The Gift (by Jana)

 

Summary:    Every day of Heath’s first year with the Barkleys was a gift.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  123,092


 

 

Part 1

Four months, and he had to admit that he enjoyed being here, surrounded by the laughter, noise, and easy camaraderie that characterized this family. His family. The thought still took him by surprise. Me with a large family, a sister and three brothers, who would have believed it? Certainly not the rougher groups of ranch hands he spent his time with after Carterson’s. No one he knew in Mexico. No, Heath the loner, and a family to care for him seemed like opposite ends of the spectrum. While it seemed as if his entire life had changed overnight, one thing hadn’t changed. Even though he considered himself to be surrounded by opulent wealth, he was still poor. Dirt poor. He didn’t mind because riches to him were not wrapped up in money but he was getting to dire straights. His clothes *cheap at best* were thoroughly worn, threadbare even, his saddle was cracked from continuous use, and a poor quality leather, that no amount of oiling could repair. Yes, he needed money but he was not going to ask his family for a cent. They had, after all, taken him in and given him love, support, room and board. Asking for more would be selfish, but how was he going to get hold of $20.00 or so? He continued to ponder this question as he rode back from Stockton. He’d delivered the telegram as requested, and couldn’t even go in for a drink with the other hands as he had no cash. Hell, not even two bits for a whiskey. *Now don’t that just beat all* I can’t remember being this poor since Carterson’s.

Frustrated, he decided to detour and go through the scrubby hills on the left. This was a new area for him and one he’d been wanting to explore. The wide‑open country made him feel peaceful. *A family and peace, what more could a man want? * As his mind wandered he let his horse take the lead and for the first time Gal stumbled. Dismounting quickly he checked her front leg and decided that it was going to be a long walk for the two of them. As the slow walk home began, he watched Gal falter more with each step. *The sprain must be worse than I thought*. Rounding a bend Heath spied a homestead that he had not noticed before. It was tucked way back among some trees. *Perhaps I’ll detour and see if they have a horse I can borrow and then I’ll come and get Gal tomorrow. * As he slowly made his way toward the house he began noticing small things. The barn was missing roof shingles and the doors didn’t close properly. The gate was broken and much of the fencing missing. The animal pens were roughly patched and the house in need of repair. *White washing for a start, mended shutters, screen door broken and bent, porch planking was buckling, and the steps basically gave way under his weight. If it hadn’t been for the two cows and a few pigs, he would have sworn he had come upon an abandoned house.

Immediately Heath’s nature got the better of him and he wanted to help whoever lived here. His mind conjured up pictures of a mama and her son trying to make a go of it in a rough place. Stop it Heath, he mentally gave himself a shake, and reminded himself that there were lots of reasons for a run down home. Not everybody has lived your life. He reminded himself that just six months ago this, to him, would have been living in the lap of luxury. With that thought in mind he knocked. He heard shuffling inside and the rickety door slowly creaked open. Standing in the doorway was a woman in her mid sixties he reckoned and he had to work hard to control his laughter that almost burst forth upon viewing her. Never could he imagine from her broad smile that she could be anything other than the most fun loving woman on earth.

“Howdy mister, what can I do for you? The name’s Edna.” As she was speaking, she dusted off her apron sending flour swirling in all directions. Bits of cherry flew across the room as she hastily tried to clean her hands before shaking Heath’s.

“Names Heath, Ma’am. My horse sprained her leg about a mile back and the walk isn’t doing her any good. I was hoping that maybe I could borrow a horse to get home and return him to you tomorrow. My family doesn’t like it if I’m late to dinner.”

“Well son, you’ve landed at the wrong ranch then. Look around, now if you can ride a pig” . . . her eyes glinted merrily.

“No, Ma’am, don’t reckon the pig’ll do, thank ya just the same.”

“Who is it Edna?” a gaunt older rancher asked as he approached the door behind his ample wife.

“A boy, Heath’s his name, with a lame horse, he’s leaving as he doesn’t think he can ride the pig.”

“Good, no time to jaw with strangers, we have work ta do.” So saying, he reentered the back room.

“Sorry, wish we could have been of more help.”

“No problem, I’ll just be on my way.” With that Heath led the hobbling Gal home.

During the long walk home Heath had plenty of time to dwell on his problem, and the closer he got to the manicured lawn, beautiful gates and stunning house he called home he found an idea forming in the back of his mind.

He took Gal directly to the stable and saw to her personally that night. It had taken the better part of five hours to walk home and he was tired, dirty, and his feet were killing him. Boy he didn’t relish having to put those boots on tomorrow! But for all that, he knew that Gal was the one that had suffered the most. After currying her real good, just as she liked, Heath bent to look at the sprain. It’s bad but thank God it’s not worse or I’d be horseless in the morning and losing Gal would be too much right now. As he wrapped her leg, he thought back through his personal inventory. Three shirts, a rifle, blanket, one pair of boots, two pairs of pants, nice belt, gun and holster, hat, a deck of cards, a saddle, and Gal. Well selling what little he had wouldn’t get him enough for new clothes, let alone feel like he could buy his brother a beer at the local saloon.

*I’ve never needed much, maybe if I sold my rifle no one would notice and at least I could look respectable for the next five months or so. Winter would be here then and with that season came a whole new set of problems. He’d need a coat for starters, and some warm socks. Just necessities really, but he didn’t want to ask for them, and God knew he couldn’t knit them himself. He ought to be able to figure out a way to clothe himself. Nagging at the back of Heath’s mind was that notion again, but how to do it and keep it a secret. It wouldn’t do for them to know he had taken a second job. Maybe he could use the need to ride Gal, get her back in shape. Would this buy him a few hours nightly, or maybe on Sunday when they went to church? They never pushed him to go to church. Yes maybe Sunday would work. Next obstacle. Would the offer be acceptable to Edna and her husband? *Well it was the only option he could come up with, and he intended, by sheer determination to see that it worked out. He would not ask for money. He never did. Charity and a Thompson didn’t go together. *Why had he thought Thompson, he was a Barkley now? * Well he had trouble associating money troubles with his new last name. This thought often gave him pause and caused him to smile. Two people. The poor Heath Thompson and the rich Heath Barkley, well he could blend the two. Thompson could provide what Barkley refused to ask for.

The house was eerily quiet to him. Everyone had obviously already gone to bed. As he eased the boots off his weary feet in the entry, he picked them up and quietly climbed the stairs. He still couldn’t figure out how Nick could continually break the peace of the house by yelling. He always felt he was defiling its grandeur, not giving it the respect it deserved, if he got too loud, yet Nick seemed to do it daily. How interesting this new family of his was.

Opening the door to his room, he noticed Victoria’s door closing. Smiling to himself he thought how nice it was to have people worry about him. It would take a long time to believe they truly cared, but it was an interesting feeling none the less. With happy thoughts and a decision about his problem Heath promptly fell into the deep oblivious sleep of the contented.

He awoke early, ready to put his plan into action. Meeting Nick on the stairway to breakfast he said, “Hey Nick, today I’m gonna fix the fence on the north ridge and then take a look at the herd on the north forty.”

“Sounds like a worthy day’s effort. I’m going to look for that herd of wild horses down by Browns Culvert.”

With the day’s plans settled they both enjoyed a hearty breakfast. Eggs, bacon, ham, kippers, potatoes, steak, oatmeal, and his favorite, Silas’s raisin bread, fresh from the oven and dripping with icing. Often the sumptuousness of the meals overwhelmed him. There were many tastes in the family and often different from what might be expected (who would think Nick liked oatmeal) but still the abundance overwhelmed him when he truly thought about it. Of course they would all eat beans on the trail and whatever game they caught, but at home everybody was looked after and pleased.

He knew that’s why the raisin bread was there. One night he’d mentioned it during a checkers match, as the only sweet treat he’d ever had. A man had come through town selling raisins from his grape vineyard and Heath knew he’d never get any. He just followed the wagon. At the end of the day the kind vendor took the left over raisins, about two handfuls, and gave them to Heath. He could remember wanting to cry out in pleasure as he carried them home in his grubby hands to his Mama. She had added them to the bread dough and given him a special smile. Thanking him for the treat she tucked him in and told him he would be rewarded tomorrow. The next morning he had gotten his first and last piece of raisin bread and was transported to heaven. Never had anything been so sweet. He’d not had raisin bread again until after recounting the story. Now it appeared once a week just for him.

Again the resolve, if they could do all this for him he’d never ask for more. Cutting a thick slice of the warm bread he turned to join the others at the table, only to catch the indulgent glance of Victoria and the pleased look of his sister as they tried to pretend there was nothing out of the ordinary going on.

After breakfast he saddled the Barkley’s newest stallion, Charger, telling Nick it would help keep Charger used to being ridden, as Charger was nearly broken and only a little skittish.

With that he went to mend the fence. He had picked these jobs carefully for between the fence and the cattle lay Edna’s place. Having finished the fence by noon he quickly mounted Charger and rode straight to Edna’s. Dismounting, he once again noticed the disrepair and prayed everything would go smoothly. His knock was answered by a smiling Edna and seeing Heath in front of her she welcomed him inside with “How’s your horse young man and what brings you back this way?”

“Well Ma’am, I had a proposition to put to you and your husband. Is he home?”

Looking around Edna called “George, that young fella is here again and would like to speak with us.”

“Edna you know I’m busy trying to get this dang board down in the bedroom.”

“Don’t you have a minute? He rode all the way here just to talk to us.”

A grumbling, “Be right out,” was heard and with that Edna offered Heath a seat. George emerged from the bedroom looking like he had wrestled a bear all by himself. He was covered in sawdust and sweat dripped down his face in rivulets.

“What do you want? Heath isn’t it?”

“Yes Sir Mr. . . . ”

“Call me George, now hurry up and talk I ain’t got all day.”

“Well Sir, Ma’am, you see I’m in kinda a fix and I thought maybe we could help each other. Of course you’d be helping me mostly” he trailed off.

Heath understood what it felt like to be told you needed help or money etc . . . and didn’t want to state his proposition wrong lest he offend his only hope.

“You see, I could use a little extra money and it seems like, maybe, I was thinking I could help you around here some.”

“Now hold on a minute, I don’t need any help you . . . ” George began.

“Wait, Heath quickly cut in, like I said, you’d be helping me really. I’m not asking for much. I’d fix that shed maybe and you could just give me what you think its worth. I’m not even asking for full pay or nothing. I’ll even do the work first so you can see that I’d do a good job.”

“Oh George,” Edna exclaimed, “ we keep falling farther behind. It would help.”

“Edna, watch what you say, I’m not agreeing to nothing here. Heath . . . that name sounds familiar to me. Don’t hear it often. Ain’t that the name of that new Barkley? I think I heard it in town a month or two ago.”

*Oh God here it comes, you need a new plan now Heath. *

“Well?” George looked at Heath.

Looking very uncomfortable, Heath merely nodded yes.

“OK boy, I’ll give it a try, it’d be funny having a Barkley working for me.”

“Now George . . . ”

“Its okay Ma’am. I really do appreciate it. I can come over on Tuesday and Friday evenings, and all day on Sunday. Is that okay?”

“Fine Heath, but don’t expect nothing more from us, see you Tuesday, and you just go straight to work on that shed. No need to speak to us again.”

“Yes Sir, Heath said, Thank you.” Rising from the chair, he quickly left the house of his new employers. As he closed the door, he overheard George tell Edna to stay away from him. No kind words mind you. You’re too trusting and as a Barkley, he’s looking for something. I don’t know what but I’ll figure it out. In the meantime he can get some stuff done around here.

*Well at least I’ll get some money* Heath thought as he mounted Charger and went to work with the cattle.

Finishing for the day, the cattle all accounted for, Heath rode in, cleaned up for dinner, and joined the family feeling very relaxed for the first time in months. Dinner went well he thought to himself, better than normal actually. If he had asked anybody else at the table, they would have agreed.

Heath worked tremendously hard, never slacking. The principals he had learned as a child held him in good stead. Two hours Tuesday and four hours by lamplight Friday, while the family went to town for a social. When asked why he wasn’t coming he’d had to think fast, and he fell back on the old excuse that he wasn’t good at dancing. He’d have to be more creative he decided, smiling slightly to himself. They wouldn’t buy that excuse forever. Next week he’d say he was going into town on personal business. They never bothered him on this issue, well at least not yet. Once again he was warmed as he thought about how hard they were trying to make him feel comfortable. He could see how hard it was for them, especially Nick and Victoria, but sometimes he felt they tried harder than he did. Guilt works wonders, Heath concluded. I’ll need to try harder, wonder what they’d say if they knew what I was doing. Well, like most things in his life, it would be just another obstacle to overcome, and he’d deal with it when it arose. No sense anticipating what gave you a few good days before the inevitable storm hit.

Sunday at the Barkley’s nobody was expected to work, so Heath disappeared to George and Edna’s while the rest of the family went to church. He still wasn’t ready to explain why he never joined them for church and again he was grateful they didn’t press the issue. He couldn’t stand any more staring in a house of God. Church was supposed to make you feel better about your lot in life but all his experiences were negative. So on Sunday he spent all day under God’s sun instead, trying to finish the shed. He’d gotten a good start in the previous six hours, but today was his day to really make progress and show them he was useful. Sawing, hammering, nailing, he didn’t even break until long after noon. The water from his canteen tasted real cool when he finally did take a few minutes off. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he petted Charger briefly. Gal would be better soon he thought, but in the meantime he was enjoying riding Charger. As he turned to go back to work Edna appeared from inside the house. As she opened the door, the aroma of fresh baked pies assailed his nose and he could feel his stomach begin to rumble. Time enough for food tonight, today I have work to do, but as he continued back to the shed Edna called “Heath, would you like some fresh made lemonade?”

“Sure would, Ma’am. Thank you.”

As Edna handed Heath the glass George called from the window, “I told you no favors for that boy. Get the lemonade and come back in, we didn’t offer to feed him.”

Flinching inwardly at the often heard remark or some other like it Heath returned the undrunk lemonade to Edna, smiled and said “Thank ya anyway, Ma’am.” He returned to the shed and worked hot, sweaty, and shirtless, throughout the day. From her window Edna once again observed Heath and thought *It’s a good thing we don’t have daughters!*

*****

By five p.m. Heath felt he should call it a day and it seemed George agreed. “Get on home boy, won’t be done today anyway.”

“Yes Sir, should have it done by Thursday night though.”

“We’ll see.”

“George, I told you he’s a hard worker and he’s done wonders already. Can’t I offer him a sandwich for the ride home?”

“Edna I said no. Least not until I can figure out why he’s here. Expect the Barkleys want our land and he’s checking it out for them.”

“George come on, have you seen his clothes? He may be a Barkley but it seems to me he needs to be here too.”

“No reason for the rich Barkley’s to be here, heard tell that now that he’s come even he will be rich.” And that’s how it was left as Heath rode away, once again wondering if people’s memories would ever dim.

This pattern continued for the next two weeks but on Sunday of the third week Edna again took Heath a lemonade.

“Do you think I should Ma’am?”

“Call me Edna and that’s an order. I’m not a Ma’am.”

“Yes Ma’am, Unh Edna.”

Smiling Edna said “That’s better, drink up.”

The lemonade felt cool to Heath’s parched throat and he gratefully gave her back an empty glass when he noticed George watching. Not wanting to get Edna in trouble Heath said “Sorry Sir, I’ll get right back to it. Could I have a word with you when I’m done today?”

“Sure, come on Edna” George said, as he left Heath to finish up. About five again Heath rinsed off, slicked back his wet hair, and replaced his shirt over his tired muscles. This was hard work, keeping a secret that he was doing two jobs, and trying to get enough sleep to allow him the energy to keep up this pace. “I’ll be right back Gal” he said and went to find George. Today would be payday.

“What Heath?” George grumbled, fully expecting Heath to ask for money.

“Well I was figuring it was time to be paid. I’ve finished the shed, repaired the animal pens, and done the front stairs to make them safe for Edna.” He figured helping Edna was the least he could do.

“So you have, so you have” George muttered. “Okay, I was figuring you’d be wanting your pay soon. Here’s $20.00, that okay with you? .”

“Yes Sir. Fine. Are you happy with my work because I could sure use to keep on here?”

“Be back Sunday and get started on the porch. Now get on home with you.”

Mounting Charger with a leap Heath rode home, money in his pocket. It was a good feeling. The money wasn’t much, at least not compared to what the Barkley’s paid, but it was what he needed and after all he was only working 14 hours per week extra.

On Wednesday, when he went to the General Store for supplies with Nick, he intended to buy a new shirt, maybe two. Not much, he needed to start saving for a saddle. You know he amended to himself, a family, peace, and financial independence was what he needed to really feel good.

“Buying yourself a new shirt, Heath? I was wondering when you’d finally get around to it.”

“Sure am, Mr. Weber. Figure its about time, don’t you?” and smiling he picked out a blue chambray.

As Heath was tucking it in the buggy for the ride home Nick asked, “What’d ya buy?”

“Just a shirt Nick, hey you want a beer before we head home?”

“What, you buying? Of course.” Nick added.

Feeling on top of the world Heath treated his brother to a beer. *Yes the extra job and the exhaustion that came with it was well worth the price.

That night during their nightly card game of Pinochle, Audra noticed Heath’s new shirt, and dimpling said, “That’s a nice looking shirt Heath, makes your eyes look bluer.”

“Thanks.”

“Are you blushing, hey Mother, I think Heath’s blushing” she teased?

“Now Audra leave him alone, and Heath that shirt does look nice on you.”

“Are you playing cards . . .

“Heath, your trying to change the topic.”

“Sure am, and I’m tired too. If we don’t finish now I’ll have to assume I win by default.”

“No you don’t, Audra giggled, I’m winning now.” In the next few minutes of heated play Heath promptly beat Audra and kissing her lightly, thanked her for the game and turned in. Falling asleep for the night Heath felt amazed at the changes in his life. He was calming down, less angry, settling in. It was a great feeling. What was that they said about complacency? Never expect things to stay the same. Change was a constant.

Once again finishing his chores he rode the recovered Gal to Edna’s and began to work. Over the past few weeks, as he accomplished many necessary jobs, George relaxed his vigilance, trusting Heath to keep up a steady pace. Often now Edna would be working outside in the garden near Heath as he worked on one of the many tasks needed to keep their home from caving in around them. She told him many stories of her youth and of their move to Stockton. This day would be no different and Heath was looking forward to it, but today her casual words changed everything.

“Heath dear, I hear Saturday is Victoria’s birthday, and as everyone knows her birthday is her favorite day of the year. What are you getting her?”

Stopping abruptly, Heath turned and said “Why?”

“Why, what Heath.”

“Why should I get her something?”

Smiling, Edna answered “Heath its customary to get your family members something on their birthdays, and with how excited all the Barkleys get I figured it was something you’d be thinking about.” Seeing the look of hopelessness that crossed his face she waited patiently for his next carefully measured words.

“Edna. I didn’t even realize it was her birthday. Even knowing it now I don’t have the money to buy her a good gift. Hell! UH, excuse me. I wouldn’t even know what to get her.”

Despair, complete and dark, washed over him. He wouldn’t even be in Stockton before her birthday and with all her lovely possessions he was sure there was nothing in all of Stockton that would be good enough for her. At least not as good as he would want it to be. She was special to him, she deserved the best.

His own birthday had been 2 months before, but he never even gave it a thought. Hadn’t in years. Since fifteen he’d not celebrated a birthday at all. Often the day passed unnoticed , until weeks later when he would realize May 10th had come and gone. He recalled that his birthday celebrations were always a quiet walk with his Mama, and a chance to really talk with her. He’d never had a real present before. Okay, he’d bought girls things before, but that was for different reasons altogether. Why couldn’t it have been one of the others birthdays first. Victoria he really wanted to please, needed to please. Running was his first thought. I could go away on business and miss the entire week. No that wouldn’t be right, maybe just pretend I don’t know and leave really early that day. *Why had no one mentioned it to him yet? Of course they wouldn’t see the need to tell him. They would just expect him to know.*

Edna, seeing all this cross Heath’s face, once again thought how expressive he could be when one got to know him, and had an idea. “Wait here Heath,” she said, running inside. Returning a few minutes later she handed him a box of lovely floral stationary that was unused. “Heath, I think this might make a good present for Victoria. It was from my sister, Thelma in Boston. She gave it to me thinking I would write her after George and I moved to California. I didn’t tell her, but I never liked the pattern. I also hated to write, so I never used it. Now she’s dead, been gone ten years, so I know I’ll never use it.”

“I really couldn’t Ma’am.”

“Heath, don’t call me Ma’am,” she said, as the realization came that he resorted to formalities when he was embarrassed or nervous.

“Yes Ma’am, uh..Edna I mean. I just wouldn’t feel right about taking the stationary. I’m sure I can figure something out.”

“Heath, I know its hard for you to accept things, but this isn’t charity, you can pay me if you feel you need to, but you’ll never get to town before her birthday. This makes sense. Please let me help. I want to. Makes me feel like I have the son I never got.”

Realizing it was about the only solution to his problem, Heath accepted with, “Okay, but let me pay you two dollars for it, I’ll feel better that way Ma’am.”

*I’ll let the Ma’am go this time but never again* thought Edna, as she answered “Of course Heath, if you insist.”

Tucking the prized package in Gal’s saddlebag Heath wondered at Edna’s kindness and stunning revelation that she felt like he was her son. More importantly, he wondered if the present was going to be good enough for his adopted Mother. Letting her down would almost kill him.

July 10th turned out to be the brightest day of the year so far. It was as if God had instructed his angels to see to it that Victoria’s birthday was as perfect as he could make it as well. *What a beautiful day for a beautiful woman* Heath thought. Descending the stairs, he saw Audra carrying a gaily wrapped package, so he quickly returned to his room and collected his, thanking

God silently that Edna had wrapped his for him. Entering the dining room he placed his package along side all the others. They varied in size, shape, and color, but each giver, his brothers and sister seemed very excited. He felt his stomach knot and began to unconsciously fiddle with the buttons on his shirt sleeve. *Something more than just a birthday seemed to be going on here.*

He served himself from the sideboard, grabbing a coveted piece of the raisin bread, and joined Audra and Jarrod at the table. As the first fork full of eggs entered his mouth he heard Victoria exclaim “Good Heavens” as she entered the dining room. “Are all these for me?’

“Of course Mother, who else has such lavish birthdays” Jarrod said with a fond smile.

It was easy for Heath to see what Edna meant. Obviously Victoria’s birthday was a yearly highlight that everyone took joy in. To bad he didn’t feel any delight only heightened nervousness.

“Well Mother, Nick boomed entering with yet another package, are you ready to begin the opening ceremonies?” With that he placed his package at the head of the table directly in front of his Mother.

“Does anyone mind if I open them while you eat? I’m to excited to eat now.”

