”
“Well, before we get too emotional, little brother, don’t you think we’d better be getting back to the ranch?”
“Sure, Nick. You go ahead and saddle up. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“Alright then, but I’m gonna wait for you. I’ll meet you down the road a piece.”
Nick was beginning to know more and more what a private man his brother was. He knew that Heath would not have the same glowing words for their father that he had, but he would have some words for him, and Nick sensed that Heath wanted a moment alone to say them.
Heath walked over to the grave decorated with many different flowers. Squatting down, he touched each bouquet left by his family gently. “Father,” he began, “I don’t know if I can feel the same way about you as the others do, but I do want to pay my respects to you. You produced a wonderful family, a family I’m proud to be part of. You didn’t know about me, Father, this I know, but it still hurts sometimes, but not like it used to. I used to hate you, Father. Yeah, I know, hate is a strong word but hate I did. I hated what you had done to my Mama, and I hated how you had made her live. I hated Strawberry and all the filth that came with it. When I was a little boy I wanted a father. I asked Mama about my father, and yeah, she told me about you and who you were. She made you sound like you were the most wonderful person in the world. I wanted to meet you, but you never came. It started as a big hurt that you didn’t want to see me, but later on, somehow that feeling turned to hate. Unjustified now, I know. If you would have known about me, you would have come, this I know now. Well, it’s too late for introductions now, but I’ll just say I’m sure you were a fine man, and now that I know your family, my family, I know that if you were alive today, we would have gotten along. Oh, there might have been a battle or two between us. Heck, Nick and I, we were like oil and water when we first met, but all that has changed now. You’ve got yourself three fine sons, and a beautiful daughter, and a strong wife, who loves me like a son, but Nick, Nick is my pillar. He’s the one that pulls me up when I’m feeling down. He’s the best friend any man could have. I’m proud to call him brother. So for that, I thank you, Father.”
Reaching inside his coat, Heath carefully pulled out a simple bundle of flowers and laid them carefully amidst the other blooms. As Heath rose to his feet, he directed his eyes to the sky, and just then the sun made its first appearance of the day, making all the flowers on the beautified grave glisten, Audra’s calla lilies, Jarrod’s daisies, Mother’s roses, and Nick’s arrangement of wild flowers and grasses. But the flowers that seemed to sparkle the brightest in the sun’s shafted light were the little blue-purple flowers from the blond son of Tom Barkley that said Forget Me Not.