Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 3000
“HEATH!! HEATH!! Where are you? Answer me boy!”
“Nicholas Barkley, you are going to shatter every eardrum in this house,” admonished Victoria in an exasperated voice. “Lower your voice. Heath isn’t here. Remember? He said he was riding out to Strawberry to do some repairs on Hannah’s house. Now if you can manage to speak at a volume that won’t bring the house down, perhaps we can have some breakfast?”
“Oh! Yeah! Well, uh, sorry mother,” he answered at an acceptable volume. “I guess I, uh, I forgot. How long do you suppose he’ll be gone?”
“Well, I imagine he’ll be back for supper but probably no sooner,” his mother guessed.
“Oh. Right. JARROD!!”
“Ohhhhhhhh,” Victoria uttered in defeat, holding her hands over her ears and shaking her head. “Shhhhhhhhhh,” placing her index finger to her lips. “Jarrod is still sleeping,” she hissed. “He’s been working on the Miller case and got in very late last night.”
“Oh. Is that a fact? Well, uh, all I wanted to ask him was if he wanted to go fishin’,” Nick whispered back a bit defensively.
“Fishing? I thought you said that this was a working ranch,” Victoria said with mock astonishment.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” Nick’s voice rising again in a crescendo.
Victoria looked daggers at him.
“I’m NOT going to be the only one workin’ it,” Nick whispered loudly. “If that brother of mine thinks he can go out gallivanting all over the countryside and leave ALL the work to me, well then, he’s got another think coming. I’m goin’ fishin’ and THAT’S the end of that.”
“All right Nick,” Victoria said with a hint of an amused smile. “You’re the boss.”
“Darn right I am,” Nick grumbled under his breath. “And if I wanna go fishin’ then by heavens, I’m goin’ fishin’. SILAS!!”
“Oh, I give up,” Victoria sighed resignedly.
Nick’s shout brought the old servant scurrying into the foyer. “Yes Mr. Nick, what can I do for you?”
“Silas, where’s my fishin’ pole?”
“Well, I’s ‘magine it’s where you put it the last time you used it, Mr. Nick. In the storage shed.”
“Yeah. All right. Uh, can you get it out for me Silas? I’ll be taking off soon. Oh and say, do we have any of that hard cider left from that batch I made last year? Wouldn’t hurt to take a jug with me.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Nick. I’ll get your gear all ready for you, but are you SURE you wanna take that cider? Mr. Heath says it’s only good for rubbin’ down the horses with and he’s not even sure it’s good for that.”
“NEVERMIND WHAT MR. HEATH SAYS!! That boy wouldn’t know vintage cider if it reached out and bit him. That cider was made with prime apples and I say I’m gonna take a jug down to the river. Pack it up with the gear, will you, Silas?”
“Yessir, Mr. Nick. Right away, Mr. Nick. Yessir, Mr. Heath says that cider DO have a bite, tha’s fo’ sure. Now don’t you fret none, Mr. Nick. Ol’ Silas will get everything ready for you.”
“That’s more like it.” Turning to his mother, “I’ll be home for supper. The work can wait a day. We’ll tackle it startin’ early tomorrow.” Reaching over, he gave Victoria a hug and planted a kiss on her cheek. Strapping on his gun belt Nick was soon out the front door ready for a day of rest and relaxation.
Reining Coco in, Nick stopped at the edge of his favorite stream known for its foot long trout. Leather creaked as Nick gripped the saddle horn with one black gloved hand, swung a leg off of his horse and dropped to the ground. It wasn’t long before the rough and tough cowboy was settled on a log with his hook baited and dropped in the meandering waters waiting to reel in THE BIG ONE.
The sun was toasty on Nick’s back. He had just taken a pull from the jug when his line wiggled and jerked. Nick grinned a big toothy smile. “Ah ha! I’ve got you now. We’ll just reel ya in real slow like and have a look at ya. ACK!! Whoa now, take it easy.” Nick gripped his pole and tried to pull back as he was pitched forward and danced trying to keep his balance. “Now wait one minute here. You’re not getting’ away from ol’ Nick so ya might as well quit yer fightin’ right now.” Just then, his line broke sending him right into the chilly waters of the stream.
“BLAZES!! You little devil you. Tarnation! That water’s COLD!” Still holding his fishing pole, Nick sloshed over to the streams edge and climbed on to dry land. “No one out bests Nick Barkley. ESPECIALLY no scaly trout!” Cursing himself for still wearing his spurs when he was pulled into the water, Nick took his kerchief from around his neck and rubbed them dry as best he could so that they wouldn’t tarnish. The sun was hot enough to dry the dark haired cowboy off quickly and soon Nick had his line hooked and baited ready for another go ‘round, confident that THIS time, NOTHING could go wrong.
Taking another swallow from his jug, he made a face. “Ack! Who made this rock gut?” As much as he hated to admit it, Heath was right. This stuff wasn’t even worth rubbing down the horses with. Shrugging, he tipped the jug and took another swig. “ACK!”