“No of course not Mother, Audra said, that’s what we love about your birthday, start with Nick’s since he put it in front of you and lets see what he picked out for you.”

Slowly opening the gift, taking off first the ribbon and folding the paper neatly, Victoria, prolonging the agony, gave a smile.

“Hurry up Mother,” snarled Nick. His anticipation almost as great as hers.

“I am dear,” she said with am impish grin.

The entire family Heath noticed, just shook their heads and grinned back. *So this is a birthday celebration, I wonder if it’s the same for everybody?* Heath watched, wide eyed as Victoria removed a lovely sapphire necklace from the depths of the velvet box, and once aging his stomach clenched.

“Oh Nick, how lovely, you know how much I love sapphires. I didn’t wear any jewelry this morning, just in case. Come fasten it for me please.” she said holding it lovingly up to her throat.

Rising from his chair, a huge grin splitting his face, Nick made his way behind his Mother and ceremoniously fastened the clip. While doing so, he bent down and whispered, just loud enough for the entire table to hear, “They bring out your eyes, but today you sparkle more than the gems. Sapphires for a gem of a Mother, I just seemed right somehow. Happy Birthday.”

“Alright Brother Nick you have had your turn” Jarrod piped up. “Mother if you want a truly inspired gift on this special day may I direct your attention to the red envelope on the table.”

Opening the envelope Victoria gasped. “Oh Jarrod, I can’t believe it. How did you ever manage to get the thirty acres of Cobblers Creek I’ve wanted for the past fifteen years? Finally, the perfect spot to enjoy picnics with my grandchildren. Have I told you how your Father would take me to Cobblers Creek and………..”

“Yes Mother many times” three voices said in unison.

Laughing at herself Victoria said “Well maybe I’ll save the story for another day then.”

“Jarrod, how do you do it every year? No matter what I come up with you top me.” Nick said.

“Just a keen sense of knowing Mother’s tastes exactly dear brother.”

As the banter continued Heath felt his stomach tighten past the point of all probability and stopped eating lest he embarrass himself by being forced to run from the table. *Guess I should have left early after all.* Knowing that there was no way to salvage his gift he began praying in earnest for a disaster to befall the cattle herd, anything to get him from the room.

“Now mine Mother,” Audra’s light voice brought Heath from his dark musings.

“Okay dear, which one is it?”

“The blue one. Here I’ll get it for you.” And with that she handed the flat blue package to Victoria.

*It’s a book.*, Victoria mused as she unwrapped the elegantly wrapped gift. As the wrappings fell away awe entered Victoria’s eyes. Enclosed was a hand embroidered scrapbook with her and Tom’s wedding date and the birth of her children recorded on the cover. Slowly opening the book, and lingering over each page, her hand occasionally reaching out to touch a picture as if she could rekindle a memory from the feel alone, Victoria’s eyes grew misty. Inside Audra had compiled pictures of Tom’s and her life. A gift more precious than words. A legacy for all generations to come.

“Audra it’s perfect, she said raising to hug her daughter, when did you find the time?”

“I think I beat you this year Jarrod,” Audra gloated. “Mother. I’ve spent months on it, absolutely months. All our friends pitched in with stories and pictures.”

At that moment Silas entered the dining room with a lovely vase of pink and white roses. “Excuse me Miss Audra.” “I’ve made this arrangement up in your favorite colors to help decorate the house for your birthday, Ms Barkley.”

“Silas, every year you are so thoughtful. These are lovely, perhaps the prettiest we’ve ever grown, and where did the white ones come from? I’m sure we have no white roses.”

“No Ma’am, I traded them with Wilbur Jenkins. Glad you like them.”

“Silas, you know I do and you shouldn’t have gone to all the trouble.”

“Nothings to much trouble for you on your birthday Mrs. Barkley.”

Reaching for the last gift Victoria exclaimed, “What have we here? It must be from Heath.” Smiling she opened his offering *At least that’s how it felt to him, an offering, not a gift.* Heath thought.

“What lovely stationary Heath, where ever did you find any this pretty. How thoughtful knowing I’ll have all these thank you notes to write.” With each placating word she uttered he felt his world collapse just a little. Grinning like a school girl, she clapped her hand together and declared “I think I can eat now, but mind you all to save room for cake after the party tonight.

*I know I’ve been gone a lot but how could I have missed hearing of a party.* On one side of the table sat Victoria hoping for a day that would never end and across the way sat Heath wishing the day never began.

While the men were out working, the Barkley home was fully transported into a fairyland for Victoria’s party. Candles blazed from every window and available candle holder. All the silver was polished to a gleaming state and the crystal sparkled. Flowers adorned every nook and cranny and even the banister was wrapped in lace.

The garden was also alight with Chinese lanterns strung between the trees. The garden path was lit with candles, ingeniously placed in paper bags , held down by sand. It was a new idea from the East coast , and all agreed that Victorias birthday was the proper place to implement the new trend. Jarrod had already picked out a place to bring the lovely Candace for a moonlight stroll, and perhaps another of her fabulous kisses.

By nine p.m. the guests began arriving, in carriages that had been freshly washed. Everyone was in their Sunday best, and a few of the more well to do ladies wore gowns that they had made up in San Francisco for the occasion. Each person came bearing a wonderfully wrapped package. Victoria was showered all night by well wishers, reminisces of past birthday bashes, and thoughts to the future.

The live orchestra that Jarrod had engaged played throughout the magical night, and the gowns of the ladies twirled in a myriad of colors as each danced until well into the early hours of the morning. Occasionally one could glimpse a gentleman leading his fair lady off for one of the coveted moonlight strolls.

Around midnight Victoria, on Jarrod’s arm led the way into the dining hall where everyone refreshed themselves with a cold feast that included such delicacies as imported lobster, lamb curries, and crab stuffed mushrooms. After dinner Nick announced it was time for the piece de resistance, the cake. Out was wheeled an enormous two tiered cake decorated with flowers, both candied and real. A pink velvet ribbon encircled each layer. And the very top held a filled crystal champagne goblet. After presenting the glass to Victoria, she took a sip and the cake was cut and passed out to every attendee.

As the party ended the guests assured Victoria that each birthday was better than the last, and that this one was the best yet.

Heath somehow survived the party that night, packed with well wishers, bearing gifts that made the queen’s birthday look trivial. By the end of the night Heath had counted fourteen packages of stationary. As he had observed the steady progression of happy guests his resolve tightened as much as his stomach had done that morning. I am a Barkley! Never again will I be left looking like a poor relation who doesn’t understand what makes a good gift. No that’s not entirely true, it was a good gift. My gift would have pleased my mama no end, would’ve been one of the finest things she’d ever seen. Not just one of a multitude easily forgotten. But Victoria isn’t my mama, she is kindness itself. No, next time my gift will be as good as any of the family members. I’ll see to it.

Riding to Edna’s acted as a balm to Heath’s injured pride. As he approached he noticed that the ranch no longer looked run down and un‑lived in. Pretty soon he’d be out of a job. Edna appeared and seeing Heath’s face, she decided he shouldn’t be alone and offered him Sunday breakfast. George poked his nose out the door and said, “Come on in boy, she’ll get her way. Always does. Join us.”

As he was moving to a seat at the table Edna decided to jump right in. “So Heath, how was Victoria’s birthday?”

His face darkening he said “I reckon about everybody in Stockton turned out to celebrate. Trying to forestall the inevitable he added, It was quite an elaborate affair. House decorated to the hilt, food galore, and all lit by candles twinkling in the night.”

“And…….” Edna added.

“Oh, my gift, she really liked it, she said it was lovely. She seemed real pleased Ma’am,” he said fully knowing what it was she was asking. He didn’t want to upset Edna, she had helped him out. At least he had a gift to give her. Being the only one with out a gift would have been much worse.

*Ma’am again, well I guess I should have expected that from him* Edna thought, after all Mable had come over late Saturday after the party and told them all about it. Seemed flowers, stationary, and fresh baked goods, were in abundance. Mable also stated how beautiful Victoria looked in her new sapphires from Nick and how wonderful Audra’s book that they all had helped on was. How kind Heath was to try and gracefully let her think he was proud of her gift. The more she saw of this boy (no man she amended) the more she admired him. Other men would curse, or spell out all their annoyance angrily. If Heath was ever on his own again she would gladly take him in. He was charming.

“Glad to hear that Heath,” she said, then she realized he had begun to talk with George as she was thinking about him.

“I know the work is almost finished Sir, but I’ve got another offer for you. I’ll continue to help you around here. It should be all finished by September, but then winter will be approaching and I know you’ll have harvesting and have special needs for the animals. That new horse needs breaking in. I’d like to stay on and help if I may, and be paid partly in money and partly in redwood so I can make Christmas presents for the family. I’d also like the use of your barn and tools so they don’t find out what I’m doing.” Last night as he had lain awake reliving the dreadful day over and over, the ideas struck him and he now had Christmas ideas for all of them. It would take work, time, and patience but he was sure it would be the answer to his present problem. He knew he would never have the money to buy elaborate presents like gems, so he would make their gifts. All he needed was George’s okay. He had enough for the new saddle set aside and figured he had a start on a winter coat. He could do without the rest.

“Well Heath, I reckon I can do as you ask. I must admit you’ve been very valuable to us and I’d hate to see you go. Startin’ to be like family, boy.”

“Thank ya George, Edna, I’d best be getting to work on the roof,” and with that he left to begin his day. Mounting the ladder to the roof he thought fondly of George and Edna and about how awful George was with tools. He was good with animals, but the house would have fallen down around them without intervention. It seemed to Heath that most of the repairs he needed to do had been made much worse by George’s attempts to fix things. They probably would have been better left alone. Yes this was working out. George was overcoming his hesitancy and prejudice toward Heath and Heath was able to feel like a man. As he repaired the battered roof he thought of what his family did in their spare time, how they never questioned where he got his money or what he did all these nights he spent working for George and Edna. *Wonder if they care at all or just figure I’m using their money.* No use giving it too much thought and he turned his attention back to the roof and put in another long hard day.

Monday roundup started on the ranch and he would need to be rested. He quit for the day after finishing on the roof and asked George to order him the carefully thought out amounts of lumber and also explained he would not make it Tuesday but would be there Friday as round up should be completed.

As always round up was hot dusty work and everyone from the Barkley sons to the foreman and ranch hands pitched in fully to complete the job in as little time as possible. After the first incredibly long days in the saddle, Heath riding on reserves basically fell asleep as soon as he had Gal settled for the night. Nick offered food but he was to tired to eat. Everyone awoke at the break of day and after a quick meal at the chuck wagon the next long day began. Each night was the same. Heath settling Gal and Nick offering food which Heath declined before he dropped into an exhausted sleep. Friday at 4pm saw the conclusion of the round up and Nick and Heath wearily trudged into the house. Both men were greeted warmly by Victoria and Audra and told to clean up for dinner. Returning downstairs, Heath interrupted a conversation in progress on plans for later that night. Audra was asking Nick if he was going to the dance like all the ranch hands to celebrate a successful round up.

“Of course, Sis, wouldn’t miss it for the world, and seeing Heath he added, you coming too?.”

“No Nick, I don’t think I could take all that noise, I’m gonna ride Gal to the lake and spend some quiet time after dinner, then hit the sack.”

“You sure have been sleeping a lot, are you ill?”

“Ill, Heath why didn’t you say anything?” Victoria admonished, moving to place a kiss on his forehead to check for fever.

Smiling at the novelty Heath said “No I’m not ill, it’s just been a long week and I’m tired is all.”

“Well you don’t seem to have a fever.”

“He didn’t eat much either Mother, Nick added.”

Exasperated Heath said, “If I was sick I’d go see a doctor, let me be. Let’s eat. Something smells good.”

With his words they adjourned to the dining room. After dinner Nick, Audra, and Victoria left for the dance and Heath snuck off to Edna’s. Heath finished the roof and as the sun went down he moved inside to tackle the loose floor boards in the bedroom. While Heath was finishing up George entered the bedroom, gave Heath $10.00 and asked him to join him in the barn.

Heath went with George and his eyes were greeted with the most glorious redwood he had ever seen. Sections of burl, with their intricate patterns and birds eye were also included. Without thinking Heath hugged George, then quickly realizing what he had done backed away. Moving to gently run his hands over the glorious wood Heath thanked George and added Edna’s name to the thank you as he saw her on the other side of the barn, eyes sparkling with mirth. She had obviously seen his hug to George.

“I’ve never seen wood this wonderful. I’m sure I don’t make enough to cover it.”

Edna came and hugged Heath and George added gruffly, “It’s the least we could do for you boy. Your like family now and well Edna loves you. Is this what you were looking for?”

“Sure is,” Heath remarked trying to break free of Edna’s bear hug, embarrassment getting the better of him. *Would he ever get good at receiving affection?* It did seem that the wall was crumbling but that nagging fear that it wouldn’t last gnawed at Heath deeply. “I best be getting back before they miss me.” Turning abruptly and moving toward Gal he mounted in one fluid motion and galloped off as though the devil was chasing him, all the time unaware of George and Edna, arm in arm smiling as they watched him ride away.

The next few weeks flew by for Heath as he alternately worked on branding the entire Barkley herd’s new calves and continued to keep up with the repairs on George and Edna’s place. He interspersed the work with closeting himself in George’s barn to work on Christmas gifts for the entire family. He was going to need more time if he was ever to complete them all and time was becoming a precious commodity, as the family was already remarking on his extended absences from the usual family pre‑dinner drinks, dinners, and after dinner games they all enjoyed. The long hours working were beginning to take their toll as well. Heath was tired, pure and simple. He was used to hard work and long hours but he’d need a break soon, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get one.

“Morning all, he greeted his family entering the dining room, is that raisin bread I smell?”

“Yes it is Heath, Victoria answered, and thank you for joining us, the bread has missed you, as have we. The rebuff gentle but not unnoticed.

“I know, I’m sorry Heath stated, things should calm down soon.”

“Oh Heath how wonderful,” Audra exclaimed.

Heath chose to remain silent from here on out so nobody began questioning what was taking up so much of his time. Let them wonder, he thought. He was having a hard enough time figuring out lies to tell them. If they really thought about it they would assume Gal was ready for the glue factory soon. She was his major excuse, and it was hard for him to believe that any horse needed all the exercise he said Gal did.

Munching his way through the raisin bread, he listened to the conversation that ebbed around him. He often wondered at how easily it flowed with no input from himself. It was at these times that he felt he was an outsider, lucky enough just to be allowed to tag along, then every time this thought crossed his mind one of them , his brothers, sister, or Mother, would invariably pipe up and ask him a question, making him feel that maybe, just maybe he was wrong. Today was no exception.

“Heath, you’re not paying attention! I asked you which of the horses of the new five you felt we should keep and which to sell. Think the least you could do is act like a member of the family and pay attention when I talk to you.” Your not here some nights, you never go to town on Friday, and Lord knows where you go on Sunday while I sit in that stifling church, but when I ask you a horse question and I have deferred to your superior knowledge on horses for months now, you could at least have the courtesy to listen!”

“Huh..were you talking to me Nick?

A strangled aaarrrggghhh reached every ones ears as Nick rose from the table and leaned as close to Heath’s face as he could get. “Yes, I’m talking to you! Pay attention! I was asking about the horses we just bought from Gurneyville” Nick shouted ignoring the rest of his speech.

“Well why didn’t you say so? What do you want to know?”

With a disgusted exaggerated sigh Nick sat down and once again asked Heath about the horses.

All this was done to the amused stares of the onlookers. As Heath answered, Jarrod interrupted “Sorry but I need to get to town, I’ll look forward to seeing you around more Heath, and I’m sure the ladies of Stockton will delight in seeing you at the social.” With that Jarrod left for the week.

“I’m going out to see the horses.” Nick and Heath echoed each other in unison. Leaving the two ladies alone at the table, which had been cleared of their menfolk in under a minute.

“Well Mother, are we going to let them get away with this?” Audra quipped.

“Looks like we have no choice dear, but as we have this time alone, let me ask you a question? You and Heath are becoming very close. Do you know if something is bothering him or why he’s gone so much?”

“Not really Mother, and I wonder as well, but I should point out that he seems happier than when he first came here, so whatever he’s doing it must be agreeing with him. Maybe he has a girlfriend he’s keeping from us. I can ask my friends.”

“He’s a very private person dear, don’t pry. That’s why I’ve been reluctant to ask him if something is wrong.”

“I hate to bring this up Mother, but don’t you wish Daddy had known about Heath? I wish he had an easier life. Sometimes I look at him and wonder if I will ever truly understand just how much he’s been through, what it must have been like. Do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes dear I do. All we can do now is be there for him.”

As Audra excused herself from the table, Victoria took the time to ponder her daughters words. Heath, always quiet, seemed to be distancing himself lately. She couldn’t pinpoint the reason. It had just seemed to start and steadily progress. He was gone more than he was home, and when he returned he went straight to bed. Maybe he was ill. She would check with the doctor and make a few other discreet inquiries and see what she could learn.

Calling Ciego she had the buggy prepared and headed into town, solving the mystery of Heath’s problem driving her on. Victoria spent an exasperating time in town. The Doctor had not seen Heath in months. The telegraph operator hadn’t seen Heath, so Heath hadn’t been conducting long distance business. The Livery owner hadn’t seen Heath. The bartender hadn’t seen Heath unless he was with Nick. Her best friend, Gloria had not only not seen Heath, she had no information on his whereabouts at all, and Victoria had to admit her best friend had her nose in everybody’s business. It was one of the things Victoria found so charming about Gloria. If she hadn’t heard of what Heath was doing–or if he was dating no body would. Victoria was back to square one and it rankled.

Jarrod had to spend a week in town also, and wasn’t above snooping himself. He too checked with the doctor and then took a different approach than his Mother. Knowing the seedier side of Stockton, Jarrod checked saloons and gaming hells, knowing that if something was really wrong, Heath would try and hide it. He wouldn’t be found in the usual haunts. He also wired Strawberry’s Marshall and asked if Heath was in trouble up there or if something legal came up that could be worrying Heath. Jarrod’s questions, as had his Mother’s, all met with dead ends. Maybe the social would provide information, but Jarrod doubted it. Without Heath being more forthcoming, and unless someone decided to spy on him, he’d have to learn what was up when Heath decided to tell them. He briefly considered the spying angle but just as quickly dismissed it. He wasn’t the sort to resort to spying, but maybe Nick. Hmm.. that would bear looking into.

Nick and Heath spent their day looking for stray cattle. At one point as they each searched the gully’s Heath looked up to find Nick stopped, and followed his line of sight. Standing above them on the bluff overlooking the Northern Valley was a group of wild horses the likes of which hadn’t been spotted in months. Heath counted over 12 mares, and the stallion was a site to behold. Velvety black with white fetlocks its white mane waved in the wind as it seemed to taunt the saddled horses. A low whistle of appreciation reached his ears as he was ready to return to work. Seeing Nick still caught up in the wild herd he said, “nice looking bunch aren’t they.”

“That stallion is a looker, spirited too,” Nick stated. “Lets get back to work.”

As Heath turned he watched Nick forcibly drag his gaze away from the lead horse. *Seems like Nick has a goal,* Heath thought. Nick continually wanted to have the best horseflesh at the ranch, and this stallion would definitely add to the high quality Nick maintained.

The rest of the day Heath pondered Nick’s mood. Nick was very quiet. He didn’t say another word the rest of the day, and returned to the house still as silent as he had been since spying the herd of horses.

Heath tired from all his work and blissfully unaware that he was being scrutinized continued to keep up his hectic pace. He had enough saved for the saddle he wanted. It was a more expensive saddle than he needed , but it was perfect. Not having to pay extras, like room and board, let him indulge himself for the first time in his life. He hefted the new tan saddle in his right hand and swung it over Gal’s back. As he tightened the cinches he thought back to his first saddle. Clem, the livery owner in Strawberry had given it to him. It was one of the well worn black saddles used in the shop for customers who needed to rent or borrow a horse. Black was never a color Heath could picture himself in so it held little appeal but it was functional. The straps had been repaired and replaced so many times Heath likened it to his grandmothers patchwork quilt made up of old dress scraps. He’d long ago ditched the saddle but the quilt was still with him. Well a piece of it anyway. The scrap he still had was small and made up of his grandmother’s wedding dress, his mama’s baptism gown, and two pieces of cloth that his Mama had told him were cousins that had died coming west. He shuddered to think of the Barkley’s laughter if they ever found out he kept it with him always, but it was truly his only connection with his earlier life. The pre-Barkley years.

“Hey Gal, don’t you look fine in that new saddle.” Heath said. The minute he got home he intended to rub oil into it to start the loosening up process of the good leather and keep it supple. Yep, this was his saddle for life. A real saddle for a working cowboy, made more special by being his first real purchase since Gal.

In the back of his mind he truly pictured a different horse under this saddle. One by the name of Charger. Now Charger was a man’s horse. Maybe someday he could own a horse as fine as Charger. As far as Heath was concerned, Charger was by far the best horse the Barkley’s owned. *Enough dreaming Heath* he thought, you must get home in time to work the saddle and have a long dinner with the family. He truly wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep his dual life secret.

Dinner was lavish that night. In fact it seemed that Monday’s and Wednesday’s had all of a sudden become the big family nights. The mood was different as well, but Heath couldn’t really place the difference, just feel it.

If he had been Victoria he would have known it was planned that way. Designed around his days home in an effort to keep him closer. Give him a reason to stay more often. Yes, Victoria planned Monday and Wednesday dinner with Heath in mind, and her mood could be felt by the entire family.

As the two pondered dinners Audra, ever practical, was pestering about the social.

“Well Heath, since we’re going to have your company this time, who do you intend to dance with?”

Coloring slightly he answered, “Any girl who’ll have me, you know their toes are in danger if they say yes.”

Laughing Nick offered to give Heath pointers.

“Nicholas, you do dance well, but being good enough to give pointers, I don’t know. My friend Colleen said you trod on her toes last dance.”

“That’s because she can’t follow a strong lead” Nick stated emphatically.

“Sounds like she and I will dance well together Heath said, I’ll look her up at the social.”

“Now just a minute there boy, Colleen may have had me step on her toes but she is about the prettiest, fieriest, thing in all of Stockton. Leave her to a man.”

“When I ask her, brother Nick, a man will be exactly who I’m making sure she spends her evening with” Heath calmly stated as he returned to his dinner. As each person pondered his statement Audra again broke the silence.

“Have you met her before Heath?”

“No, but if she’s all Nick says I’m looking forward to it.”

*Well he’s not having a secret tryst* mused Victoria.

The good natured banter continued throughout dinner and over cards. Heath beat Audra soundly and then also beat Nick 3 out of 4 at gin.

“Where did you get so good at cards Heath? I can beat you at chess, checkers, and with the ladies……but at cards, well Heath explain?”

A softly spoken “we had a deck when I was growing up” was heard “If you’re good enough it can also make the difference between dinner and an empty plate.” Realizing he’d said more than he intended he added “Night all.” and headed up the stairs.

The next morning found the house up early, breakfast eaten on the fly and Heath busily saddling Gal and Coco when Nick reached the barn.

“You’re up early aren’t you?”

“We’ve got a busy day, Nick.”

“You think I’m not aware of that, I run this ranch, remember?”

Trying to ignore Nick’s surly mood Heath said, “Of course Nick, just trying to get a jump on the day. You’ve given me enough chores to last well into tonight and I have to get a move on.”

Figuring that now was as good a time as any, since he was in a foul mood Nick asked, “Where do you sneak off to anyway boy? Been meaning to ask you for weeks now You seeing somebody your ashamed to bring home to meet the family? Someone kinda like you, he added under his breath. For some reason he was unwilling to let Heath feel totally comfortable. He knew that he was upset with his Father, not with Heath. He actually liked and respected Heath. Felt like he was his brother, but sometimes he wanted to lash out and his Father wasn’t here, Heath was. The muttered jab worked and shuttering his eyes and clenching his fists Heath turned to finish saddling the horses. Seeing Heath’s reaction Nick immediately felt remorseful and set about trying to make it up to Heath.

Spying the new saddle he asked, “New saddle, very nice, when did you get it?”

“Yesterday”

“Fine looking saddle.”

“Yep”

*Wishing Heath would be more outspoken* he continued “You oil it yet boy?”

“You know Nick, I’m sick of being called boy. My names Heath. Try to use it.”

“Well yes sir, Mister Heath,” and Nick turning away more furious than before.

*God I’m tired, if I snap anymore like that I will really cause them to wonder what’s wrong. I need to control myself, but Lord I wanted to punch him, just once right then.* Well if he couldn’t sleep the physical labor should at least ease his frustration. The presents weren’t coming along quickly enough and there was a nip in the air this morning. It was already mid September and he’d need that coat soon. *Maybe this saddle wasn’t such a good idea* he thought as he ran his hands lovingly along the rich leather. Well I’d better get to work. I can try and work out this problem while I’m busy. Standing here doesn’t get anything accomplished.

Heath put in a long day digging the new well they so desperately needed. By the time he got to George and Edna’s that night he was exhausted. George met him as he was getting off Gal.

“Hello Heath, I could use some help today with the almond harvest, then you can go closet yourself in the barn and work on your secrets.” George said.

“Coming.” With that Heath put in another two hours of hard labor picking Almonds. Edna came out of the house and offered him dinner while he was washing the inch thick layer of grime off himself.

“Thank you, I’d be much obliged. Don’t reckon it’s your chicken pot pie is it?”

“Not this time Heath, she smiled, just good old fashioned pot roast with carrots and potatoes.”

“Sounds wonderful, I’ll get George and be right in.” Walking back to the corral where he and George had parted Heath felt a wave of dizziness wash over him. Shaking it off he told George of dinner and returned with him to the house.

“It’ll be ready in about five minutes,” Edna told them.

“I’ll just go and wash up, have a seat Heath.” While George left Heath sank his tired body into the couch. Within minutes he was sound asleep. Edna, busy in the kitchen, missed this, but George, coming out of the bedroom returned and got a quilt. Calling Edna to his side they both gazed adoringly at the sleeping boy. George laid the quilt over Heath and Edna tucked it in and gave him a quick kiss on the forehead, and that is where Heath spent the night.

He awoke to the smell of coffee and hot cakes. Realizing instantly that he was famished he tried to orient himself and couldn’t. This wasn’t his bed, and he could never smell Silas’s cooking upstairs in his room.. Where was he? Then it hit him. He was in Edna’s living room, and he realized that he had spent the night there exhausted, on their couch. How was he to get home with out questions this time? Lord what a mess, but before he dealt with that he needed food. Luckily as he registered this fact Edna called out, “Heath, glad to see your awake, come and get breakfast. You must be starving since you missed my famous pot roast.

“Actually I am . How many hot cakes did you make?” he said with a smile entering the kitchen.

“Plenty for all Heath, but we need to talk.”

“I agree with Edna Heath,” George added entering and preparing to eat as well. “You can’t go on like this. Were worried about you. I know how much work you do here and I know what the Barkley’s expect out of their ranch hands. You being a Barkley means you work harder than they all do. If you work as hard for them as you do for us your not getting the proper amount of sleep.”

Edna interrupted, “Heath, you must sleep and eat properly. No one can work constantly. There is also the added time your putting in in our barn. Your forehead was hot last night, and I’m worried you might be coming down with something. Without rest you’ll be sick for a long time Heath. You must slow down. I’m very concerned. We think that you need to quit working here Heath. You can still use the barn, but the added work time needs to end. Were sorry.”

“Please.” The one word was uttered with such despair they almost gave in.

George and Edna stuck to their position with all the tenacity of a dog with a fresh bone and Heath knew that he was being forced to take a break. He understood that they thought they were helping him and that it was for his own good. Health primarily, as they said, but to him it was about the worst thing that could have happened. With winter approaching he truly needed the money. He had to have a coat. Hopefully a short break would be all they required before they let him resume helping them for money. He figured that a month was the most he could go before he would need the coat, and he was relying on this job. In the meantime he’d use the extra hours to work on the Christmas presents.

His major concern right at the moment however was what to tell the family when he rode in this morning. Heath figured they might believe ne got caught in town in a poker game and then spent the night. At least that was his story this time. Lying was hard for him, and he truly felt they could all see through it so he practiced saying it convincingly as he rode Gal home.

As he entered the foyer he realized most of the family was already gone for the day. Tossing his hat on the table he looked around for Victoria. If she wasn’t home, but spending the day out visiting, he was home free. By the time they all returned from their days activities it would be time to go to the social, and he could deflect most awkward questions about his morning absence by asking Audra questions about the dance. If he got her going she would talk non stop. Yea it was good having a sister.

Not spying Victoria, he figured luck was with him. He quickly grabbed an apple from the table and went out to chop firewood. Then he spent the rest of the day doing the other chores on his list. He was really starting to move slowly as the work day drew to a close.

After dinner, everyone went to dress for the social that night. He had successfully been able to deflect the questions concerning his whereabouts and learned a lot from Audra in the process.

Heath laughed. He sure as hell didn’t feel social but that’s where he was headed. Entering the hall he noticed that the pillars were festooned with ribbons and the entire place smelled like fresh cut flowers, perfume, and aftershave. It was overpowering in its intensity, and he immediately knew his initial misgivings were founded. He would rather be any place but here.

Opting for the path of least resistance Heath decided the only way to survive the night was to serve others from the punch bowl and for every glass he served, he would down one himself.

Saying “See you later” to the family he made a beeline for the punch bowl and immediately put his plan into action. He pasted on a pleasant smile and handed the first glass to Mrs. Myers. As soon as she accepted it he poured himself one and downed it in one gulp. Instantaneously he detected a problem with his plan. The punch was alcohol free. Damn, could it possibly get worse? Raising his eyes he muttered “Of course it can” as he spied Virginia Wheeler making her way toward him. Of all Audra’s friends, Virginia made him ill. When she visited she relentlessly pursued him, sat too close to him, and tried to engage him in insipid conversation. God he despised her. She was as vapid as a sheep was wooly. The family never ceased to tease him about her fawning devotion. Well he’d not let Nick see her get him this time. No siree he thought, as he hightailed it around one of the overly garish pillars.

As he rounded the backside he slipped out the door and onto the balcony, running headlong into a female that brought him to a sudden standstill, Virginia all but forgotten, as he drank in her beauty. Her black hair was as glossy as the midnight sky, her eyes as green as the emeralds that often draped Victoria’s throat, and her lips were a beautifully lush pink. She was transfixing. In a throaty voice she laughed softly and said “You look like you’re trying to escape someone.”

“Could the same be said for you ma’am?

“Actually yes” she chuckled. Nick Barkley just entered and I really don’t want to spend the night deflecting his advances, so I’m hiding. Now its your turn. Let’s hear your sad story?”

“Virginia Wheeler is after me, and if I have to spend..”he stopped as her throaty chuckle drew him up short.

“Virginia Wheeler, feel free to use the door before me. You need it more than I.”

They shared a genuine smile and he offered her his arm as they both moved outside to breathe in the fresh air, un cloyed with dozens of roses, and saturated with the high pitched laughter of the party goers. As he gazed at her he said, “Allow me to introduce myself. This escapees name is Heath, and yours?”

“Colleen McDougal” was her soft reply. She too was having trouble discounting the immediate chemistry between the two of them. “Heath whom” she asked?

A genuine grin of amusement split his face as he said “I’m really not sure you want to know, but I truly am enjoying myself and the irony of the situation. Its Heath Barkley, Colleen. Nick warned me away from you, but I told him since I was a poor dancer and he trod on your toes without you cutting him, I’d look you up anyway and see if you’d allow me the same privilege. I’m sure I can turn those dainty feet black and blue in minutes.”

“Well Heath Barkley, if that was an invitation to dance, I accept gladly. We can solve both our problems for tonight by just staying together.”

“True. There’s nothing I’d enjoy more. Don’t think it will help me any tomorrow however.” Laughing, he took her hand and as their eyes met he revised his earlier gloomy outlook. He was suddenly very glad that he had come!

They spent the night dancing and every time he stepped on her foot she smiled at him. A special smile. One shared by co-conspirators, and all doubt about her thinking he was a bumpkin left his mind.

As for Colleen, she was entranced by Heath. She found his conversation witty, his background mysteriously thrilling and was intrigued by his courage in overcoming his heritage. She also knew her Mother would kill her if she found out she had spent the evening in Heath Barkley’s arms. She also felt sure that someday they would be together. Her laughter and spirit brought him out, animated him, while his quietness grounded her. They were perfect foils in both personality and looks.

What they didn’t know was what a stir they were causing. To the others at the social conversation was rampant and the opinions many. Nick was openly fuming. Audra was shocked. Victoria and Jarrod amused at the others reactions. The other ranchers sons were livid as Colleen was a prize catch, and the younger women jealous to see yet another man ensnared by Colleen’s beauty. Everyone was in agreement however that his blonde brooding good looks went well with her dark haired beauty. They made a lovely couple. However it was also noted that she cut a lovely figure with whomever she was dancing with. Of course it wouldn’t last. Everyone was ensnared by Colleen and she was fickle. Just ask any man there. She’d dance with them, get them hot and bothered, and then leave them high and dry without so much as a goodnight kiss. People referred to her, behind her and her Mother’s back of course, as the ice princess.

Locked in each others arms, the two were unaware of the stir they were causing and as they talked they discovered they had many ideals and dreams in common. Colleen agreed to meet Heath for a picnic on Saturday, but said she would meet him by Cobbler’s Creek at one PM, and not to come and collect her. He agreed and decided to save the obvious question about why for Saturday. The question was answered almost immediately however, when Mary McDougal came in and grabbed her daughters wrist, saying loudly “That’s enough out of you young lady, get home now before you permanently damage your reputation by being seen with him. I said, say goodnight Colleen, were leaving NOW!”

“Goodnight Heath,” she softly said with the twinkle he was coming to know so well. With that she allowed herself to be pulled from the room.

It seemed dancing with Colleen enhanced Heath’s popularity with all the women. This put Nick into an even more foul mood. The worse his mood got the more Jarrod, Audra, and Victoria chuckled. Nick very rarely got shown up in the ladies department and this was often enhanced even more by his position as head of the Barkley ranch. Sometimes Victoria feared for her children. Would they ever find the love they deserved or would they always be questioning the underlying motives of who they dated and if they were after the Barkley fortune.

Heath, Nick and Jarrod all danced with a few other girls and Heath even got captured by Virginia Wheeler. It wasn’t so bad this time however. He had a picnic to look forward to, if she was allowed out of the house that is. Her Mother seemed to be every bit as strong willed as her daughter.

Heath spent the night having his euphoria of the social war with his fears over his need of liquid cash. A picnic was fine but a woman like Colleen wouldn’t be content to never see the inside of a restaurant. Heath felt sure of this point. She could become expensive as well.

He awoke to a beautiful day. He went downstairs, and settled in to enjoy breakfast with the family. As Nick entered Heath could tell he was upset about something. After his run in with him the other day, Heath decided to stay quiet and observe.

“Some nerve you have BOY.” Nick stormed. “I thought I told you to stay away from Colleen. You made a fool out of yourself last night. Everyone was talking about how easily you were led around by a pretty face. Leave her to the men who can play her games.”

“Nick, that’s enough,” Victoria stated. “Sit down and lets eat.”

“You haven’t heard the end of this yet boy” Nick said helping himself to a good sized portion of steak and eggs.

Heath knew there would be trouble, but really didn’t care. He would like to find out the meaning behind Nick’s words about Colleen’s games though. He decided he’d best detain Audra for questioning after breakfast.

“Audra, do you have a moment?”

“Of course Heath, for you always.”

“I need to ask you something and don’t rightly know how to put it. I know Colleen is one of your best friends, but Nick was saying she played games? I’m confused Audra. She seemed real nice to me. Was I a fool?”

“Heath, I adore Colleen. She and I are very close, but even I don’t know what causes her to act like she does with men. She once told me that she found them all shallow, and unless a real man came and swept her off her feet she would be stuck, unmarried forever. I didn’t know how to respond to her and I don’t know how to respond to you. I wish I could be of more help.”

“Thanks Sis. Oh, and Audra, don’t tell Nick I asked, OK?”

“I can keep a secret,” Audra said in a huff, and flounced out of the room and up the stairs to change to go to the orphanage.

Smiling at her retreating back, Heath left to get the daily chores started. He was actually relieved to see that he had an easy day and in the location he needed to be to meet Colleen for the picnic. Water had been going bad and he was checking the river periodically to look for the source of the trouble. His route would land him by Cobblers Creek around noon. A little later if he took it slowly, and this is just what he did. He rode and periodically got off of Gal and crouched on the river bank, testing the water. Where ever the problem was it was much further upstream. As he continued his checking he let his mind wander. He thought about the dance. He couldn’t get Colleen’s laughing emerald eyes to stop haunting him. Those eyes told as much, if not more than her mouth said, and boy howdy but she could talk. She was so witty, making him chuckle frequently, and this he knew was hard to do. If Nick was right he stood to be really hurt, but he’d give it a shot. He hadn’t been this attracted to a woman in a very long time, and he didn’t think she had the makings of a Nun anywhere in her body!

His mind then wandered onto the Christmas presents he was working on. He had finished Jarrod’s and was truly pleased with it. The workmanship was the best he’d ever done, but then again he had put his entire heart into making it. He hoped Jarrod would understand that the work and effort would show him just how much Heath respected him and all he stood for. Nicks gift was getting there. It wouldn’t evoke any emotions in Nick, he didn’t figure but it would be what he had asked for, and as far as Heath knew, no one else had ever been able to fulfill the request. He needed to make a better start on Audra’s and then there was Victoria’s. He only had the wood prepared for these gifts. The sanding and polishing alone had taken him over 20 hours. The rich red wood shone with a luster that couldn’t be surpassed, and the silky finish was truly a delight to his fingers. He still needed to fashion the pieces and assemble the gifts. All this would take days. The hand carved detail even longer still. He needed to spend every available moment working on the gifts. He hoped George and Edna would allow him the time in the barn he needed, without insisting he take a break from this work as well.

Ant then there was the coat. It was getting chillier with every day. The Ladies Guild, including Audra and her friends were planning a Harvest and Halloween festival for the towns occupants and children. If Audra was planning this early then October would be here soon. He had to get a coat by then. He dismounted and carefully checked another section of the river. He was no closer to the answer but he was much closer to lunch. With a smile he rode hard to their meeting place and tying Gal to a tree, scouted out a perfect place for the picnic. Finding a great shade tree, he settled himself to wait, figuring he was about 30 minutes early. Before he knew it he was fast asleep.

Colleen rode to Cobblers Creek in a state of excitement. Never before had she felt this way about a man. Heath–what a strong name. Maybe he could make her feel like a woman. Most men left her cold. They talked about work, her clothes, how wonderfully she danced, how beautiful she was, their neighbors, bar fights. Boy the list was to long to truly catalogue.

With Heath it had been different. Her could laugh at himself, he never complimented her, didn’t speak of the ranch the entire night, and opened up and gave her a little of his background. She could sense his hesitation, but he was strong enough to own up to things anyway. They discussed her dreams and his, how the stars looked, why they were there in the first place and how little they both liked socials. The reasons were different but there was a non judgmental comfort zone and it made for a very interesting night. She hoped maybe she had found a man who was as interested in her, not her looks, as she was in him. Not that his good looks hurt any, but they were overshadowed, in her opinion by his worldly experience. She was really looking forward to this picnic. As she dismounted she looked around and spied his horse tethered to a tree nearby.

“Heath,” She called. No answer. Again louder “Heath.” *Okay now where can he be* she thought as she started to look around. Hopefully he wasn’t hiding. She didn’t want to play silly games. As she rounded the corner, drawn to the big leafy elm tree she spied him asleep under it, hat over his face, legs stretched out in front. How very comfortable he looked. Well she would put an end to that. Tiptoeing closely, she snatched the hat from over his face. As Heath sat up blinking against the suns brightness, he spied her, hands on her hips, fire flashing from her eyes, as she said “Heath Barkley, just what do you think you’re doing? Your supposed to be meeting me, not sleeping.”

Before she had time to react he quickly lunged and caught her around the waist and promptly kissed her defiant lips. She raised a hand and smacked him hard across the face. “Of all the nerve…..was all she got out before he was again plundering her soft lips. As he deepened the kiss she felt herself melting into his embrace and withing seconds was responding hungrily to his passionate kiss. She was lost in a flurry of sensation and felt bereft as Heath reluctantly broke off the kiss and held her at arms length.

“Now that is something I could get used to and it sure kept you quiet,” he said grinning down at her.

Trying to decide between righteous indignation and her dizzying response she finally threw caution to the wind and began giggling. It started out slowly and quickly turned into a deep throaty laugh that consumed her entire body. As her knees began too fail, Heath agilely caught her and gently lowered her to the ground, a deep belly laugh being pulled from him as well. Taking a few minutes to compose themselves , they turned to each other and in unison said, “ready for lunch?’

This brought on another laughing session and it was a full 10 minutes before Colleen could stand and Heath could help her get the picnic from the buggy. Spreading out a lovely green blanket, Colleen laid out the lunch as Heath went to fill up the glasses she brought with cold water from the creek. Returning he marveled at the feast before him. She had provided bread, brie, fresh pears, fried chicken, two salads, and china plates. He had never picnicked so elegantly.

He knew at once that she could see he was overwhelmed and tried in vain to hide it as he took in the bounty facing him. “Do you think the two of us can finish all of this off, or am I to invite the horses to share in the left overs?”

Patting the space beside her she said, “Heath, come and sit with me please. I wanted this to be special. I’ve worked hard to hide all this from my Mother.”

“Speaking of your Mother, I don’t suppose she knows where you are? Who your with?”

“No Heath, I didn’t tell her. I wanted to come and she would have found a way to stop me. She is very creative.”

“It must run in the family,” he quipped.

Smiling she said “Heath, you’re not mad are you?”

“No Colleen, I’m not. I do think we had better talk this through though. I don’t like telling lies, and if you decide to continue to see me I want you to understand perfectly, just what your getting yourself into.”

“Heath, I……..

“No let me finish. I need to say this. Colleen, the long and short of it is I’m a bastard. There is no way to change that, and the stigma will follow me forever, as long as people have memories. I’m used to it, but you haven’t dealt with it yet, and if you see me there will come a time when you will have to. You’re Mother is already opposed to you being seen with me. She thinks it hurts your consequence. There are others who will feel the same way. The Barkley’s are fantastic. They took me in and have given me a home, and a family. You can’t know what that means to me, but even their name isn’t total protection. I’d rather have you leave now then in a few months when things got rough.”

“Heath, I ……

“No let me fin………..

“No you’ve said enough, now its my turn! If you think that I am some squeamish female, unable to think for myself, and willing to fall into the dictates of polite society, you have the wrong woman. I will do as I please. My spirit is already the bane of my Mother’s existence, and I can make you every bit as miserable if you think you can tell me how I will feel in the future–Well Heath I’ll tell………..but she never completed the sentence as his lips once again captured hers. Swept away on a tide of heated emotions and dizzying passion Colleen forgot all about what she was saying as she felt her body respond to his expert kisses.

Breaking apart they shared one of those conspiratorial smiles and turned to begin the job of wading through the food she brought. While eating they talked over many things, both deep and mundane, and underlying the entire meal was a feeling on both their parts that they had at last found their soul mate.

Watching form the trees a short distance away was one very angry older brother. He had come to check and see what Heath had found out about the source of the water bing fouled and tracked his horses hoof prints to Cobbler’s Creek. This is not where Heath was supposed to be, and it made him mad to think that Heath had detoured to take a swim in the crystal clear creek. He dismounted, intending to give Heath a piece of his mind when he saw a woman locked in Heath’s arms, and she seemed to be enjoying it as well. Just as he was making his move Heath released the woman and Nick saw Colleen McDougal.. Here was the woman he wanted, hell every one wanted, kissing his little brother. They were tucking into the food and Heath was feeding her a pear piece he had just cut with his pocket knife, and smiling. He didn’t smile that much at home. In seconds Nick saw red as he put all of Heath’s transgressions in perspective. He was slacking off, he wasn’t where he should be, he was secretly meeting with Colleen, and Colleen should be his if he wanted her. *Well we’ll just see about that* Nick thought.

*****

Moving from behind the tree he approached the couple and said “Well hello there, Heath, Colleen. I didn’t expect to find you here Heath. Don’t you have a job to do?” Turning to Colleen he lightened his tone considerably and turned up the famous Nick Barkley charm. “What a lovely picture you make Colleen. Is there room on that blanket for a man to join you?”

“Nick, I was having…….

“Well thank you Colleen,” he said sitting down beside her. “Have you had a chance to view the beauty of our oak grove yet? It was planted by my family especially for moments like this.”

“No Nick, we had just started to eat when you came over.” She looked at Heath, her eyes beseeching him for help, and she couldn’t help but smile when she saw Heath silently mouth the words Virginia Wheeler from behind Nick’s back. *Well she wasn’t going to be able to count on Heath to get her out of this one.*

Rising to his feet Nick reached for Colleen’s hand and pulled her upright saying “It’s right this way. Come on and I’ll show the loveliest flower in the Valley the place we Barkley’s refer to as Heaven on Earth.”

Colleen stomped after Nicholas Barkley while flashing withering glares over her shoulder at the relaxing Heath. She caught him making gaging faces at Nicks retreating back and had to work hard to stifle another giggle. All she could think about was Heath as Nick dragged her along on the way to the grove. Her friends had said that they found him solemn, quiet, and withdrawn. She wondered where they got this idea. He had a very dry wit and she would pay him back in spades for letting Nick cart her off like this.