The sun was really starting to beat down on Nick’s dark head making him drowsy and lazy. Settling his back against a massive rock, the sun eventually won out and Nick was fast asleep.
“Stop. That tickles. Quit it. Not here, honey. We’ll get caught.” Taking both hands, Nick removed her caresses from his face. Suddenly his eyes flew open and were as wide as saucers when he saw what he was touching. It was the longest, creepy crawlingest bug he’d ever seen and it looked to have about 40 legs. And it had been marching across his face!
Now Nick was admittedly a man not to be messed with, for he could hold his own in any fight, physical or verbal, but there was one, no, make that TWO things Nick Barkley could not cotton to. Number one, ANY kind of snake, be they poisonous or harmless garter snakes, and number two, creepy crawling insects that RESEMBLED a snake. And THIS critter fit THAT category to a tee! Nick’s hair stood up on the back of his neck and goose bumps ran down his arms as he attempted to remove the creeping thing from his face without actually touching it. Nick was convinced that the bug was going to start dining on him any second now. “Ge-get off me!” Shaking his head vigorously, he tried to dislodge the critter. That succeeded in only making his head swim. Next he shot his lower lip forward and tried blowing upwards. That only resulted in revealing to himself just how bad that cider really was as his own foul breath blew up his nose. Finally with a trembling hand, he managed to muster up the nerve to flick the fuzzy, multi-legged creature off of his face, but unfortunately, it landed with a soft plop down the front of his open necked shirt. Jumping up with lightning speed, Nick popped every remaining closed button on his shirt and along with a little jig and a good measure of yelling and cursing, worked to purge the ugly worm from his body. Finally the long creepy crawler released its hold and fell to the ground and inched off no worse for wear. Nick, on the other hand, was in a terrible frazzled state. With chest heaving, he reached one hand up to push his hair back that had fallen into his eyes and with the other shaking hand, he latched onto the jug. Taking a long swallow, he was finally able to slow down his breathing and get himself calmed down.
Still a little shaky from his ordeal, Nick settled himself down once more on a flat rock. He picked up his pole, baited it and using an overhand motion, brought the pole back. Releasing at just the right time, Nick thrust the pole forward, anticipating a good toss of the lure only to realize that…nothing happened. The pole had been jerked clean out of his hands and was now dangling vicariously from one of the many oaks that dotted the area around the stream.
“What the….???” Spinning around, Nick watched as his almost new fishing pole caught the breeze and swung to and fro taunting him from a high branch in a gnarled old oak tree.
“BLAST IT!!” A deer and her fawn nearby skittered and ran from the roar that echoed off of nearby rock. Exasperated, Nick trudged over to the tree and looked up into its branches. Growling curses under his breath, Nick grabbed a hold of a sturdy branch and hoisted himself into the tree. Planting his right foot one more tier high and holding steady, he was able to reach the hanging rod with his fingertips. Grunting with exertion, he stretched his body up and forward as far as he could go. Almost there! Hand thrust out. Just a little more. Almost there…….SNAP! CRACK! THUD!!
Nick lay stunned looking up into the tree, his fishing pole swinging back and forth mocking him. Catching his breath, he sat up slowly as stars danced in front of his eyes and then faded out.
“Augh.” Nick reached to the back of his head. Just a lump but no bleeding. “Ow!” Slowly standing up, he reached around and rubbed his lower back. Squinting up into the tree one last time, he shook his head in defeat and limped back to where he’d left the jug. Wiping the sweat from his face, he sighed and tilted the jug, pouring the last of its contents down his throat. “Ack! How could anyone DRINK this stuff!”
Nick had had enough punishment for one day. Now all he wanted was to get home, get into the tub, eat and then go to bed. Shuffling his feet, he reached his horse and wearily climbed up on Coco’s back. Taking the reins, he turned the old horse around and headed for home.
As soon as he pulled into the lane leading to the ranch, he saw the rider just ahead of him. HEATH! The one person he did NOT want to see right now. He KNEW his brother would want to catch up with his day and naturally, Nick would have to do all the talking since getting Heath to string two sentences together was like pulling teeth. When that boy learned about all that happened out there by the stream, then he’d NEVER hear the end of it. Maybe if he hung back a little. Oh no! Just then his blond brother looked back over his shoulder and Nick was spotted. “Oh great,” Nick growled under his breath. “Now I’m in for it.”
“Nick!” Heath called out to his brother as he pulled up on Charger’s reins bringing the horse to a stop so that Nick could catch up.
“Heath!” Nick called back, quick to get the first toe hold on the conversation “How was Hannah? Did you get everything done you needed to? How’s the thriving metropolis of Strawberry?”
“Well, Hannah’s not getting any younger, Nick. She’s one stubborn old woman though and refuses to talk about letting anyone help her on a day to day basis. That cabin of hers has seen better days too. I did what I could. Fixed the roof and cleaned up the outside. And Strawberry? Well, you know Strawberry, Nick. Dusty and desolate. Nuthin’s changed.”