“Now can you understand why this location is so very special. It’s the perfect place to come as a family, enjoy the open spaces the Valley affords, while reveling in the quiet of these shade trees. I can tell you my Mother thinks this is the perfect place for her Grandchildren to play as they grow up.”

“Yes Nick its lovely, but I really should be getting back to the picnic. Its not fair to Heath.”

“Colleen you were made for a place such as this. Your exquisite beauty transforms this to a magical place full of wonder for me. I know you are a real woman, so why are you out with Heath? While I like him as a brother he’s just a boy, not at all the type of person you should be seeing. You need a real man to keep your interest,” and so saying he turned her face to his and gave her a kiss.

Trying to be polite to Heath’s brother, Colleen forgo the slap and quickly backed away from Nick, saying that it was time to return, and that she needed to be getting home.

Hoping that his kiss had the desired impact, Nick graciously gave in and escorted her back to his waiting brother. “Here you are Colleen, Nick said. “Thank you for an enjoyable afternoon. Let me help you gather your things so you can get home before your mother worries.” He stooped and helped them tidy the picnic site. He even went as far as to fold the blanket.

Heath handed her into the buggy, winking once more and asking her if she was full, and what did hot air taste like. As she giggled she noticed the hard edge to Heath’s jaw, and the clenched fists. He hadn’t taken Nick’s intrusion as cavalierly as she thought he had. That didn’t bode well she was sure. Making a mental note to speak to Audra in the morning she whipped the horses and turned towards home.

As the brothers watched her buggy leave the creek side Nick turned to Heath and started in, letting his temper get the best of him. “So Heath, is this how you spend your day? Do I have to check up on you all the time? Can’t I even trust you to do the job I assigned you? Answer me Boy, I’m talking to you.”

“Now’s not the time Nick,” Heath responded angrily. “You had no right interrupting.”

“Now Heath, what would Colleen want with a boy like you? We all know that I’m a man and Colleen definitely needs a man.”

“If the Lady choose to meet me for a picnic, I don’t see what business it is of yours.”

Lady, Nick scoffed, if she’s such a lady why is she with you?

Nick got directly in his brothers face and started in again. “Boy I don’t know what you think you pulling but you will rethink this, and when your done you will see it my way. Do You Understand Me BOY!” He said, his finger punctuating every word in Heath’s chest.

“Later Nick, I don’t want to get into this right now.”

“It’s a little late for that boy. First your shirking your duties, then I find you with Colleen in secret. When you came here you promised to work a full day every day. Do you remember that Heath. Huh boy, do you?’

“Turning his back on Nick and trying to control his temper, Heath started walking toward Gal. If he could just ride out maybe he would have time to cool off.

Once again and from closer Heath heard “I’m talking to you BOY.”

Saying nothing he spun sharply and planted a solid right cross to Nicks jaw. Nick staggered and then got his feet under him. He brought up his fists and the two began to circle each other.

“Now boy, your gonna get it” Nick sneered.

Hearing the hated boy yet again Heath, readied himself for a full scale war with his brother.

The two moved in unison each landing solid blows against the other. Heath’s fury at being made a fool of in front of Colleen gave Nick the edge as Heath was not fully focused on the fight. Nick suddenly turned and landed a head snapping face shot, bloodying Heath’s nose. This brought Heath completely out of his minds wanderings and back to the fight at hand with a sharply focused determination. He quickly punched Nick twice, rapid fire in the stomach, hearing the air leave his brothers lungs. Showing no mercy he followed up with another of his well aimed right crosses. This pummeled Nick backward into the creek, where he landed with a splash on his backside.

Moving to the creeks edge Heath picked up his hat and just stared at Nick dripping from the waist down. Raising a hand to wipe the blood from his nose he continued to stare at Nick and added in a very low menacing tone “By the way Nick, that wasn’t no boy that hit you, that was a man named Heath.”

As Nick sat stock still in the creek a shocked look on his already bruising face Heath calmly walked to Gal, untethered her and leapt into the saddle in one smooth motion. Riding past his dripping brother he tipped his hat, flashed him a cocky grin and returned to his job for the day.

Heath returned home in a jubilant mood. A bloody nose was a very small price to pay for getting to whoop Nick at both a fist fight and getting the girl.

Entering the foyer, Heath could sense that something was wrong. He was greeted by Nick’s, “been waiting for ya boy,” and was immediately slammed into the door by Nick’s strong right hook. As he struggled to regain his equilibrium Nick threw himself on top of Heath, causing him to further loose his footing and fall into the large Chinese vase by the door. As the impact of his shoulder broke the vase, he could feel the blood ooze down his arm where a piece had embedded itself. Trying to fend off Nick’s furious assault he tried to right himself and only caused himself to further stumble. This allowed Nick to keep the upper hand, and he used it to his advantage as he pummeled Heath again and again in the torso.

Hearing the vase break from inside the kitchen, Victoria ran out to see what was wrong. “Nick, stop that immediately,” she screamed. Her yell brought Jarrod out of his study, where he had been deeply engrossed in his current case. Seeing Nick beating his brother, he moved to pull him off Heath. As he got the two separated, Jarrod watched Nick take a final kick at Heath’s gasping form.

“What the hell is going on here Nick,” Jarrod asked?

“Let me alone Jarrod, its none of your business.”

“Well I’m making it my business, so start talking!”

Jarrod was met with only an angry glare from Nick and no explanation.

Moving to Heath’s side, Victoria helped him as he struggled to sit up. She took in the rapidly developing bruises and the bleeding shoulder and immediately called Silas to bring liniment and bandages. Helping Heath to the settee she gently unbuttoned his shirt to check on the severity of

the shoulder wound. It was a deep cut, but not very long. More of a puncture really, and it hadn’t hit anything vital, so she decided to just clean it up, knowing it was more painful than it was serious. With a gentle “Hold still Heath,” she began to apply the liniment and clean the wound.

Flinching slightly, Heath glared at Nick and noticed that his glare was returned in kind.

“Now Nick, just what was the meaning of all this?”

“Nothing Mother. Drop it.”

“How do you expect me to do that? You’ve just beaten your brother and caused my favorite vase to be broken.”

“It’s between me and Heath Mother.”

Knowing she would get nothing more from her stubborn son she turned and asked “Well Heath, would you like to explain this to me?”

“Not really, lets just say that Nick doesn’t take to losing well and leave it at that.”

As the words left his lips his smile grew, as he saw Nick’s fists clench ominously.

“Well son’s, any more bedlam like this and there will be explaining to do. Nick I expect you to find something to replace my vase with or I will see to it that you get broken shards for your birthday in November. Heath, take a bath then join us for dinner, then go to bed. Nick, go into dinner, eat, cool down and get to bed.”

Jarrod, knowing what his Mother would say, had already gone up to draw the bath and was coming down the staircase in time to see Heath gingerly making his way upstairs. As Nick stomped up the stairs past Jarrod, he noticed a self satisfied smile quickly fleet across Heath’s face before a look of concentration at masking the pain replaced it. *Another mystery brewing. I think I’ll leave this one to Mother and concentrate on Herman’s case.*

At dinner that night Heath could barely contain his laughter. Every time he looked at Nick he could still see him dripping wet, looking shocked in that creek. And to top it all off was his knowledge that Colleen had agreed to meet him next Saturday as well. The rest of the participants in Saturdays dinner were very curious about Nicks black mood but every question was met with a glower. Refusing to let Nick’s mood spoil the fun Victoria started a conversation around her new piece of property. Cobblers Creek. As Jarrod and she discussed what to do with the property Nick’s mood darkened and Heath’s became lighter.

As the pain increased Heath decided that bed was sounding wonderful. *I bet I have pleasant dreams tonight.* Heath thought. “Goodnight all,” he said and he excused himself from the table and went to bed, feeling Nick’s stare reach out and follow him.

As the family left for church the next day, Victoria leaned over and told Nick to say some extra prayers in penance for attacking his brother. Nick bore up well, and left casting Heath only a cursory glare.

Heath immediately went to the barn, saddled Gal, and rode to George and Edna’s to start work on the gifts. By the time he arrived he knew that he would accomplish little. He was sore and the ride over hadn’t helped. His shoulder ached and holding the reins had added to the discomfort.

“Morning Heath. Do you feel more rested?” Edna asked, hoping he had gotten lots of rest.

“Rested? Sure do. Think I’ll head straight on over to the barn. I’ll stop by before I leave today.”

“Wait Heath, are we ever going to be allowed in our barn again, or is the secret that important to you?” Edna asked.

Smiling, Heath answered “Right now I would really like it if you would stay out. Promise I’ll be done by Christmas. At least that’s the goal.”

“Fine Heath, but curiosity is getting the better of me. Can’t I take a little peak?”

Shaking his head and laughing, Heath turned and went to begin work on the gifts. Reaching the barn he quickly secured the door and removed the drapes from over his gifts. The gifts he hoped the family would appreciate. Jarrod’s was the first he uncovered. The handsome redwood shone with a depth born of hours of work lovingly sanded and polished to a sheen of untold beauty. The carvings were complete as well. He needed to measure and then get the glass panels for the fronts. As he picked up a ruler he set about doing exactly that. He could finish up Jarrod’s extras, maybe all the extras and get them ordered. It wasn’t hard on his shoulder. Not like sanding and carving would be. The hardware, he would like to pick out himself, but that meant another day of absence as well as ready cash. He wanted to pay for it up front, not in work time owed to George.

After all the extras were listed and calculated he began to work on Audra’s gift. Making all the dovetail joints for the music box took hours of work and was relatively easy on his shoulder. He worked steadily, right through lunch, and was startled by a knock late in the afternoon. Rising from the floor he noticed how hungry and stiff he was. Unlocking the door he moved to the opening, effectively blocking Edna’s attempt at casual entry.

“Foiled again huh? Well I was thinking that since we hadn’t seen you all day you might like some early supper. It’s 4:30 already.”

“That late already? No wonder I’m hungry. Just let me clear up and I’ll be in in a few minutes. You sure its okay?”

“Of course it is Heath. Make sure you wash up though, you’re covered in sawdust and I just finished sweeping up inside.”

Heath almost had to push Edna away from the door and out of the line of sight of the presents before he could close the door. He cleaned up, more pleased with his progress than he expected to be, and then washed for dinner. The sun was already starting to dip for the night. He shivered as he reached the house, thinking about how quickly fall was approaching. Still feeling the cold he opened the door and stepped inside. George happened to be looking toward Heath and noticed the shiver and in a flash of unexpected brilliance he realized he had never seen Heath with a coat. Did the boy have one? Was this how parents felt about their children? Could this be why Heath didn’t want the job to end?

“Come in Heath, have a seat by the fire. It sure is getting cold out.”

“Yes sir, mighty chilly come night time. Could I ask another favor of you?”

“Yep.”

“I need a few more things ordered. I thought I’d just repair your equipment, and turn over that last field and that would cover the expense. It would be a one time job. Not like before. I’ll even go over to town and pick the order up as there are a few things I need to buy in town.”

“Heath, just give me that list and I’ll pick up what you need. We can work out payment later.”

“I know you would George, but I’d rather it was covered up front.”

“Heath that’s not neces………..

“Maybe not, but I’ll figure something else out unless we come to an agreement tonight,” Heath said, feeling guilty at the attempted verbal blackmail.

“Fine! Edna, you think we should let Heath work a short term job for us. He’s figuring to fix the equipment and turn that last field for the winter layover.”

Edna quickly answered, “George that’s to big a job. We decided he needed a rest. My answer is no.”

Rising, panic lending brusqueness to his movements, Heath said “fine,” and rushed toward the door, fear gripping his heart.

George’s shouted “STOP” halted him in his tracks. “Fine Heath, have it your way,” he said refusing to look at Edna. He would try to explain to Edna later that having Heath walk out would be the hardest thing he would ever be forced to endure, short of Edna’s own death. As the lack of a warm coat kept flashing before his eyes his temper got the better of him and he asked, “What’s so all fired important in that barn anyway that’s making you work so hard?”

“Nothing, and thank you George. Now I’d best be going.”

“Not without supper Heath,” Edna cried.

“Suppose they’ll have supper for me at home, night. See you Tuesday and I’ll start to work.”

“Night Heath, I’ll get the order placed Monday,” George called to his retreating back.

Dinner at George and Edna’s was a solemn affair as they each reflected on what Heath had come to mean to them and how they dreaded the day he left. He was the son they never had. He could be hard and unyielding. He was a survivor. If they had to make allowances that went against their better judgment they would, both to keep him safe and to keep him close to them.

Edna was concerned with his seeming obsessiveness with the gifts for the Barkley’s. All his time and money seemed to be going for them. * He needed time to relax, date, and enjoy life. Her boy would make some young girl very lucky. Was there any girl in the area that she knew who was worthy of him? No, she didn’t think so.* This would require some thought. She joined George for the night, happy to know that Heath wasn’t looking elsewhere for work.

Heath felt bad about forcing George and Edna’s hand on the money issue but he knew that George would spend the money and never mention it. That would never do. They didn’t have the money to pay for him too. The occasional dinner, although very welcomed, weighed heavily on Heath’s mind. The Barkley’s already did so much for him and he refused to add George and Edna to the list of people who’s kindness he could never repay.

Returning in time for dinner at the ranch Heath was secretly pleased to see that Nick was still in a foul mood. His beating him at cards didn’t improve his mood any. Finally they began to talk and the discussion centered around the next months ranch work. Amazingly the approach of winter heralded as many chores as did the spring. Nick and Heath would spend many weeks repairing the equipment used at the ranch, replacing items needed for the harvests, shoring up the dams and levees, as well as coping with the continual job of repairing the fences where the cattle knocked it down.

During these weeks Nick and Heath both worked nonstop. There were many critical chores before the awful winter rains came. The most important being the shoring up of the levees. In minutes the rain could destroy an entire years work as a river flooded leaving behind mud that could never be removed and stripping orchards of trees and grape fields of the precious vines necessary for the spring and summer harvest. This was a very large part of the Barkley empire.

It was during these weeks of almost continual work, both at the ranch and then at Edna’s that Heath realized the highlight of his week was seeing Colleen on the Saturdays they had both set aside for each other.

Not only was the ranch a busy place, but the household as well as they prepared for the Harvest/Halloween festival taking place in the town of Stockton.

The Ladies Guild had divided into committees to oversee the efficient running of the festival. One group made festive banners for the town, and tablecloths to match. Another group was organized to oversee the baking for the festival as it was attended by everyone. The other groups set up the band and organized the men into making a small outdoor stage. Audra and Colleen were in charge of the children’s games and Victoria and Edna were in charge of the charity auction. Edna was thrilled with her role in the Festival. Now she could be on the lookout for a suitable woman for Heath.

Heath was pleased that Colleen was helping Audra, or rather letting Audra help her, he thought smirking. Colleen definitely took charge. This meant that Colleen now spent a lot of time at the ranch and occasionally Heath would run into her and exchange pleasantries. These brief meetings were charged with an electricity he couldn’t put a name to. With these thoughts running through his head he came in for lunch and decided that he must be late. Everyone was already seated and Colleen was there, sitting by Nick. Drawing closer to his chair he took a good look and decided that Colleen didn’t plan the seating arrangements. Nick had probably insisted and left her with no choice. Well that was fine with him! This way he got an unobstructed view of her and it would also help them keep their secret.

Neither wanted any one else to know that they were seeing each other just yet. Colleen’s Mother would not approve, although for the first time in his life Heath wasn’t afraid of this scenario. He truly felt that if he asked Colleen and she accepted that she would choose him over her Mother. He also felt that with time and logic he could bring Colleen’s Mother around to their way of thinking. No one in his family knew, except Nick. Heath was very careful around Nick. He never brought up Colleen’s name or talked of dancing with her, and he made sure they were never alone together if Nick might be anywhere close. Colleen had never mentioned her feelings for him to Audra, he was sure, and Audra was her best friend. Colleen would tell him of the girls discussions on the eligibility of the men in town, who kissed better, who was more handsome, and who would make a good catch. Then she would laugh, the laugh he cherished, and say that she knew the answer to all the questions but couldn’t say. They pestered her unmercifully. He had even heard Audra ask her to tell. She never said a word and no one suspected.

Even Nick seemed less angry. Like right now, he was sitting by her, monopolizing the conversation with how lovely she looked *Hell anybody with two eyes could see that.*, and how she alone was making the Harvest festival great for the kids. Nauseating was the word that kept popping into Heath’s brain. Maybe he was a little jealous! All these thoughts ran so quickly through his head that by the time he reached the table he was composed.

Sliding into his chair he said quietly, “Hello Mother, everyone.”

“About time you got here boy, we’ve been waiting on you.” Nick said.

Again that hated boy. After their fight Nick inserted it every chance he got. Heath was sick to death of it. A more condescending word he had never heard.

“Now Nick, we just sat down. Don’t tease.” Audra dimpled.

“Shall we say grace?” a dignified Victoria asked, and with that she bowed her head and thanked God for everyone present and that they had food to eat.

“Well its about time. I’m starved, “ Nick declared digging into the potato casserole he loved. “Can I get you anything Colleen?”

“I would love some bread. It smells delightful. Did you bake it Mrs. Barkley?”

“Yes dear, I made it fresh today,” she answered, delighted that Colleen asked. Here was a woman with a very polite and pleasing personality. Definitely a good friend for Audra to have. Maybe she could help Audra by being a stabilizing influence. Seeing her there with Nick also had Victoria thinking along lines of Colleen as a future daughter in law. She would wait and see what happened. It was a match to encourage.

“So I hear the children’s games are all arranged and that you have done a wonderful job,” Nick said, his words bringing her out of her musings.

“Nick!” Audra huffed “I helped with the planning too.”

“I’m sure you did,” he said patting his sisters hand distractedly. “Now Colleen. Just what is planned.”

Heath looked at Jarrod, whom had remained silent so far, saw his wink, and the two in unison settled back to watch Nick run roughshod over another girl he was interested in. After listening to about four minutes of outrageous flirting Jarrod decided he’d had enough. Trying to redirect the conversation he asked “Mother, how are you and Edna coming on the plans for the charity auction.”

Glad also to change the subject she immediately answered. “Jarrod, she and I are doing fine. She is a wonderful person and we are getting along famously. All our ideas match exactly. It’s like we share a common bond. We’ve asked sixteen girls to give up their afternoon to assist us.”

“Oh, I’m helping. Just wait til you hear Jarrod, its such a novel idea ,” Audra interjected. “Oh let me tell him Mother.”

“Go ahead,” Victoria said smiling at her only daughters enthusiasm.

“Jarrod, Colleen and I and fourteen others have agreed to be the merchandise for the auction. The men will bid on us and we will then provide and spend lunch with the highest bidder. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“Now that you mention it yes! Who did you say the other fourteen girls were? I might need to start saving my money,” he joked.

“Well now Colleen, that is great news. Now that I know you’ll be in it, Nick said, no one will bid higher for you. You can count on it, and you’ll be worth every cent. This is nice. I get to help charity and have a date with the loveliest girl in Stockton, present female relations excluded.”

Flinching slightly at the thought, Colleen looked to see how Heath was taking the news. She decided that he looked as sick as she felt.

Heath was sick. His mind couldn’t seem to grasp all the new problems. Edna and Mother together. Colleen in a charity auction, with Nick saying he’d be the high bidder and him with no money. Occasionally Heath thought Colleen might know that he had no loose cash available but the wasn’t sure and she might be expecting him to outbid Nick, which would never happen. Especially not with the one dollar he had to his name, and to top it all off he still needed a coat!

“Heath, are you feeling well, you look awfully pale,” Victoria asked.

“If it’s okay, I think I’d like to be excused?” he said rising from the table. He gave everyone a quick lopsided smile and quickly proceeded toward the front door.

“Just a minute, boy, Nick called. Where do you think you’re going? We have work to do!”

“Just going out for some air, checking on Gal. I’ll be to work before your done with lunch. I reckon with our lunch guest you’ll be here for a long time. I bet I could break five horses before you even leave the table.” Grinning, he once again headed for the door.

“Well at least I have the sense to stay at the table with so lovely a visitor around,” Nick shot back, then turned to smile at Colleen.

Hearing the exchange and seeing Heath’s grin, Victoria felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Maybe he wasn’t getting sick. She had never nursed Heath through an illness, but doubted that this quiet son would make a good patient. Well that really wasn’t a surprise. None of her children were easily confined to a sickroom. With a surety she didn’t know she possessed, she realized that she did not want Heath sick.

Calling to his retreating form, Victoria said, “Heath, take your coat. It’s turning cold already today.”

“I’ve been to busy to get to town and pick one up. I’ll get a coat next trip in.”

“Heath, wear one of Nick’s.”

“I said, I’ll get one next time I’m in town,” and he left closing the door more heavily than usual.

Heath muttered to himself all the way to the barn, quietly cursing his Mother’s ability to make him feel like a guilty schoolboy. He knew it was only a matter of time before his lack of a coat was noticed, and if the truth was told, he was cold. He needed a coat.

Could he talk George into one more short term job? He doubted it. He had already pushed his luck, and thankfully it had held. He at least had the Christmas gifts under control. All the items needed to finish each and every gift was in his possession. No, unless he was willing to openly explain his predicament he wouldn’t get another job from George this year. *Pushing George wasn’t fair. The man had been very good to him. Better than he deserved. George was truly trying to help him. He couldn’t, no, he wouldn’t, ask for more. He also would not explain to George about the coat. They had helped him to much and he knew that they would buy him one. He wasn’t going to start accepting charity now.* His deal with George was that he could start work again after the new year began.

The New Year, was another problem. It brought with it another party to contend with. Praying with all his might that at least part of his day could be salvaged, he decided to try and stall in the barn long enough to say goodbye to Colleen, before he needed to return to work.

Presently he heard female laughter. *Yes that was Colleen’s laugh. He would recognize that sound anywhere.* Audra too, seemed to be enjoying herself.

He never tired of the sound of laughter, a gift from women to men as he saw it. His life had held little laughter and the only times it was genuine it was coming from a woman. His Mama, Rachael, Hannah, and now Audra, Mother, and Colleen.

Great! He moved Gal out of the barn and into the ladies path. It was then that he noticed Nick, hurrying to catch up. Reaching the buggy simultaneously, he moved to assist Colleen in, only to be shoved out of the way by Nick saying “I’ll help the lady. You get to work.” He felt his anger rise swiftly and as he was getting ready to punch Nick, he heard Colleen as she vocally made her feelings clear to Nick.

“That was very badly handled Sir. A lady doesn’t like to be fought over. Your brother was just being polite. Something I suggest you learn. Now if you will excuse me,” she said, removing her hand from Nick’s gloved fingers. Colleen gracefully climbed aboard the buggy. “Good day Audra. I’ll see you later this week.”

Giggling at Nick’s enraged face, and Heath’s smirking one, caused by Colleen’s set down Audra answered, “I’ll look forward to it as always. Maybe this time we can avoid my brothers.”

Colleen, now slightly ahead of Audra winked at Heath saying, “That sound like a wonderful idea.” With that she whipped the buggy into motion. As she rode past Heath she gave him a wickedly amused glance and went on her way.

Boy Howdy, there goes one hell of a woman, Heath thought. Glad I didn’t punch Nick after all, being on her bad side was not where he wanted to be. Standing stock still thoughts of being in the doghouse intruded as he briefly pictured them married. Well from her kisses the making up would be worth it.

Nick had saddled Coco and caught up with Heath. Noticing Heath’s lopsided smile he said, “What are you looking at? Let’s get to work.” And work they did. They spent the day filling sand bags to use for stabilizing the levees. At noon Heath offered to get the lunches from the saddlebags. Declining the offer, Nick left to get them, as Heath continued to work. Finally, hunger getting the better of him, Heath went in search of Nick and the lunches. As he came upon the tethered horses he noticed Nick, lost in thought, giving Coco a quick brush.‘

“There, doesn’t that feel nice? I bet your enjoying yourself more than I am today. You have all this low lying pasture land to munch on and I have a sandwich. You also get to rest while I have to spend the day filling sand bags and placing them in muddy water. I think you have the better deal today, Coco.” Turning to the saddle bag to remove their lunch he added “a couple of years and you will be able to enjoy this pasture rather than have to work it. Enjoy today Coco, for soon it will be heavy work for you again.” Giving her a final pat he turned and took the sandwiches to Heath.

Heath, overhearing the conversation, backed slowly away so as to not intrude further on Nick’s privacy. Returning to work, he began loading another sand bag as Nick approached.

“Back finally, I was getting hungrier by the minute”

“Yes, here’s your sandwich. How’s the work progressing?”

“Fine Nick. We should finish some day.. Perhaps by next year.” Heath said.

“Funny. Let’s eat and get this done.”

“That’s exactly how I feel brother Nick,” Heath smiled.

The two ate in companionable silence, both lost in their own thoughts. They then resumed the long boring task and worked until it was dark.

Both returned home exhausted. They only had two more levees to shore up and the slow, tiring, mind numbing work was wearing on both of them. Neither could wait to be finished.

When offered dinner that night, both Heath and Nick refused, opting instead for a warm bath and bed. Tomorrow would be long as well.

*More of the same,* Nick thought, as he and Heath filled and placed sand bags on the critical spots in the Jones tract levee. This one gave them the most trouble every year. The curve in the right fork tended to allow the water to churn. As the water rose the force and whirling motion caused erosion to take place at a greater pace than usual. This spot held, if shored up double what the others were. *Well at least we’ll be done with the levees before the winter storms this year.* Nick thought. He remembered last year, when they hadn’t been as lucky. The rains came much earlier than usual. Seven levees broke long before work was even started on them. The losses were staggering. Cattle were lost, one orchard destroyed, and they spent the next several months trying to salvage what they could.

This boring work really allows a mans mind to wander he noticed as his thoughts turned to the Harvest Festival. Boy he couldn’t wait to win Colleen. She was an intoxicating combination. Fiery and the ice princess all rolled into one. He owed her after she took him to task for his manners yesterday. He was going to insist she make it up to him by making a chocolate cake for dessert. That and her lips, he amended. Yes, here was a woman for a real man. He doubted she would ever thaw, but he sure enjoyed her discomfort, and if she was capable of being with a man, maybe he could be the one to melt her heart.

Heath’s thoughts at this time were different. He wanted to get the levee shored up and was pressing himself harder by the minute. Doing the work of two men in an effort to be able to get to George and Edna’s early. He needed to talk to Edna, hope against hope she hadn’t mentioned him to Victoria. He was sure if the family found out what he was doing they would put a stop to it. He could even feel his face becoming red as he thought about Victoria, marching him into a store, and buying him an entire wardrobe. Coat included! In a way being a ranch hand would be easier. He could budget with the best of them. Life had taught him that. A ranch hands salary, especially at the Barkley wages, would take care of him for life. Not that he would trade his family for anything on earth, but it would be easier. No fighting with Nick, no Mother that was way to watchful, no sister to keep from harm, and no eldest brother to make you wonder if what you were saying was what you meant. Well he probably would fight with Nick, no matter what. At least that is what brothers are supposed to do. How can I admire him so much, and yet want to punch his face in.

The lying was getting to him. He loathed lying, and couldn’t believe he was becoming so proficient at it. It was worth it this time though. Jarrod and Nick’s gifts were finished. Audra’s was close, and Victoria’s had taken shape in his mind as he had stared at the pieces of wood. He would need all the time he had left to truly fashion her gift the way he wanted it but that was fine. He was loving putting in the work on a gift for the woman he now called Mother. She was truly remarkable. No one he had ever come across in all his years would have had the courage or fortitude to accept her husband’s bastard into the household. Treat him as one of her own. Especially with the husband dead. She was a calm matriarch who could be easily respected. Everyone she came in contact with was treated with unfailing graciousness. She was a lady. As he quickly compared her to Colleen he realized that they had a lot in common. The main difference was that Victoria was not as excitable as Colleen, but then he had no desire to kiss her the way he did Colleen either.

Smiling, he realized he was smiling again. He didn’t think he had smiled so much in his entire life as he had these past months since becoming a Barkley. The thought sometimes staggered him.

Finally they were finished. This seemed to lift both their moods, and Nick, for the first time since seeing Heath with Colleen, clasped his shoulder and asked him to join him in town for a beer.

Regretfully Heath shook his head saying, “Sorry Nick, I’d like to but I have other plans.”

“Better not be with Colleen ,” he said, fists clenching.

“No, Nick, you know better than that,” he said. This lie not sitting well either. He wanted to share his happiness but still he held his tongue. He and Colleen, for reasons they both agreed with held on to their love tightly. Hoarding every precious moment. Unwilling to share it with others who might try to tear it asunder.

Making sure Nick left before him, he made a bee line to Edna’s house. Tethering Gal, he approached the front door and knocked. No answer. *That’s odd, but then again I am early. Well I’ll get started on that field and try later* he decided. Walking to the field he felt, more than saw, that something was amiss. Glancing hurriedly around he spied the partially open barn door. Moving slowly toward the door, he peeked inside to see Edna uncovering his gift to Victoria. For a brief second he was amused. Victoria’s gift was hardly started. This would tell her nothing. The fleeting thought was instantly replaced by one of betrayal.

“Eh ehm” he said looking directly at her back.

At the sound she turned guiltily around. Spying Heath she turned bright red and started to stammer, “Uh, hi, uh what are you doing here?”

“I was going to ask you the same question ,” he replied straight faced, blue eyes boring into her flushed countenance.

Twisting her apron she said,”Uh……, I was uhm…..going to wash the sheets for you.”

“The drop cloths are fine.”

“Now that I look at them , I guess they are. You know how dusty you’ve been and a barn is dirty to begin with, so I figured the linens might need cleaning and there’s how hard saw dust can be on fabric..wearing it down………”

Heath let her ramble, watching as her guilt and unconvincing tale got the better of her. “You finished yet?”

“Yes.” she answered, looking like a naughty little child that had been caught stealing cookies, and denied it while the crumbs still clung to their face.

“I wish you hadn’t done this. I trusted you.”

The last three words cut her deeply. What must her actions have done to him. He wasn’t the most trusting of men. She could see the hurt in his eyes, but as she watched she saw the dark stormy anger filled eyes lighten and he said, “I’ve done worse I reckon, want a tour?”

“Oh, yes Heath, please!” She perked up immediately.

Taking her hand he led her first to Jarrod’s gift. As he removed the dust cover, sheet as she called it, he heard her indrawn breath. He continued to move around the barn uncovering his treasures. When he finished, he turned to find her rooted to the spot, mouth agape, tears running from her eyes.

“Something wrong?”

Completely overwhelmed she gulped down her incredulablity and choked out, “Heath I had no idea. Where did you learn to turn those ugly pieces of lumber into these magnificent gifts.”

Completely shocked, and seeing nothing unusual in it he at first thought that she was joking. As he realized that she was serious he stammered, “Don’t know what you mean. Its just something I do. Anybody can do it. People work with wood all the time. Like back at the ranch. Ain’t nothing special, Ma’am.

*There was that Ma’am again. Boy was he uncomfortable* Edna thought.

“Heath, these are truly wonderful. You have a gift son, you really do. Thank you for sharing these with me. I had no right to snoop. I’m not making excuses, but I told you I could hardly stand it any longer.” With that Edna walked over to him and kissed his cheek lightly. “Stop by the house before you head home?”

“Okay,” he answered absentmindedly, as he tried to figure out what she was talking about. This was nothing that special. Anybody could do it. It just took time. With that he recovered the gifts and went to the field to begin another few hours of hard work.

While Heath plowed the field he had time to think about Edna. Her reaction to his gifts, his need to speak to her about working with Victoria on the charity auction, and his feelings of anger over her entering the barn despite his request to the contrary. This last thought was given the most attention.

He was upset and hurt that she had gone against his wishes. Oddly enough however, he was not feeling that familiar hollow feeling, followed by the tight constricting band that wrapped itself around his chest and squeezed. Maybe he was beginning to get a handle on the years of built up anger and betrayal he felt. Another novel, but welcome change from his past life. He needed to credit the Barkleys strongly for this. Each one of them had treated him like part of the family. Colleen was still with him, which felt wonderful. George too. Well he was the father he had grown up wanting and Edna was ..Edna. He really couldn’t place her. A favored aunt perhaps.

Today Edna had done something he had never really encountered. She had stood her ground and apologized. Apologized to him. He couldn’t remember ever really being apologized to. She seemed to need his forgiveness and he was ready to forgive.

He completed the field and went to talk with Edna about the charity auction. Dunking his entire head in the horse trough, he rinsed off the dirt, grime, and sweat. Well at least he felt cleaner. Shaking the water from his head, he went to the door and knocked.

He heard Edna call “Come in Heath.”

Entering he stood just inside the doorway, unconsciously resurrecting the old barriers he so often resorted to. Before he could get his question out, Edna said, “Heath, again I’m so sorry. I have been in here feeling guilty all afternoon. Can you forgive me?”

Realizing he was barely in the house, he gave himself a mental shake as he both heard, and felt, her guilt. Twisting the toe of his boot in the carpet, he moved forward and gave Edna slight half smile then picked her up and placed a light peck on the cheek.

I can understand how you felt. Probably would have had to have looked myself,” he said, as she beamed.

Replacing her on the floor, he felt his final reserves shatter and knew he had reached yet another turning point. It was then that he noticed George had come out of the bedroom, cleaned and ready for dinner. George was smiling at the reaction Edna had to being picked up.

“It’s been years since I’ve been able to do pick her up like that Heath, George said, Must be that strong back of yours.” With those words he settled himself on the couch to see what would come next. He always enjoyed the interplay between his wife and Heath. It seemed to do them both good.

“Edna, I need to talk with you about something,” Heath stated.

“Sure thing Heath. Go ahead.”

“Well I heard that you and Victoria were working on the charity auction together.”

“Yes, she is wonderful and everything else is falling into place as well.” she added with a twinkle in her eye.

“Lord, I hope I’m not to late when I ask if you could keep the fact that I’m working for you a secret. I’d rather she not even know we know each other.”

“Now Heath, I figured that out months ago. I didn’t decide to work on the charity auction so I could talk to Victoria about you. I’m working on the charity auction for an entirely different reason,” she giggled.

“Should I ask why, Edna, or is this better left alone?”

“You’ll see Heath, you’ll see.”

“That doesn’t sound to promising. I reckon this would be a good time to leave.”

Saying his goodbyes to both of them Heath rode for home, noting that even though it was late in the year it was still daylight outside. He must have really quit earlier than normal, and not even realized the time in his desire to clear the tension he had been feeling. As he relaxed he allowed himself to enjoy his early stopping time and just admire God’s country as he rode Gal toward home.

He took in the oasis of trees that surrounded Edna and George’s home, and the high brown hills lying to the east. The valley, golden now , covered by the wild grasses, knowing they were about to become a lush green with the winter rains. Finally he allowed himself the pleasure of looking north, toward the one sight that made him the happiest in this still untamed valley. There they were, the rough tree speckled mounds of the Black Diamond Hills. As he rode, lost in thought , and transfixed by the beauty of the area he now called home, he once again spied the wild herd of horses, the dark stallion in the lead.

Nick is right! That animal does seem to project both intelligence and bravery. With that thought inspiration struck Heath.

“Come on Gal, lets go,” he said as he spurred her toward the hills. If he played his cards just right, and was extremely lucky this could be the answer to his birthday problems for Nick. With everything else he was worrying about, he had relegated Nick’s November birthday to the back of his mind. He just couldn’t expend any energy on more than he was currently coping with, but when providence places something in your lap, you just go with it. As Gal drew near the rocky outcropping, Heath gathered his lasso. He mentally began to prepare himself for the long, and hopefully fruitful battle ahead.

Tangling with a wild stallion, one on one, wasn’t something even a seasoned cowboy did everyday, but he intended to have that horse for Nick. This was the first horse he’d ever noticed Nick take a personal interest in. The beautiful stallion would make a good future replacement for Coco, not that he would ever mention Coco’s age to Nick. That would be sure to land him in the horse trough nursing bruises, but sooner or later Nick would have to face facts.

Every instinct honed, Heath maneuvered Gal as close as he thought possible before reigning her in. Taking closer stock of the lay of the land, the wild herds likely path of escape, and his best place for a clean capture, he was delighted to see the stallion turn and lead the herd toward Granville’s Gulch. It was an area he knew well, and one of the best places he could think of to actually capture the stallion.

As the herd moved into the canyon he gave a loud YEE HAW! and raced Gal directly at the herd, knowing full well that the stallion would stay to defend his herd. The stallion would not retreat. Drawing closer he deftly turned Gal and now spurred her directly at the gorgeous dark beast. The closer he got the more agitated the stallion and herd became. The stallion neighed, and nipped at the mares to force them to flee the predator. Seeing them safely away the lead horse turned to face his enemy head on.

As the stallion charged, Heath seized what he felt would be his only opportunity. Offering a silent prayer, he twirled the lasso, as the stallion charged at breakneck speed. Gal, well trained and firmly under Heath’s control, only shifted slightly at the angry stallions rapid approach. The shift while noticeable was not enough to disturb Heath’s aim. With unerring accuracy, the lasso descended around the proud stallion’s neck. Heath, tying the lasso to Gal’s pommel and already reaching for the second rope held on for the fight of the century.

“Hang in there, Gal, just a little longer,” he murmured over and over in a soothing voice.

The stallion reared, bucked, and bellowed its anger, while kicking the wickedly slashing hoofs in Heath’s direction. Gal saved Heath’s life many times during the next half hour as she continued to back up, keeping tension on the rope looped around the stallion’s neck and keeping Heath out of the way of the lethal hooves. This allowed Heath the time he needed to ready the second lasso. After several futile attempts he finally got the second rope over the stallions neck. Rechecking, to make sure that the first rope was secure, as he refused to loose Nick’s present to stupidity, he dismounted.

Taking care to stay away from the still angry, frightened animal, he and Gal worked in tandem as Heath made his way to the other side of the canyon. Tying the second rope off on one of the scrub pines that dotted the landscape, Heath then moved to calm the stallion. As he moved in he made soft, barely audible soothing noises. Looking into the angry eyes and still snorting nose of the captured animal Heath projected only compassion, calmness, and reserve. For the next hour he crept slowly toward the horse, never letting up on the soothing words or the projected sense of peace.

The animal had spirit, that was a fact. Nick should really appreciate a fine horse, and he’s black. Heath smiled inwardly, he’ll match Nick’s clothing!

Finally heath decided it was time to make contact with the stallion, and moved close enough to touch his muzzle. Trying to rear, fear once again reaching his eyes, the stallion was stopped by the strong ropes holding him fast. Gently Heath reached up to pet the horse, then slowly backed away and went over to Gal.

“Good girl Gal. You did fine. Real fine.,” he said, as he removed his canteen. Returning to the tethered stallion, he opened the canteen, and slowly poured some water into his hands. Moving his hands to the stallions mouth he once again was hit with the full force of the animals frustration. Finally he could feel the wary hesitance, then the temporary end of the animals resistance, as he lowered his head fractionally to drink from Heath’s hands.

Still crooning softly Heath said, “that’s a boy” and untied the rope from the pine, remounted Gal, and headed for the line shack located on the Barkley land that bordered George and Edna’s home. It was a perfect place for the stallion.

He decided his first tour of the many Barkley holdings had paid off. He had been told the Barkley’s had built a pen there three years ago, when they had to separate two horses before a sale. They also used it as a coral for stopovers on the way back from buying trips, or to hold horses when it was in use by workers or the family. As far as he knew it hadn’t been used in two years.

Heath decided he would take the horse there, so he could work with him easily on his way to and from George and Edna’s. There was also little chance of anyone finding out his new secret, as he was the only one who really ever came this way.

He would need only to gentle the animal, and get him saddle ready and able to ride, before Nick’s birthday. It was something he was sure he could accomplish in the one and a half months he had remaining. Thanking God for this gift for his brother, that would only cost him time, not money Heath returned home, exhausted and sore, but happy.

“You missed dinner again, Heath!” Nick said upon seeing his brother enter the foyer and start to head up the stairs.

“Silas left dinner out for you, Heath,” Audra added.

Although tired and sore from his struggle with 1300 pounds of angry stallion Heath smiled at his family and said, “How about after a bath, to clean this grime off, I join you for pool tonight?”

“I’ll whoop you boy,” Nick called, as Heath headed up the stairs.

Enjoying the sight of Heath’s smile, the entire family felt their spirits rise.

“Amazing, how important he’s become to us in so short a time,” Jarrod stated.

“I just wish I knew why he wasn’t around very often, and why he is always so tired. I miss his company.” Audra said.

The sentiment was echoed around the room.

The games and the conversation were light that night except for Nick continually asking Heath where he spent all his time.

“What if I need you for an important job?”

“Don’t I get all my work done?” Heath asked.

“Yep, but that’s not the point. Where do I find ya if I need ya?” Nick repeated.

“Nick, I told you, I go riding with Gal.”

“Can’t do that all the time, boy!” Nick almost yelled.

Oh, quit pestering him Nick,” Audra said laying aside her embroidery. I know he’s not seeing any of my friends. I’ve asked. So what ever it is he’s doing it can’t be all that important.”

“Are you checking up on my private affairs?” Heath asked, more angrily than he intended.

Jarrod, ever the peacemaker, said, “No Heath, the family just worries about you. You miss dinner regularly, seem very tired, and frankly we miss your company.”

“And I need your help,” Nick added.

“Oh Nicholas, quiet.” Victoria finally joined the conversation. “ It’s Heath’s business and unless he chooses to tell us what he does then there is nothing we are going to do. Heath , just be careful, no one wants you to get sick. We’re here if you need us.” That said she returned to her book.

“Then I’d better get a good nights sleep, that way I won’t get sick, and I can help Nick even more than my usual full day,” he added winking at Audra. “Night,” and with that he headed for bed.

As he closed his door, Nick was downstairs saying, “Pappy, I’m going to find out what that boy is up to, mark my words. If what he’s doing is hurting or going to hurt this family I’ll have his hide with in an inch of his life. See if I don’t.”

Jarrod’s, “Now Nick we agreed……..” was met with Nick’s turned back and stomping up the stairs to his own room.

Nick knew that if he was going to catch Heath, he’d have to be ready to leave at the ungodly hour his brother rose each morning, but no matter. His mind was made up. He fully intended to catch Heath as he was sure that Heath was up to no good. Gambling the ranch away, wenching, drinking, making shady deals with Barkley money, hell possibly even stage robbery, there had been enough of those lately, the list was endless. Nick also couldn’t wait until he had caught Heath red handed. As certain as he was that Heath was up to no good, he was just as certain that he would enjoy letting his little brother know just how displeased he was, by beating him to a pulp.

Nick arose pre-dawn, and almost decided that he needed to go back to bed. Only the realization that this was the only way he could find out what his elusive brother was up to, was to get moving. He dressed slowly, cursing the entire time. No one should be up before the sun. Breakfast was next, and for the first time in months, he had to scavenge from the kitchen. Cold toast wasn’t nearly as filling or pleasing to the palate as the eggs, ham, and bacon, he usually enjoyed.

Leaving by the back door Nick went straight to the barn. *What! Gal was still there. Where was that lazy brother of his? * he thought. He then began to laugh. *Wasn’t that something. Probably the only day Heath has slept in and here I am awake.* Deciding to start work on the equipment repair so he would be there when Heath made an appearance, Nick made his way over to the rows of broken tools.

“I hate this work,” he muttered, picking up the first of the many hammers that needed fixing. Taking the stockpiled spare pieces of wood he began to fashion wedges that would be used to reattach the handles. After fashioning about twenty he placed the wedges in the top of the hammers to anchor the handles. Pounding them in he filled them with scrap bits of wood. When this was completed he threw the entire batch into a warm mater bath, used to cause the wood to swell, forming a tight grip on the inserted handle. When they had dried for a few days the tops would be sanded and smoothed until they were as good as new. He next moved on to the axes.

*There must be something better to do* he thought as he examined the axe handles. Deciding he just couldn’t take any more of this today he went over and straightened out the ropes, looking for those that were in need of repair, he added them to the pile, and moved on to inspect the saddles that were used for breaking in the horses.

*God he hated winter jobs! Where was that brother of his? He’s not going to sleep all day, and my mind is made up. I don’t care if the family did vote to leave him alone. I’m bringing that boy in, and telling the family just what he’s been up to. They are all wondering as much as I am. Well, today we will find out, and all his sneaking off will stop.*

Heath woke late not realizing the family had decided to let him sleep in. Coming downstairs he saw Silas clearing the sideboard.

“Wait Silas, any more of the raisin bread I smell left?”

“For you Mr. Heath, of course. I saved you some special like.” He handed it to Heath and watched as he greedily licked off the icing before sinking his teeth into a large chunk of the delightful confection. “Sure do like raisin bread Mr. Heath.”

“It’s Heath Silas, Heath. I keep telling you.”

“Yes Heath you do, and I keep forgetting.”

“Where is everybody Silas?” Heath questioned.

“Well Miss Audra and Mrs. Victoria have gone to the dressmakers, then to a Ladies Guild meeting. Seems there’s a problem with the pumpkins. Mr. Jarrod left for Stockton as well, and Mr. Nick is in the barn working on all that equipment that seems to need fixing.”