Heath looked Nick up and down and asked, “So Nick, where ya been? You look like you’ve been drug through the mud.”
“Whaddya mean ‘where have I been,’” Nick bit back defensively.
“Well, I saw the men out rounding up cows over in the North Meadow, but I didn’t see you.” Looking his brother over again, Heath repeated his question. “So where ya been, Nick?”
Don’t look into those eyes, Nick thought to himself. You know what will happen if you do. You’ll end up spilling your guts and telling him ALL about it.
Too late. Nick peered into his brother’s deep blues and knew he was gonna tell all.
“Well,” he started out with a gruff. “You weren’t home and I wasn’t about to do ALL the work myself so I, uh, I went fishin’. Now don’t you say anything about it, Heath Barkley. A man’s gotta take his ease sometimes and with you gone, I just thought that I’d have me a little time to myself. Nothing wrong with THAT is there?”
“Nope. Nuthin’ wrong with that at all Nick. Just two questions.”
“Where’s your rod and where’s your catch?”
“Your fishin’ pole. Or did you rough it and just tie a string to a stick? And where’s all those fish you must have dragged outta that stream? Or did they, uh, get away from ya?”
“Why you! I oughta deck you one, Heath. I’ll have you know that I had THE catch on my line and I was reeling him in and winning too. Doggone trout was as long as my arm! But, uh, well, the line broke and uh,” Nick lowered his head and spoke half under his breath. “He got away.”
“That’s too bad,” Heath said hiding a little smile that played on his lips. “But what did you try catching it with? I don’t see your fishin’ pole.”
“Darn it Heath. Do I have to tell you every little detail of my day?” Irritation was rising in Nick’s voice.
“Yep, big brother. You do.”
“’Cause I’m your pesky little brother, that’s why. And you ALWAYS tell your little brother EVERYTHING.”
“Well, okay. ALMOST everything,” Heath leaned down over his saddle horn and grinned back at Nick.
Why IS that, Nick asked himself. That boy has some kind of power over me. Just can’t explain it. He knew the rest of the story was going to bubble forth from his big mouth so he might as well get it over with.
“My, uh, fishin’ pole, it’s, um, it’s up in a, in a, are you sure you want to hear this?”
“Yep Nick. Reckon I do.”
“Well, it’s, it’s up in a tree, THAT’S where it is,” Nick admitted in a hurried growly voice. “Now don’t go askin’ me anymore questions, ya hear?”
“Okay Nick. If that’ll make you happy.”
“Well, good. Glad to hear it.”
The men reached the barn and lead their horses to their stalls. Nick grabbed a brush and started brushing down Coco, while Heath curried Charger in the next stall. Only the sound of the brushes on horse flesh could be heard. To Nick, it was deafening. He just HAD to talk. Why, he didn’t know, but he felt compelled to finish the story.
“Don’t ya want to know how my pole got hung up in that tree?”
“Only if you wanna tell me, Nick.” Heath answered trying to act nonchalant but the smile tugging at his lips betrayed him.
“Well, there I was,” Nick expounded, waving his arms to enunciate his point. “Ready to throw my lure and bring in THE BIG ONE. So I cast back,” He flung his arm back to demonstrate. “And then I was ready to let ‘er fly.” He brought his arm up and stopped with it straight up and froze. Heath cocked a brow waiting for Nick to finish his tale.
“And NOTHING! The blasted hook got caught in a tree! Yanked the whole rod clean out of my hand!”
Heath covered his mouth with his hand to suppress a snigger.
“Now don’t YOU laugh at me, Heath Barkley. It,” Nick bowed his head to hide his face. “It wasn’t funny.” Nick slowly raised his head and Heath saw his toothy grin. “Yeah, I guess it was funny at that.”
Both men let loose then and let their laughter carry them across the yard and up to the house.
“And you climbed up and tried to get it?” Heath could hardly get the words out of his mouth from laughing so hard.
“Yeah, boy,” Nick chortled. “But the blasted thing threw me right outta that tree. And I’ve got the lumps to prove it!”
“And you actually drank a whole jug of that god awful cider?”
“Hey, brother. Any port in a storm, I say. Between you and me though, it WAS pretty awful.”
“Well Nick, that just proves one thing.” Heath chuckled.
“Oh yeah? What does it prove?” Nick tried to sound gruff but it was lost because of his laughter.
“Proves ya should have stayed right here and gotten some work done. None of that would have happened if you had your nose to the grindstone right here in your own backyard.” Heath turned and waved his hand expansively over the horizon.
“HEATH, HOW MANY TIMES DO I GOTTA TELL YOU, YOU’RE NOT FUNNY?”
“Every chance you get, big brother. Every chance you get.” Heath slapped Nick on the back and held the door for him as the two brothers went into the house.
Later on that evening, Nick sat by the fire and spun the biggest fish tale this side of Sacramento. He told his family how he had caught the biggest trout in the stream but how in the end, he felt sorry for the critter and out of the goodness of his heart, he just had to let it go.