“Thanks Silas,” Heath said, taking another chunk of the raisin bread, winking and heading out the door. Heading toward the barn Heath could make out Nicks penetrating voice as he instructed David on the laying in of the food for the cattle for the winter. David was relatively new. Newer than Heath, and Nick, Heath noted always took the time to explain each job to a new hand. It was one of the things that made him a great boss and a natural leader. Only trouble was, after the explaining was done you had better do the job right. Nick didn’t take well to sloppy work or lazy workers. Many men found that out the hard way, when they were dismissed for shoddy work.

“There you are Heath, Nick greeted him. I thought today we would stick around here and break in those two new horses, and finish some of this equipment.”

“Sure thing, Nick, I’ll work with the horses.”

An hour later Nick moved to the coral alongside the group of hands already there. *Heath was a hell of a ride, Nick thought. That mare doesn’t stand a chance.*

Heath was tenaciously clinging to her back as she did everything in her power to throw him. As good as she was, she was no match for Heath and she eventually quieted. Heath rode her around the coral four times before dismounting.

“Gave me a good workout girl,” he said as he spied Nick and moved in his direction amidst the congratulations of the other hands.

“Nice ride, Heath,” Nick tossed out as he approached.

Smiling at the praise from his brother Heath asked, “You taking the last one?”

Looking at the roan filly Nick replied, “I think I’ll take you up on that, I’ve seen enough broken equipment for the day.”

“I’ll just watch for a bit then get started on it, Okay, Nick?”

“Fine Heath. And while your at it check David’s progress,” Nick said already loosening his neckerchief and putting on his spurs.

“Sure thing.” Heath called.

Watching his brother break a horse was always fun for Heath. Nick sat and rode for all he was worth, and the horse always gave in. Heath still wasn’t sure if it was skill or the extreme force of character on the horses back that finally had the horse capitulating, but the determined set of Nick’s jaw always made him wonder. Noting that this horse too would bend to Nick’s will Heath checked on David’s progress, found it fine and set to work on the repairs. About five o’clock, as he was replacing the tools he’d used he saw Nick walk in the barn and saddle Coco.

“Where you headed, Nick?”

“I’m going to Stockton to see Jarrod on some financial issues. Want to come?”

For a brief second Heath thought he saw something in Nick’s eyes then decided he had imagined it. Nick often went to workout finances with Jarrod. The ranch was a very prosperous enterprise, and money needed to be moved from one place to another frequently. This much he had learned.

“Not today. Nothing I need to do in town. Catch up with you later.”

He watched as Nick rode off, thrilled to be able to escape on a Friday. He wouldn’t go to George and Edna’s but would work with the stallion for a bit. He saddled Gal, and rode off failing to notice that Nick was hidden behind the barn following his ride with his eyes.

As Heath left his line of sight Nick took off after him. He didn’t want Heath to know he was being followed, so he got the general direction down and would track him from there. He was a very adept tracker. Unless Heath headed into the rock hills he would have no trouble finding him, and it looked to Nick that Heath was headed away from the rocky region of the valley. Following as close as he dared, Nick reigned in sharply when he heard the distinct sound of a horse near the unused line shack.

*So that’s where he’s going, I wonder who’s horse I’ll see tied up alongside his, * Nick thought, seeing Colleen’s face come to mind. He slipped off Coco and left her tethered to a tree about 400 yards back from the line shack. There was no way, with the trees, that Heath could see or hear Coco from the shack. Especially if he’s doing what I think he’s doing, Nick fumed. This was so easy. This line shack was in a lightly forested area making Nick’s approach simple. Creeping through the trees, Nick felt his anger grow by the minute. Here Heath was, having all sorts of fun, while the family worried themselves sick over him. *Well Heath, your carefree days are numbered* he thought as he drew near the clearing.

Stopping, his mouth dropping open in shock, Nick was confronted with the sight of Heath working steadily with a wild stallion. His stallion! Why hadn’t Heath told him? A horse of this caliber, well just catching it alone, would account for weeks of sore muscles. As he continued to watch Heath work his magic on the stallion he realized that if Heath was spending his time here it was no wonder he was so tired. Breaking horses was long tiring work and this horse would be no exception. The intelligence still shone from its eye. The fright, although diminished, hadn’t left him, and his proud bearing bespoke weeks of work. No wonder Heath was tired. But why was Heath here at the line shack breaking this horse? Why hadn’t he taken it to the ranch? Did he want the stallion for his own? He had Gal. He seemed to love her, even if she had short legs. Nick did acknowledge to himself that Gal was an excellent cutting horse, and she and Heath worked expertly as a team.

Feeling the mystery solved of where heath spent his time, Nick returned to Coco. As he untethered her to lead her quietly away before mounting, he gently leaned over and petted her silky muzzle. It was then that the rest of the puzzle fell into place. Touched beyond measure, Nick knew without a doubt that Heath was keeping that horse a secret so he could surprise him with it for his birthday. Feeling instant remorse at his earlier suspicions he headed home to tell his family not to worry about Heath.

At first he felt a wonderful sense of wonder, that this brother of his would go to all this work for him. As he let his mind drift to the gorgeous animal Heath was diligently working on, his eyes grew misty. A quickly as it dawned on him that it was a birthday present he too realized that it was only a matter of time before he had to face the training of Coco’s replacement. Refusing to dwell on such a depressing thought, Nick spurred Coco toward home. As they raced the very wind itself, it seemed to Nick that he was defying anyone or anything to tell him Coco was aging.

Arriving home, thoroughly spent, both physically from his breakneck ride and hard day of labor, and mentally from his startling revelations concerning Heath and Coco, he handed Ciego the reins and headed toward the house. Stopping, he returned to Coco’s side and told Ciego he would see to him personally. His news could wait. Coco couldn’t. Taking Coco to the barn, unsaddling, currying, and giving Coco fresh food and water put him in a calmer frame of mind. Maybe that’s what Heath sees in the horses, he thought, as he turned and gave Coco a final pat for the night.

Approaching the house, Nick realized he was hungry. Glancing at his watch told him it was time for dinner. Realizing Heath would not be joining them again, Nick decided that this would be as good a time as any to report what Heath was doing.

“Oh, Nick, good, you’re in time for dinner,” Victoria said.

“Just let me clean up quickly then I’ll be down. There’s something I need to let you know.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Heath then, he’s not here?” Audra questioned.

“No, Audra, I don’t want Heath to hear this conversation. I also know he will not be here for dinner,” and leaving it at that he went upstairs to change. The minute he left the room, the conversation began.

“What was that cryptic remark about?” Jarrod began.

“You don’t think he’s mad at Heath again do you?” Audra questioned.

“One never knows. They fight one day, and are best friends the next,” Jarrod added.

“We will just have to wait for Nick to return,” Victoria stated calmly.

“Isn’t it interesting to see them behave as brothers do. All the sibling rivalry coming out. Nick always wanted a younger brother. He is the first one to get angry at Heath and the first to defend him when he’s in trouble. They make a great team Mother, and even better brothers,” Jarrod stated.

Agreeing, they rose as they heard Nick’s heavy tread on the stairs. Meeting him at the bottom of the staircase they all went into dinner. While they ate Nick filled them in on his days activities and more specifically, his desire to find out where Heath kept sneaking off to.

“I thought we decided against spying,“ Victoria stated coldly, looking directly at Nick.

Moving around in his seat, knowing that his Mother was displeased Nick said “You’re right. We did. But since we were all wondering what he’s been up to, I decided to follow him anyway.”

“And?” Audra interrupted.

“And if you’ll let me finish I’ll tell you,” Nick goaded.

“Well hurry up, Nick” Audra quipped.

“Well I just want to tell you not to worry any longer. He’s fine,” and with that Nick resumed eating.

“NICK! Continue,” Jarrod stated emphatically.

“Hold on Pappy. I’m getting to it, Nick grinned. Heath is spending his time out at the line shack north of here. Seems he caught a wild stallion and…..as Nick stopped to take a strengthening breath Jarrod said “Go on.”

“And he’s breaking it. I think he intends it to be my birthday gift.”

Victoria watched her strong son struggle with his news. This was a moment she had been dreading. Nick having to let go of Coco would be a very rough for her son. Perhaps even rougher than losing his Father. The entire family had support over Tom’s death, Nick would fight his grief over Coco alone.

“Well that explains things,” Jarrod said. “Seems that the time for worrying was when he was catching the horse, and that we didn’t know about.”

Mother, Jarrod, Audra, I’d rather Heath not know what I found out. It is …..oh I can’t think of the word I want.” Nick mumbled.

“Sweet,” Audra suggested.

“Thoughtful,” Jarrod tried.

“Perfect,” Victoria stated.

“Yeah, something like that……I guess,” Nick said gruffly.

“Now that we know where Heath disappears to, I know I’ll rest easier. I just wish he was here more, and not working so hard. Now lets end this conversation and get back to dinner,” Victoria said.

Heath came in that night during a game of cards between Victoria and Audra, and a heated debate over land rights, between Nick and Jarrod. Heading for the kitchen to grab a sandwich he noted that everyone had stopped what they were doing and were looking at him. *What now* he thought.

“Evening,” he said.

“Hi Heath, going to join us?” Victoria asked.

Heath felt it came out as more of a statement than a question. “I’d like to but right now I’m going to grab a bite to eat and a hot bath. See you tomorrow at breakfast.”

“We’ll look forward to it,” Victoria couldn’t help saying to his retreating back.

Slipping away he heard the debate continue and once again realized he missed his family. After his bath, he fully intended to go to bed, but felt himself drawn downstairs. Reaching the bottom stair he realized that he heard no conversation but that the fire was still burning in the fireplace. Knowing that it hadn’t been left untended, he entered the family room, knowing he would find Victoria there.

“Not in bed yet, Heath?” Victoria asked.

“No, thought I’d gamble catching someone awake. I’m glad its you.”

“Do you want to talk Heath? I’ve sensed something has been bothering you. Since you’re not home often, I haven’t had a good opportunity to ask, and I don’t want to pry.”

“I know, and thank you,” Heath said returning his gaze to the fireplace.

Victoria remained quiet, as this often got him to speak more than direct questions ever could. She remembered the first time she realized that. Libby, Heath’s old girlfriend from Strawberry, had been shot and died while trying to frame Heath for her husbands murder. That night he had stood here, staring deeply into the fire. Her questions did nothing, but as she stood, offering him her silence and strength he talked of his love for her, her connection to his previous life, and his guilt over her death. More words at one time than he had said since the first night, when he had ridden into their home, full of anger. The night of Libby’s death hadn’t brought anger. Instead Heath had trusted a family member, her, with his innermost feelings. She had already loved him. This made him her son.

“Mother?”

Placing a gentle hand on his shoulder she answered the hesitant question with a soft “Yes?”

“Just want to say I’m sorry for being gone so much. I enjoy being with the family more than you will ever know. It’s just that right now I need to be gone. Trust me?”

She heard the unspoken please. “I do. We all do, Heath. Take your time. When you’re ready we will be here.”

“Thanks.” He turned, kissed her cheek, extinguished the fire, and escorted her to her room. As she watched him cross the hall to his room she once again gave thanks to the Lord for guiding this son and brother to their home.

*****

Part 2

 

Heath too was giving thanks for a Mother’s understanding and unfailing trust. He would never let her down. Her happiness, the families happiness, was a primary goal. He was learning to trust again and he could count the people on two hands that he could thank for this miracle. Each helping in his or her own way. Each reaching out with acceptance. The wary feeling was not there as often. Only occasionally, did he feel, that the rug would be pulled out from under him anymore. It only really occurred on trips to town, when a loudmouthed cowboy made a drunken comment. Heath smiled as he realized he walked away more often than not now. Funnily enough, Nick was the one taking the physical abuse, as he fought the town against the verbal abuse and stereotyping hurled at Heath.

The next few days flew by for everyone in the Barkley household, as each tackled not only their own responsibilities but helped in the preparation for the quickly approaching Harvest festival.

Audra and Colleen worked side by side making sure the games were planned, the persons assigned would be running them, and all the necessary items needed to play them were on hand.

Victoria and Edna, met every other day in Stockton, to finalize the charity auction. Each of the female participants was confirmed and flyers stating the particulars were distributed. Edna also took the time to interview each lady, claiming she needed the information so the men would know the ladies interests, thereby bidding higher and increasing profits. At least that’s what she told Victoria.

As she interviewed each young lady that had agreed to participate, she listed their interests deemed two acceptable for introduction to Heath. The first was Jenny Watkins and the second Virginia Wheeler. Both were quiet ladies who enjoyed cooking, sewing, and horses. She felt that Heath needed all these qualities in a wife to be happy. Someone needed to make sure he ate, and had descent clothing, but more importantly Heath’s love for horses needed to be shared by his wife. She had seen the calming influence just petting Gal gave him when he was unsettled, and he enjoyed breaking their horse more than any other task he had tackled for them. Did an excellent job too. Dhalia, as they called her, was well mannered, calm, and easy to handle by either herself or George.

Nick, while managing the ranch, also took the time to oversee the gathering of over 400 pumpkins and get them delivered to the town for the annual carving contest. Nick hated pumpkins. He had expected to turn this job over to Heath this year, however knowing that Heath was spending his extra time getting his stallion broken, he decided to let him off the hook. Now next year would be a different story. He never wanted to touch a pumpkin again.

There had been a problem with the pumpkins this year when the first batch was loaded. A wagon wheel broke spilling the pumpkins all over, and damaging all but a few. It took time to clear away the smashed pumpkins and choose another batch. This was important as each pumpkin needed to be about the same size and shape. God but Nick hated pumpkins. He wished that they didn’t even grow any, but the entire valley counted on the Barkleys to provide the pumpkins every year. *Maybe next year they could carve potatoes!* Nick thought.

Heath and Jarrod by luck and design avoided becoming involved. Jarrod pleaded an important case, which wasn’t an outright fabrication, and Heath was just not home enough to get roped into the work.

As October 30th drew to a close, Audra’s anxiety increased to a point where she couldn’t sit still.

“I need to just check on one more thing Jarrod, could you go over this list with me?” Audra asked, pacing around the family room.

“Not tonight Audra. Everything is done. The festival is tomorrow, and you need your rest,” Jarrod chuckled at her obvious discomfort.

“Jarrod, Please! Please! I know it should be fine, but all the children are counting on me. I would be positively mortified if something went wrong.”

“There, there Sis, Nick and I will help tomorrow with the kids games. How’s that?” Heath said in an effort to calm Audra down.

“Now wait a minute there boy. I’m not helping with the kiddie games. I have more important things to do.” Nick stated.

“Oh yeah. Like what?”

“Like making sure everything is ready for the charity auction, the pumpkins are in place, and the horses are ready for the contest. Is that enough for you?”

“Boy Howdy, Nick. I had no idea you were that involved in this Festival.” Heath said shaking his head and trying to hide a grin.

“How could you Heath, Nick said coming up and placing his hand on Heath’s shoulder, this is your first time at this festival. You haven’t been here for most of the division of labor either.”

Feeling guilty over his assumption Heath said, “yeah , you’re right. Do you need help Nick, or should I still help Audra with the children’s games in the morning?”

“Help Audra. The pumpkins just need unloading, the horses are stabled. I just need to check on them for last minute problems, and the charity auction, well, they don’t need help. Just thought it might be fun,” He added smiling as well.

“Thank you for mentioning we had the auction under control. Really Nick, there is nothing for you to do except talk to the girls.” Victoria pointed out.

“I know, Mother, I know,” he winked.

Shaking his head, Heath said “Nick, I’ll go unload the pumpkins early tomorrow, then help Audra til the games end at 11:30. I want to do my share. How’s that sound?”

With obvious disgust Nick said “No need, but as I hate pumpkins I’ll take you up on it.”

“I would appreciate your help as well, Heath, Audra said, it just might help me sleep tonight knowing you’ll be there.”

Taking care not to remind Nick that the kids games were where Colleen would be found, Heath answered “Fine. See you tomorrow.” then went to bed followed closely by the rest of his family.

Heath rose early, startled to hear movement from down the hallway. He was usually the first one up. On his way to the bathroom to shave, he noticed light was coming from under Audra’s door. Knocking softly he asked, “Any problems?” as she answered her door.

“No, I just know you rise early and I was hoping for a ride into town.”

“Sure thing Sis. I’m leaving in fifteen minutes.”

“Would you grab me something to eat from the kitchen. There is no way I can be ready and eat in fifteen minutes. Do you always do everything so fast?” she chuckled.

“Not everything.” he responded, looking down at the carpet to hide a blush.

Shivering in the early morning air and muttering about how long women take, Heath was impatiently standing by the buggy when Audra arrived, ten minutes late.

“Let’s get going. Here’s a sandwich.”

“Heath, sandwiches aren’t for breakfast,” Audra pouted.

“They are today. Let’s get moving.”

Helping Audra into the buggy, Heath took the reins and began the trip into town. As brother and sister enjoyed the early morning ride, the companionable silence stretched. As they crested the top of the hill that would signal their descent into Stockton, Heath abruptly reigned in the horses, stopping the buggy. As Audra took in the sunrise from the top of the hill, she leaned close to her brother and whispered, “Now I understand why you enjoy rising before the dawn. It’s spectacular. I’d forgotten.”

No response forthcoming, she added, “Heath?’

Bring himself back to reality, he said “We’d best be getting a move on.”

As Audra moved closer to Heath, she felt privileged to be allowed this glimpse of her quiet brother. He still had many surprises to share with the family. It seemed like he had been with them forever. It took moments like these to realize he was still an unknown in many ways.

Maneuvering the buggy toward the town square, Heath handed his sister from the buggy and proceeded to park it at the livery stable.

“Morning Gabe. Usual place?”

“Morning Heath. You know I’ll take care of this for you.”

“Yep, but I’ll do it. Save you the trouble.”

“It’s my job Heath, no trouble. I tell you that every time you come in. What is it with you and personally taking care of all your horses, buggies, wagons, etc…? Gabe questioned. The rest of the family trusts me.”

“Its not a matter of trust. Just taking care of what’s mine.” Heath responded, as he went to work.

“Suit yourself, Heath,” Gabe said, shaking his head.

After making sure the buggy was stored and the horses were cared for, Heath walked back to the square to begin unloading the pumpkins. He figured that if he spent time unloading this early in the morning, he would warm up enough to avoid needing a coat until later that night. He could find a way to stay warm then. It had been hard not letting Audra see how cold he was, not that he expected her to really give it much thought. She was concerned with pleasing the children. *She will make a fine mother,* he thought. Still as she moved closer to him when they stopped to view the sunrise, he had welcomed her warmth.

Waving to his sister and Colleen, he headed to the piled up pumpkins on the two buckboards. Boy Howdy, but that was a lot of pumpkins. Nick had said so , but until he had seen them all stacked on top of each other, he never really understood what Nick’s griping was about. Bending to his task of unloading the pumpkins, he began taking them from the wagons, and piling them in the roped off area Nick had described. By eight a.m. he was tired and there were still pumpkins to go. *At least I’m not cold, actually kinda warm. Wish the saloon or café would open up. I could use a cold drink.* As he continued to pile the orange pumpkins, his mind wandered and a slight touch on his shoulder made him freeze.

“Colleen?” he said gently.

“I brought you some water Heath. It’s nice and cold.”

Thanks, you’re a mind reader.” he said taking the glass from her proffered hand.

Drinking the water thirstily, he handed the glass back to her this time keeping contact with her hand.

With a twinkle in his eye, he said “Let me show you something.” and quickly pulled her behind the huge pile of pumpkins.

“If you get down real low you can see something amazing. Here put down the glass and look closely.”

“What is it Heath.”

“It’s down here, look!” he said, as he pulled her to her knees, while pointing to a spot between two pumpkins, near the ground.

“Just what am I looking at?” she asked.

“Don’t you see. They’re orange.”

“Heath, she finally choked out, everyone knows pumpkins are orange.”

“Really? Well did you realize that way down here nobody can see me do this?” and he kissed her laughing lips.

What started out as a “Heath” turned into a moan as she began to kiss him back.

As he drew her towards him they fell against each other, throwing Heath against the pumpkins, which decided to pick that moment to topple.

Blushing red, and trying to hide their snickers, Colleen and Heath quickly found their footing. Heath helping her to stand called out in a louder voice “Are you okay, miss. I’m sorry you tripped.”

“ME!” she began to yell, then stopped abruptly as she realized he was trying to salvage the situation. Closing her lips tightly, she hissed at him, “Make this look like my fault will you Heath Barkley. Expect a payback before the day is out.” She turned and winked briefly taking the sting from her words as she moved toward Audra, who was rushing over to them when she saw the pumpkins crash.

“Heath, Colleen, are you alright? What happened?” Audra asked.

Noting Colleen’s glare, Heath said jauntily “Colleen tripped and knocked down the pumpkins. Now I have to begin again.”

“Serves you right Heath Barkley. I’ll be right there, Audra. I need to collect the water glass.”

“Are you sure you’re fine, Heath?”

“Fine Sis. Go on now. Git.”

Looking at Colleens still angrily glinting eyes he was surprised by her next comment. “Heath, If you ever need help knocking down pumpkins, I’ll be glad to assist.” and squeezing his hand briefly, she rejoined Audra across the square.

Smiling happily Heath began the task of re-stacking the pumpkins for the contest. As he neared completion, for the second time. He saw Nick and Jarrod approach.

“Need help?” Nick called.

“Now you ask, seeing as how I just got done.” Heath quipped.

“Now that you’ve dealt with them all don’t you hate pumpkins?” Nick spat as he angrily surveyed the big orange stack.

“You know Nick, I actually think I kinda like them.”

“Lets go to the saloon for a game of cards and some beer until noon.” Jarrod said.

“Can’t.” came Heath’s reply.

“Why not? Nick asked, there’s no real excitement until noon, even though the Festival starts at 10:00am.”

“If you recall, I’m taking your place with the children’s games, and they start right about now.”

Nick and Jarrod followed Heath’s eyes to see almost every child in Stockton milling about near Colleen and Audra.

“They are all yours little brother. Let’s go Nick.” Jarrod said.

“Certainly Jarrod. Have fun Heath. I’ll be thinking a lot about you out here while I’m cleaning up at poker.” With that the two brothers left Heath on his own.

*Children’s games, how bad could they be,* Heath thought as he looked past the kids to Colleen. No he wouldn’t mind helping at all. As he reached them, he realized that they did need help.

Neither lady could be heard, so no one was doing as they were instructed.

“Oh Heath, Audra fretted, how can we get them quiet?”

“I need to know exactly what you want of them, Audra.”

“Well we need them divided into age groups. Ages two to four, five to eight, nine to eleven, and twelve and up. Then we need teams.”

Hearing her frustration, Heath gathered two older children close to him, and explained that he needed their help. Agreeing, they allowed him to lift them to his shoulders. He supported their feet and they grasped wrists, making a pyramid of sorts. This simple move captured the children’s attention. The older boy asked for silence. Being asked by one of their peers was always novel. They quieted, and Heath told Audra to go ahead. Thanking him, she and Colleen got the groups assembled and squared off for the first contest, an egg toss.

Heath, Colleen, and Audra plus three helpers, passed out the eggs to the children and Audra rang the starting bell. The egg toss commenced, and in seconds most of the eggs were broken. Seeing a small six year old boy crying, Heath snuck up behind him and gently handed him a second egg. Explaining how to arc the egg by throwing underhanded, the child tried again. This time it was caught by his eight year old brother. His brother deftly tossed it back , but the child failed to catch it. It broke at his feet. Sobbing the little boy fell to the ground. Gathering the boy into his arms, Heath asked his name and was rewarded with a muffled “Jimmy.”

“Well Jimmy, is this your first egg toss?” Heath asked.

“Yes..” came the tearful response.

“You know games aren’t about winning and losing, but rather how much fun you have. Now it doesn’t look like you had much fun, with you crying and all. Look around you Jimmy. What do you see?”

Turning the youngster to view the scene before him, he held the boy who was now laughing as hard as he had been crying minutes before.

Clapping his hands, the boy said, “Everyone is covered in egg guts. Look, Samantha has it in her hair. She’s my sister. She wanted Bill to like her. He won’t now, cause she is all messy.” Jimmy was laughing again.

Smiling and setting Jimmy on the ground, Heath slipped over to help with the three legged race. He decided to try to get Samantha and Bill to race together. He was unaware of the number of people watching him while he held Jimmy. Victoria watched with Motherly pride. Edna, in satisfaction, as she asked Virginia Wheeler to go and say hello, and Colleen in delight. Each of them thinking he’d make a good father.

Seeing Heath, unaware of Virginia Wheeler’s approach, Colleen smiled. Heath was about to be cornered and she intended to enjoy watching the scene unfold.

“Hello, Heath” Virginia called.

“Uh, hello Miss Wheeler,” Heath said, his eyes darting for an avenue of escape.

“I just thought I’d tell you how wonderful you were with little Jimmy just now,” she said, grasping his hand.

Trying to extract it without being rude Heath mumbled, “Thanks” and tried to turn away only to feel another hand on his back.

“Virginia, Colleen said, did you come to say hello to Heath? How kind. He’s been wonderful helping and such, I think he could use a break. Maybe some punch,” Colleen suggested.

“Great idea. Heath, lets let them finish while we have ourselves a nice chat,” and with that Virginia bodily pulled him away.

Heath turned briefly to look for Colleen, but she was already headed toward the children again. As he turned to Virginia he was compelled to turn around once more. Almost in perfect unison, their eyes met. His steady, hers sparkling, as she mouthed payback. As brief as the second was Heath could feel his mood lift, and he let himself be led by Miss Virginia Wheeler to the punch bowl, where he tried his best for the next twenty minutes, to escape. Virginia simpered at him the entire time and he could hardly stand it. Edna joined them briefly, asking Heath how he was, and from the looks of it, she gave Virginia a conspiratorial shoulder squeeze. Now why would she do that? He hoped she didn’t like Virginia. He wouldn’t want to hurt Edna’s feelings.

As his mind drifted in and out of Virginia’s insipid prattle he watched from his vantage point by the punch bowl, the three legged race, noting that Samantha and Billy were not partners. He then was treated to the barrel chase, the hoop roll, the relays, and finally made good his escape in time to join the last game of tag, by insisting Audra was counting on his help.

“See you later Heath,” Virginia drawled, fluttering her eyelashes.

Thinking about how he wanted to throw up, he quickly made his way to the tag game and helped referee who was actually tagged, as many children pretended they hadn’t felt the tag that was to freeze them in place. Audra’s, Colleen’s, and his word was final. After proclaiming a winner, Colleen and Audra left to change clothes for the auction.

As they moved toward the hotel, where they had a room for the day, Colleen said “You will be at the auction, won’t you Heath?”

“Umn , yeah, I’ll be there to watch,” he mumbled.

“Heath, you must bid on someone,” Audra said.

“Don’t rightly know about that Audra.”

“HEATH!” Colleen stated, quietly but firmly, her clear green eyes once again filled with anger.

Thinking quickly and trying to extract himself from Colleen’s anger he said, “I need to help with the uuuuummmmmmmm……….horses at lunch, seeing as how Nick will be at the auction. That’s been decided since that lunch at the house. Remember?”

Marching up to Heath, Colleen said, “If I have to eat lunch with Nick, you will live to regret it.”

“Colleen, I um…….”

“Nick had better not win me Heath! Do you understand?”

“Yes”

“Good,” she stated returning to Audra’s side.

“What was that all about?” Audra asked.

“Nothing really, just thanking him for his help this morning.”

“Wait Colleen, I’ll go thank him too, and Audra turned to see Heath shaking his head as he walked away. “Guess I’ll thank him later, let’s get dressed. Did you bring the blue or the red dress?”

“The blue one, Colleen answered. Which one are you wearing?”

“My orange. I love the sleeves,” Audra answered ,as the two girls compared fashion notes all the way back to the hotel.

*****

*Boy, am I in trouble* Heath thought, desperately searching for a way out. Colleen had made it perfectly clear that she would be furious if Heath didn’t bid and win her, and her Mother would be furious if he did. Even assing her on the street and saying hi, earned him a nasty look, if her Mother was around. Her Mother, would be there for the auction, he was sure, plus with the one dollar he didn’t stand a chance in hell of coming out the victor anyway. When he thought about it, he was truly amazed Colleen had been allowed up to the house so often.

Sitting down on the bench in front of the stable, Heath pondered. He had twenty five minutes to come up with a solution, when he remembered his brothers were at the saloon. Hey maybe a technicality would work. That’s it, he decided. A loophole. No, it wasn’t nice, but he was desperate. He would do it.

Rushing to the saloon, he entered just as Nick and Jarrod were ready to leave.

“Just where are you going? You said you’d buy me a drink!, Heath insisted. You can’t leave yet.”

“Need to get to the auction, Heath, can’t keep the girls waiting.”

“You promised, Nick.” Heath forced a hurt look.

An exasperated “Fine” left Nick’s mouth. “A beer for my little brother, Sam.”

“Hey, you got to join me, you didn’t have to help out at the kids games. Were celebrating.”

“Make it two Sam,” Nick called.

“Jarrod?” Heath questioned.

Noticing Heath’s mood seemed forced, and wondering what he was doing, Jarrod said, “No, but I’ll wait for you.” curious to see what transpired.

*Prefect, Heath thought, I may pull this off yet.*

“Cheers,” Heath called, as Sam handed them the beers.

Watching Nick down his in an attempt to get outside quickly Heath smiled and said, “Another for Nick, Sam.”

“Sure thing,” he replied, pouring another cold one.

“Come on Nick, you didn’t toast me! Cheers.” Heath called again. Clinking their glasses together.

Sighing, Nick clinked, and downed this beer too.

“Gee Nick, you must be thirsty! Sam another one please.”

Taking the beer from Sam, Heath again, didn’t give his brother time to think as he said, “Congratulations on outsmarting me brother. First you got me to unload those pumpkins for you, then I had to help with those kids games, and to top it all off, Virginia Wheeler cornered me. Looks like you made out well, drinking and playing cards in here with Jarrod. That deserves another round. Sam!”

“How many did you have before I got here Jarrod?”

Smiling at Heath’s overt manipulations, and laughing that this was the very first time Heath had ever talked so much in so short a time, Jarrod felt very inclined to continue his observations. He answered “Three.”

“Fine, just fine, Heath said. Drink up Nick, we got to get to that auction. Come on. Hurry!”

Seeing Nick down his fourth beer, Heath smiled.

His interest fully caught, Jarrod filed away the fact that Heath hadn’t consumed any beer, while he had maneuvered Nick into having four in less than fifteen minutes. Something was up, and he couldn’t wait to see what his younger brother was doing. This was a side of Heath he’d never seen.

As they turned to leave Nick reached for the bar and held on for support. All of a sudden he didn’t feel all that well.

“Come on Nick, we can’t be late. Let’s go.” Heath almost gloated. “Hey Nick, you don’t look so good. What do you think Jarrod?”

Giving Heath a knowing sideways glance Jarrod said, “No Nick, I must agree. You don’t look too stable.”

“What do you mean,” Nick thundered, feeling his stomach lurch.

“I mean you’ve had too much beer and not enough food.” Jarrod calmly stated, watching Heath’s face closely.

Seeing Heath smile and say, “You know Nick, those women would probably be furious if they saw you like this, maybe you should just sit here for a spell.”

“They would be mad.” Feeling a little realization kick in, Nick suddenly said, “This is all your fault Heath. I’m holding you responsible.”

“What do you want me to do Nick? Can I get you food, coffee, what? You really should know your own limits,” Heath goaded.

“Why you!” Nick yelled, knocking over a chair in his haste to get to Heath.

Allowing Nick to take the first swing, Heath absorbed the punch and said, while acting offended, “Nick why did you do that. I was trying to help?”

“Trying to help, boy! You just want the girls to yourself.”

“Now Nick, listen to reason. I’ll stay with you. You’re more important than some silly auction.”

Nick, angry and not wanting to listen to reason, punched Heath again. This time Heath punched back. It was a well aimed blow designed to leave Nick disoriented. Moving solicitously toward Nick, Heath and Jarrod helped him to a chair, and Heath told Jarrod he would stay with him.

“Jarrod, why don’t you go check out the auction. One of us ought to be there. I’ll sit with Nick. I’m feeling kinda guilty. Didn’t think the beer would hit him so hard.”

Feeling slightly angered, yet amused at what Heath had just accomplished, but unsure as to why Jarrod said. “Sure Heath.” With enough emphasis that Heath realized Jarrod hadn’t been fooled.

As Jarrod left the bar, he overheard Heath ask Nick where his wallet was, saying that he needed to pay Sam for all the beer Nick had consumed. Turning with interest once again, he heard Nick mumble as Heath withdrew Nick’s wallet and gave Sam some money. That brother has some nerve he thought as he once again headed to the auction.

Heath hoped it was worth it. At least Nick wouldn’t win Colleen, and that was what she had demanded. That Nick didn’t win her, not that Heath did. He was beginning to get a headache.

As Jarrod approached the auction he noticed the line of girls, all beautifully dressed and ready. Each held their basket, containing the lunch they would provide, to one lucky bachelor. Jarrod knew that the winners would be bachelors. No self respecting wife would let their husband near these girls. They were the town beauties. Mother and Edna had done a wonderful job. Everything was in order, the girls ready, and the risers filling fast with eligible men.

Promptly at noon, Victoria’s voice rose above the din, and everyone quieted in anticipation.

Gentleman, the ladies you see before you have graciously consented to allow themselves to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The winner will receive lunch, prepared by the girl they won, as well as that girls company for the entire lunch hour. As an added bonus the ladies have decided that the winner will be allowed the opening dance, with them as their partner, for the nights finale, the Festival Ball. Remember all money collected goes to the renovation of the orphanage, so loosen those wallets. Not only will you win a lovely girls attention, but you will be helping a good cause as well. Let the Auction Begin.

Edna moved to center stage and began the bidding. As each girl came forward, she told about the girls hobbies, and related a relevant fact; such as lightest dancer on two feet. The bidding was fast and furious. Each girl rewarded the high bidder with a brilliant smile and moved to the picnic tables to begin sharing the feast they brought with the lucky gentleman.

Jarrod knew Nick would feel fine in under an hour, but he still felt very conspicuous without his brothers in attendance. More than once he had noticed the ladies looking his direction. A few of those looks seemed to be silently asking where Nick and Heath were. Wanting to extract himself from the uncomfortable situation, he decided to bid on the gorgeous Helen Milton. She was new to town, and he had met her only briefly, but was intrigued. That would explain his presence, while allowing him to state he had no idea why his brothers weren’t around. Jarrod knew that all the Barkley men were sought after, but Nick was usually in such high demand that Jarrod didn’t want to explain he was in the saloon, recovering. He also wanted to avoid Mother, when she asked how he ended up feeling under the weather, this day of all days. Heath would never hear the end of it, if Victoria thought he had purposely kept Nick from the auction.

Looking at the stage, Jarrod noted that Audra was up. Edna had just said the Audra had a love of horses and was an excellent horsewoman. She then added that Audra’s brownies were the moistest in the county. Jarrod smiled, as he wondered if Edna had ever tried one of Audra’s brownies.

As the bidding commenced for his sister, Jarrod noticed her smile. It was good to see Audra enjoying herself. Usually the smaller city of Stockton didn’t provide the type of entertainment and social whirl he knew his sister longed for. He had to admit, seeing her all dressed up, that she could easily grace any theater hall in all of San Francisco, and blend in perfectly. Her manners truly were impeccable. She was still a little impulsive, but a few weeks in the big city would tame that tendency. He noted that Audra had been won for $26.00. That was a major handful of change for most of the men in town. As Audra regally walked to take Gordon’s hand, he noted that she seemed to shine. Gordon helped Audra off the stage, took the picnic basket from her hand, and escorted her over to a waiting table. Was there romance in the offing. Jarrod doubted it, but Audra was ripe for anyone who spent a little attention on her. He vowed to keep an eye on his sister, as he returned his gaze to the next lady.

As Colleen walked forward, Edna explained that Colleen was an excellent cook and enjoyed reading and helping children. She also added that Colleen was very sought after as a dance partner. As the bidding began again, Jarrod noticed that Colleen seemed to be searching the crowd for someone. Had her eye finally been captured? He agreed with the rest of the town, in thinking that Colleen was unobtainable. Gorgeous without a doubt, but she seemed cold, and very uninterested in men. Many tried to gain her attention, but after the initial attempt, few tried again. The Ice Queen, that’s what Nick called her, and he tended to agree. He had met women like her in San Francisco. The only thing that didn’t fit in was her friendship with Audra and the other young ladies of Stockton. As he thought this through, he realized that the bidding had stopped, and Colleen was being helped off stage by Brock Jameson, the rich, widowed, banker. She did not look pleased, but Jarrod was not surprised.

Next up, just before Helen, who he fully intended to win, was Virginia Wheeler. Edna motioned her forward and started her rehearsed speech with, Virginia is a lady of many fine talents. She loves horses, southern cooking, quiet times outdoors, and she is comfortable with ranchers and lawyers alike.

Good Lord, Jarrod thought. It sounded like she would be a perfect match for his brother, Heath. What a comical thought. Anyone who had ever seen Heath with Miss Wheeler, would instantly feel the tension that overwhelmed his younger sibling. Heath truly disliked her, and her she was, being described as liking all of Heath’s favorite past times. He couldn’t wait to relate this story to Heath and Nick.

Edna was busily scanning the crowd for Heath as she announced Virginia Wheeler. She had a plan that would get them together for the auction, and George was ready to participate in her scheme, but without Heath present it would never work. As the bidding ended, Virginia was handed to Dan Collins. Dan was smiling as he took her hand and she seemed pleased with the match up as well.

Virginia wasn’t happy, just polite. Where was Heath. She really wanted to eat with him and share the first dance together. Something must have held him up. She was sure after the punch this morning he would be looking for her. As she moved to the table with Dan, they began to talk, and she realized he was a very interesting man. Maybe she should think about others. Heath had held her interest for a very long time, but maybe he would come around if he saw someone else interested in her. With that she began simpering in Dan’s direction, hanging on his every word.

Jarrod was thoroughly enjoying himself. Mother looked pleased by the high bids. Edna, who they had all come to know, was relishing her position as the orator, and Helen was up next. Helen was a woman that Jarrod found fascinating.

As Helen moved to the center of the stage, Jarrod felt his excitement rise. She was splendidly dressed in a pale blue walking dress, embroidered with dainty blue flowers at the neck and wrists. Edna, began the bidding by explaining that Helen loved books, opera, and fields of flowers. She also stated that she wrote poetry when alone and was politically active in women’s right. Maybe he would read her some of his favorite poems by Walt Whitman.

Jarrod jumped in the bidding when the sum reached $20.00, and was gratified to see her smiling in his direction, as she nodded her head slightly, to acknowledge his interest. Jarrod was uncertain just how the bidding would go. Either the men would give up early, knowing they couldn’t outbid a Barkley, or they would up the bidding really high to see how interested he was.

At the bidding continued he realized they had picked the latter course of action.

Deciding to put a final halt to the auction, Jarrod stood up and said, “$75.00″. Hearing the gasps around him, he glanced toward Helen to be rewarded with a tender smile that reached her eyes.

As he took her hand to help her from the stage, she whispered, “Thank you. I wondered if by being educated and not yet well known in your town, I’d bring in enough money to make Victoria’s request that I enter, feasible.”

“I personally consider it an honor to eat lunch with you and dance the first dance tonight. Shall we sit here?”

“That would be lovely.”

And with nary a thought to his brothers Jarrod sat back to enjoy himself for the next hour, which quickly turned into two. The couple discussed everything. Scholastic achievements, political views, authors, and scientific improvements as well as dancing and the weather. .Jarrod also asked whether a ride the next day was possible, and received an immediate affirmative.

From down the street the entire gathering could hear Nick as he grumbled to Heath about missing the auction.

“Why if I didn’t know better, I would think that you didn’t want me to be there to bid, Heath,” he hollered.

“Now Nick, just calm down, came the muted response of his quieter brother. You know I would never do such a thing. Let’s go and see if the auction is over or if we can still get in on the action.”

“Now you’re talking.” Nick smiled as they headed to the deserted stage.

“Looks like were a little late, Nick.”

“I thought as much. Now I have to wait for the dance to have any time with Stockton’s finest.”

Wondering who Colleen had been paired with, Heath milled around the square until he spotted her. There she was sitting and smiling at Brock Jameson. *Boy howdy, Heath thought. He sure is everything I’m not. Rich, well mannered, cultured, rich.* His blood was boiling as he saw Colleen take Brock’s plate and carefully pack it away. As Heath moved closer, he saw Brock take her hand, raise it to his lips, and thank her for the delicious meal. Remembering his first picnic with Colleen, he realized that he hadn’t really thanked, her but rather abandoned her to his brother. Mostly he hoped she would still be speaking to him. He intended to enter the pumpkin carving contest with her. Moving away, his eyes downcast, he failed to see her perk up as he passed by.

Thanking Mr. Jameson for the company, Colleen allowed him to gather her picnic items and walk her to the hotel. As they neared the front entrance, Colleen spied her Mother, moving toward her. Her mother had spent the day judging pies, the ladies had entered in the bake off.

“Colleen, may I have a word with you?” her mother asked.

“Of course, Mother. Thank you again Mr. Jameson. I’m looking forward to the first dance tonight.”

As Brock left, Colleen’s mother began expressing her happiness at seeing her daughter with someone as influential as Mr. Jameson. “How did you like him? Is he as smooth and educated as he seems? When do you see him again?” The questions were coming fast, and Colleen just wanted to escape.

“Mother, he is very nice, and well mannered, however I don’t think I can see myself spending any time with him.”

“Why ever not? As you just said, he is personable, well educated, and respectable. I expect you to try and find something in him to like. Do you understand me?”

“I understand Mother, but my future happiness is the only thing that I refuse to let you have a say in. Do you understand me?” Colleen said stamping her foot.

“Of course I do dear, but it wouldn’t hurt to try and get to know him better would it? Her mother responded looking down the street. Spying Heath, she spat, at least he is respectable, unlike some men.”

Turning to follow her Mother’s gaze, but knowing exactly who she would see, Colleen stated, “I will make my own choice.” With that she turned to enter the hotel, only stopping when she heard her mother ask her to stay a minute.

“Wait dear! I know your happiness is your concern. I only want you to be happy. You know that.”

“Yes Mother I do! It’s just that your ideas and mine don’t always match. The men in this town can be so ..well….shallow. Now, tell me all about the baking contest. Did Della win again? I think she must make the lightest crusts in town.”

Being thankful for the change in topics, and her mother’s willingness to let the change stand, Colleen eagerly entered into a long boring discussion of Della’s triumph, the horrid taste of Greta’s filling, and on and on….

As the discussion continued Colleen saw Heath approach. She was surprised at this. He had stopped earlier when he noticed her Mother, but this time he seemed intent on talking to her anyway.

As he drew near she heard him politely say, “Hello, Mrs. McDougal, Colleen.”

“Hello Heath,” Colleen answered as she watched her mother’s lips purse.

As no response was forthcoming from Colleen’s mother, Heath continued, “I noticed that you had lunch with Brock Jameson.”

“Yes I did. Why?”

“Just noticed that it wasn’t with Nick. I thought he was going to bid on you.” Heath said, looking very uncomfortable.

“You know Heath, Nick wasn’t there at all. I found that odd, but my actual statement came true.” Colleen responded gaily.

“I was wondering, if you weren’t busy with your lunch partner, would you be my partner in the pumpkin carving contest, later tonight?”

Looking at her mother, Colleen said, “I would love to, Heath. Until then.”

“Until then. Good day Ma’am, Colleen,” and flashing her the most brilliant smile she had ever witnessed, he continued down the street.

“Colleen, that was badly done.” her mother stated, looking disdainfully at Heath’s retreating form.

“What would you have me do Mother? Be rude! You’re taking care of that for the both of us!” Colleen spat angrily as she whirled and left her mother staring after her.

*I’ll need to watch that girl, and ease up a bit, or else she will be marrying that man just to spite me.* Mary McDougal thought, as she returned to her elite friends. It was hard, with Victoria Barkley being one of the most prominent in her circle, but while she would be polite to her, she didn’t have to like her son one bit. He was below Colleen’s standards, by virtue of his birth. That alone was enough.

Colleen too, was thinking of Heath. He had to have been very concerned, or he never would have approached her, with her Mother there. He knew how her mother felt, and didn’t want to stir up trouble before it was necessary. Was he worried that she might actually like that pompous, boring Mr. Jameson? Hoping he was more sure of their relationship than that, she thought how funny it was that he managed to keep Nick from the auction. He had made good on her threat that he would suffer if Nick won her. She couldn’t wait to hear the story of how it was accomplished. Why he hadn’t been there, worried her though. She had hoped he would bid on her, and win. She had prepared his favorite meal, and fed it to Mr. Jameson. Where had Heath been, and why hadn’t he bid? These questions needed answers. She would think about this as she watched the bronc riding. She wanted to root for Heath, yelling and shouting with the rest of the town folk. It was getting hard to keep her feelings for Heath unknown, to her friends, her mother, and the town.

The family all stood together, enjoying a few moments of peace in a very hectic day, before the next onslaught of activities. Audra was pleased about how well the children’s games had been received, as well as enjoying herself at the auction. She was currently extolling the virtues of her lunch partner, Gordon.

“He does seem to be a real gentleman,” Victoria agreed.

“I’ve never heard a word against him,” Nick added.

As the conversation continued, Victoria glanced at each of her children in turn. Jarrod had seemed pleased with his lunch companion, but then she thought he would. Audra was obviously enjoying her day, and she was so proud of her daughters participation in the planning, this year. The children all had a wonderful time, from all the accounts she had been privileged to hear. Nick looked bored, she noted. He hadn’t been at the auction, but she would ask why later. He seemed to be having fun with the family right now. Finally she turned to Heath. He was also having a nice time. She could tell. It was so nice to see him loosen up she thought as she observed him shiver. Wondering why he was shivering, she observed him more closely. He was still shivering. It looked as if his teeth were chattering. Why wasn’t he wearing his coat?

As concern and anger rose, her usually calm demeanor was stretched, and she snapped, “Heath, where is your coat?”

“I’m fine, Mother.”

I didn’t ask if you were fine. I asked where your coat was!”

“It’s fine,” he repeated.

“No it’s not. You’re freezing!”

As she said these words the conversation stopped and everyone turned to look at Heath, who was visibly shivering by this point, part in fear, but mostly from the cold. As the sun had begun to set, the temperature had dropped rapidly, leaving him cold in the early evening air.

“I’ll be fine, he glared at each of them, I’ll get a coat in town tomorrow.”

“You’re in town today,” Audra said moving over to wrap her arms around Heath.

“The shops aren’t open. Case closed. Now about Helen, Jarrod you were saying that she was good company.” Heath said, trying to change the direction of the conversation.

Not willing to let it go that easily, Victoria marched up to him and said, “Heath Barkley, right now I am very angry. No one should be without a coat in this weather.”

A quick, “You’re right, I’ll take care of it tomorrow,” was met with Victoria’s retreating back.

“Boy is she angry.” Nick snickered, thinking it was nice to see Heath in trouble for a change. Usually he was the one being told to control his tone of voice.

“Yes, she is, Audra added, and that usually doesn’t bode well, brother.”

“Don’t fret, Sis. She’ll calm down by the dance tonight.”

“Are you sure you’re talking about our Mother?” Jarrod interjected, as Colleen joined the group.

“Have I interrupted something?” she asked, starting to back away.

“Just Mother, mad at Heath. Nothing important, Colleen. Did you need something?” Audra asked.

“Just came over to say hi, Audra. Are you ready for the dance tonight? You seem real fond of Gordon.”

“Yes, he is quite good looking, don’t you think?”

As the girls continued to talk, Nick rolled his eyes and Jarrod and Heath smiled in agreement.

“This could be a long conversation,” Nick said. “Lets go to the coral and check out the broncos.”

“Sure,” Jarrod agreed.

“Suits me,” Heath said.

As they began to take their leave of the girls, they were brought up short by Victoria snapping, “Heath, turn around here.”

In unison, the entire group turned towards Victoria’s voice.

“Since you can’t seem to get to town to pick up a coat, I took care of it for you. Put this on!” and she handed Heath a lovely light brown suede coat, with a fleece lining and collar, adding, “I refuse to have you sick.”

Taking the proffered coat and mumbling “Yes Ma’am” he put it on, feeling his stomach knot as embarrassment got the better of him. Not only had she purchased the coat for him, but she had presented it in public…in front of Colleen. Feeling sick, he started to walk away when Nick said,”Aren’t you going to the coral with us?”

“Uh, sure,” he said, and he walked toward the coral as quickly as his legs could carry him, leaving the brothers to follow behind, wondering at his abrupt change in mood.

Colleen too, wondered at Heath’s sudden mood swing. He had almost seemed vulnerable. He was definitely embarrassed. What had made him so withdrawn? She quickly thanked Audra for the conversation, telling her she would see her at the dance, then moved over to a bench to mull it all through. Heath. She loved him, but he was an enigma. Open, carefree, conciliatory, angry, quiet, brooding, gently, reserved, fun, intelligent, playful, and soft spoken. There were so many sides to him. Trying to divide them into categories, she decided when he was with his family he was usually quiet, soft spoken, reserved, conciliatory, and occasionally angry. When they were alone, he seemed more open, fun. Gentle, intelligent, and playful. The brooding struck no matter where he was, or who he was with. This was the one emotion she tied to the circumstances of his birth, and early childhood. Carterson hadn’t helped. He was very quiet on that topic as well, but with time she hoped he would open up. She had doubts that he had told his family about his time there yet.

Still unsure of his abrupt mood swing, she thought back over their dates. There were wonderful picnics, horseback rides, walks, and even once swimming in the pond. Well she wasn’t going to mention that one ever, but it was fun. The first time she met him at the dance she also considered a date. She loved spending time with him. Maybe they could go to the restaurant and then to the play that was coming to town in two weeks. The town was all abuzz. It wasn’t often they had actual live entertainment in Stockton. *Wait,* a thought popped into her head and started to take shape. He hadn’t asked her to the play, or the restaurant. He hadn’t taken her to the carnival outside of town either, even though nobody would know they were together. For the last fund raiser she had worn his favorite color, green, hoping he would be there. His entire family showed. He wasn’t there. He didn’t bid on her, or anyone, at the auction today. What was nagging at her? He was angry and embarrassed when Victoria bought him the coat.

That was it! She had pushed it to the back of her mind once before, but as the thought slowly resurfaced, she knew she was right. Heath, one of the Barkleys, had no money. He was embarrassed about not being able to provide for himself, and would do without, until he could, just like he had done as a child.

Wiping the tears from her eyes, she railed against his childhood, the fears that held him there, and his refusal to accept help. Victoria probably didn’t even realize she had offended his very stubborn sense of pride. This would be a challenge. Changing his mood without letting him know that she knew his secret. She doubted he didn’t have any money, but watching the family interact for the past two months, while helping Audra, she realized that they really never filled him in on anything. They just seemed to expect him to understand. How many times had she heard him say things like: “When was that decided, or I wasn’t aware.” Maybe they just thought he’d understand he had money. That all he had to do was sign his name to the bills and they would be paid. That’s how the town was run, once your credit was established. That’s what her Mother did. Heath was probably never allowed credit, having to pay cash wherever he went. What a mess!

Not caring if Heath was rich or poor, but hating to see him suffer, Colleen made a resolution to put a bee in Audra’s bonnet about maybe informing Heath about simple traditions, making sure to mention the credit issue.

As Heath watched the broncos, warm in his new coat, he felt his brothers draw near.

“You ready to ride, Heath?” Nick asked.

“Yep.. You?”

“Can’t wait little brother. I’m going to beat you good and proper. Show the ladies what a man is capable of doing,” Nick egged Heath on.

“Just what is that supposed to mean, Nick?” Heath responded angrily.

As the words began to escalate Jarrod promptly said, “Enough! First Heath stomps off leaving us to eat his dust, then you get mad at him and try to pick a fight. This is a family day. Let’s try to act like a family.”

“Right,” Nick grumped.

“Fine,” Heath mumbled.

Jarrod, pleased that his lecture had at least stalled a fist fight, placed a hand on each of his brothers shoulders. Feeling Jarrod’s touch, Heath and Nick looked at each other, smiled, and shook hands, both now cheerfully claiming to be able to beat the pants off of each other.

By the time the contest was over, neither brother felt much like celebrating. Heath had no idea where he had placed. He just knew his mind hadn’t been on the horse underneath him, and he was tossed early. Nick, shocked at his brothers performance, also wasn’t focused on the race one hundred percent. Early on in his ride he was also launched into the air, making a spectacular landing. He had stayed on for seven seconds, while the first place winner managed to double his time, staying on the bronco for a total of fourteen seconds.

The entire family returned to the picnic table they had staked out earlier that day. They ate a full dinner, commenting that Silas had outdone himself, once again. Only Nick, had room for the pie, Silas provided. Laughing as she cut it, Victoria noted that Nick could out eat everyone she knew.. Maybe next year they should have an eating race. Smiling once more, she decided to suggest it.

*Finally* Heath thought, as he heard the whistle blow. It was time for the pumpkin carving contest. He really didn’t care about the contest, but spending an hour with Colleen was something he was looking forward to.

Gordon came, and Audra excused herself, explaining they had paired up for the contest. Jarrod, too, said he needed to find Helen, as they intended to win.

Seeing Colleen make her way over o the table, Nick stood, only to hear her say, “Heath, are you ready, I want to get an orange pumpkin.”

Chuckling under his breath, Heath led Colleen toward the pile, so they along with the rest of the participants, could try to find the best one.

“Nick, Victoria questioned, who are you carving with?”

“I hadn’t asked anyone Mother. I’ll go find someone now.”

“Are you feeling well, Nick? You haven’t been your usual self,” Victoria asked concerned.

“Yes, fine. Just this day is getting away from me. Don’t really know how or why, but its turning out differently than I expected.”

“Oh, Mrs. Barkley, Nick, have you seen Heath?”

“Yes, Virginia dear, he is entered in the contest with Colleen. I expect they are finding a pumpkin as we speak.”

“Oh, I was hoping to be his partner. Well never mind. Nick, come on. Lets go.” she said, as she once again, bodily dragged a Barkley son away, that day.

Throwing a quick, “See what I mean, Mother,” over his shoulder, Nick joined Virginia in choosing a pumpkin, of all things. *Here I am carving a hated pumpkin with Virginia Wheeler. Well, she is pretty, just a little empty headed. Might not be so bad.* Nick thought as he set about his task with gusto, exclaiming loudly that he would win something that day.

It took no time at all for the pumpkins to be distributed, as each pair picked out one they liked. The pairs then dispersed and began their job of carving a winning pumpkin.

As everyone else began to clean their pumpkin, Heath was still walking around dragging Colleen with him.

“Just what are you doing, Heath,” she asked.

“Finding a good place to work on this. Come on.”

“What’s wrong with here?” she queried.

“Too many people to see what were doing. Wouldn’t want one of them to copy our ideas would you?” came his quick reply.

“I guess not. I didn’t know you would take this so seriously.” Colleen stated, confused.

“Oh, yes Ma’am, you have to have just the right atmosphere to carve pumpkins. It’s the way it is.” Heath said, pulling her down the street and behind the Sheriff’s office.

“Heath, it’s dark back here. We can’t see to carve the pumpkin. I can hardly see at all.”

“Wait just a second,” he said as he stooped and pulled out a lantern, which he proceeded to light.

“Now, Heath Barkley, you had this planned. Didn’t you?” Colleen giggled.

“The lantern, yep. Hid it here about a week ago.”

“Not just the lantern, but this entire location,” came the jaunty rejoinder.

Tipping his hat, he swept her a deep bow, saying “Of course my lady. Your Mother will never find us. We can carve quickly, then do what ever you want with the remainder of our hour.”

“What I want? I’d say you have some ideas already, cowboy.” she happily responded, then added with that glint he was starting to recognize, Did I tell you I want to win?”

Hearing his moan, she laughed out loud and then sat on the hard ground, asking him for his knife.

“Here, let me do that,” said Heath, resigning himself to cleaning the pumpkin.

After removing the lid, both reached inside, to help remove the pumpkin guts. As their hands pulled out the insides, Colleen choked out, “Oh look, they are orange too!”

This brought on another fit of laughter, that neither could stop. As they continued to scoop and laugh, Colleen looked deeply into Heath’s blue eyes, made dark by the dim light of the lantern. Her look drew his eyes to her face, and she reached out, cupped his face, and leaned over the pumpkin, kissing him soundly on the lips.

“Colleen,” he murmured, as he kissed her back.

Breaking for air, Colleen echoed “Heath” and drew him back in for another leisurely kiss, which he deepened as her resistance weakened.

Pulling her to a standing position so that their bodies could touch, they kissed deeply and passionately, their hands entwined in each others hair, one occasionally straying to a place neither could comprehend, as their passion rose. As Colleen backed toward the wall, Heath continued moving closer. Their backward progress was finally halted when Colleen’s back rested against the wall of the building. The rough texture of the building contrasted sharply to Heath’s glorious hands, as they caressed her neck. Taking her hands in his, he continued to kiss her as he raised them above her head and held them firmly in his grasp. He leaned in to continue kissing her, but allowed himself the liberty of kissing her ears, throat and neck, as well. As she moaned, Colleen arched her back and reached for his lips with her mouth. Heath left her neck and rejoined her as they continued to kiss.

The sound of the train whistle broke through their passion, and, returning to reality, they looked around and once again both began chuckling.

“Well this is a fine mess you’ve got us into Heath. How do we explain a pumpkin half full of guts?” Colleen tried to get out, through her laughter.

“Like this,” Heath said, taking the pumpkin and dropping it on the ground. “Would you look at that! All our hard work ruined because you tripped again.”

“I will not take the blame this time Mr. Barkley, but the concept works. Let me try this.” Lowering her voice and looking ready to cry she delicately whined, “Oh it was so beautiful, but then Heath dropped it. I’m devastated.” At this she broke into laughter again.

Trying to keep a straight face, but finding it impossible, Heath laughingly agreed to be the pumpkin destroyer this time. Extinguishing the lantern and picking up a few smashed pieces, they returned to the contest, where Colleen, retold their sad tale to everyone who would listen, while Heath sheepishly hid his face, so no one would see his laughter. Their story fooled almost everyone. It would have been more convincing to Nick and Victoria however, if they hadn’t noticed that each had pumpkin in their hair, and pumpkin stains on their clothing. Colleen, around her waist and wrists, and Heath, across the back of his new coat.Victoria was amused, but Nick didn’t find the situation funny at all. He fully intended to tell his brother so, and loudly, while they were changing for the dance.

“Colleen, dear, Victoria called, may I have a word with you?”

“Certainly Mrs. Barkley. What can I do for you?”

“I think I will be helping you this time, Colleen. A word of friendly advice as it were. You might want to freshen up before anyone else takes a close look at you.”

Looking at Victoria, and noticing her eyes twinkling merrily, Colleen nervously reached to smooth her hair. As she felt the pumpkin, she hastily said, “Thank you Mrs. Barkley” and turned and fled to the hotel.

“Where is Colleen going, Mother?” Heath questioned as he watched her run off, wondering what had upset her.

“Up to her room to clean up dear, um, you might want to go remove the pumpkin form your hair as well,” she stated still twinkling.

A deep blush immediately rose over Heath’s face as her words sunk in, and he to hastened to clean up.

*There he goes. Now’s my chance* thought Nick. He too left for the hotel, but for an entirely different reason. Feeling completely irate, Nick opened the door to their room and stopped. Heath was humming and smiling. Two things Nick rarely witnessed, in his quiet brother. As quickly as his anger had risen, he felt it recede, as he thought about the stallion Heath was breaking for his birthday, how Heath had unloaded the pumpkins for him, and how Heath’s friendship and skill made running the ranch an easier job, and more enjoyable for the companionship. Deciding that Heath deserved to be happy, Nick shut the door as quietly as he had opened it, and returned to sit with Virginia Wheeler, as the contest was judged, a small smile tugging gently at his lips.

It was replaced with a large grin and a YAHOO! As he puled Virginia Wheeler to her feet as they announced that theirs was the best pumpkin in all of Stockton.

Victoria noticed that this day really wasn’t turning out badly. Jarrod and Helen were sitting quietly, talking and smiling. Audra was happily conversing with Gordon. Virginia and Nick were beside themselves, dancing and laughing with elation as they claimed their prize, and Heath and Colleen were obviously happy. All of her children should have a wonderful time at the dance tonight.

This was proving to be a prophetic statement as each in turn whirled or was whiled around the make shift dance floor. It was really no more than a roped off area that had been smoothed, but with the candles providing light it seemed magical. Audra, Colleen and Helen, each, danced with their lunch partner. This proved to be no problem at all for anyone except Colleen, who wished the insufferable Brock Jameson to Jericho. When the first dance ended, Helen stayed wrapped in Jarrod’s arms. Even though she was much sought after, she had promised him the first two dances. She had a reason for this. In Boston, the first dance would be a spirited dance, and the second a waltz. She intended to waltz with Jarrod Barkley, one way or another, then she could mingle, as she had been brought up to do.

This exact same feeling was echoed around the room as girls had to give up their chosen partner. This was what polite society dictated. Too much attention shown to just one man, caused tongues to wag, and many a girls reputation had been damaged, due to gossip.

Heath stood beside the punch bowl once again, but this time he was contemplating how many times he could dance with Colleen before her Mother once again, forcibly dragged her away from him. As he watched, Victoria made her way to his side. He was the only one of her children not dancing, and lightly touching his arm she said “Colleen would love to dance with you Heath, why don’t you cut in?”

“She’s in real high demand, and um well she’s enjoying herself,” he told her, trying to spare her feelings when she found out that his partnership, while welcomed by Colleen, would not be echoed by her mother.

“You’re being evasive, she once again turned toward him. Care to explain why?”

“Not really.”

“Heath, just ask her. I know she will be pleased.”

“Quit pushing, he said, then added more softly, please.” He truly didn’t want her to know he was not accepted everywhere. She had always been so good to him. How could he hurt her like this?. Show her the dark side of people. She deserved to be bathed in light, not forced to accept that friends of hers still thought of him as that bastard.

“Heath, go on,” she prodded.

His frustration over weighing his reason, he sharply said, “Fine, you want to understand why I didn’t ask her, I’ll show you,” and he purposely strode across the floor, and cut in on Colleen’s dance partner. As the gentleman relinquished his partner, Colleen turned toward Heath, her face aglow with happiness. As he took her in her arms, his misgivings left, as they quickly entered a world of their own making, free of outside influences. They didn’t hear the music change, as they went from that dance to the next, and Victoria watched happily from the sidelines.

Across the dance floor Mary McDougal was seeing red. Here was her daughter: wealthy, beautiful, impeccably mannered, and one of the finest catches in the area, once again in the arms of the Barkley mistake.

Remembering the first time she had seen them together, and recalling how she had bodily removed Colleen from the dance, she also remembered that the lecture she gave her daughter forbade her to have anything to do with Heath again. Well one dance she could overlook, but carving pumpkins together, and now two dances in a row, well her daughter had just overstepped her boundaries, and she was going to put them right.

Refusing to cause a scene, while also refusing to allow her daughter to spend one more minute with Heath, she moved across the dance floor and tapped Colleen on the shoulder. “Get your wrap. Were leaving.”

Colleen’s back grew rigid and Heath’s eyes froze. This wasn’t the time or place for a confrontation, and both knew it. Shooting a dark look in Victoria’s direction, Heath said, “Thank you for the dance,” and turned away.

As Colleen left the dance, firmly under her mother’s guidance, Heath allowed his feet to take him to Gal. As he saddled her, he became aware of another presence in the stable.

“Heath?” Victoria questioned.

“Not now Mother!”

“Oh, I think now is the perfect time, Heath.”

“No, you shouldn’t have had to see that. It was my fault. I knew better.”

“Look at me, she said pulling his face toward hers. What she saw shocked her deeply. Pain, raw pain radiated from behind hooded eyes.

“Heath, I had no idea.” She began.

“That’s obvious,” he lashed out in his desire to drive the painful lesson home, so she would never be disappointed again. Hurt as he was.

Again she started, “Heath.” “Come on, its obvious. She thinks I’m not good enough for her daughter. Then he asked with the most venom she had heard from him in months, “would you let Audra marry a bastard, because that’s what’s being asked of Mrs. McDougal.”

Seeing that he had hurt Victoria deeply, and being unable to forgive himself for this he mounted Gal and left.

As for Victoria, while the tears fell, her other three children enjoyed themselves, unaware of the little scene that had just been played out, and her newest son rode home in silence, and alone.

Returning that night with her other children Victoria allowed herself to take part in their happiness. Nick was by far the most vocal, as he went on and on about winning the pumpkin contest. As they returned for the night she allowed her thoughts to stray back to the unpleasant encounter with Heath. She knew that he and Colleen would be a good match, and wondered why she hadn’t seen it earlier, however she was forced to admit that Heath was very good at hiding things from his family. After all Nick had needed to spy to learn that Heath was spending all his time training the stallion. She also knew that he had been hurt by Mary’s actions. Could she ever associate with Mary again. She doubted it. As she prepared for bed she was surprised to hear a hesitant knock, and even more surprised, when she had expected Audra, to see Heath standing in the doorway, eyes downcast, twisting the button on a hastily thrown on shirt.

“Mother……….,” he stammered

As she reached out for him, trying to provide all the love she knew he needed she pulled him forward in a warm embrace, and said, “I am so sorry.”

“I just needed to talk a bit. Do you have the time now?”

“Of course, come on in and sit down.”

“You look ready for bed, I wouldn’t want to disturb you.” he said.

“Please come in, Heath.” She thought he looked like he could use a drink and almost offered, when she decided that the time it would take to get him one would change the mood, so she just sat and waited patiently.

Her patience was rewarded when he said, “I’m sorry. That’s all really. I knew that Mrs. McDougal was opposed to me, and you need to know, but we want it kept quiet. Colleen and I intend to marry someday, with or without her Mother’s approval. I didn’t want you to think I was giving up. I’m not, but I never wanted you to suffer from the backlash of my birth.” Flushing in embarrassment at all he had revealed, he again marveled at the trust he felt with this woman. He was bitterly angry with himself for allowing her to be hurt tonight. She deserved better. It wouldn’t happen again. He would protect her, them, from the cruelty in the world.

“Night,” he said rising.

“Heath, I love you,” she whispered softly, but loud enough for him to hear as he shut the door behind him. It made her mad to see him more concerned about her feelings, than his own future, but she wasn’t sure how to help him, except show support by refusing to deal with little people. Mary was not in her good graces any longer. As she and Audra had discussed, many months ago, all they could do was be there for him.

Rising early after a troubled sleep, Heath slipped quietly away, first to check on the stallion and then to go to George and Edna’s to work on his Christmas presents. He felt even more compelled, to make sure they were finished, as it was his only way to let them know how much he cared for them.

He knew the family would follow their traditional plans, which as near as he could figure, included church, followed by a long day at home, then dinner. He fully intended to make dinner, and play cards or pool tonight.

As he approached the line shack, he tethered Gal and dismounted, moving swiftly toward the still skittish stallion. Murmuring, “Hi there big fella. How are you this morning. Have you eaten better today. Let’s go check.” he moved past the horse to the food mill, to check the food level. It was noticeably lower. Finally, some good news! The stallion was eating better. He had been very concerned. Often, an independent horse would go into a strong withdrawal and refuse to eat. He had been afraid that this was happening to the stallion. “Now that’s what I like to see,” he soothed as he approached the horse, who had drawn nearer to Heath on his own. Reaching out to touch the horses soft nose, Heath was thrilled when the mighty beast allowed him contact with out retreating.

“Today fella, we get that blanket on you, what do you say?” As he pulled the soft cotton blanket off the fence, he again approached the horse, continuing to lull him with his voice. Once again the stallion stood still and regarded him warily, but made no move to walk away.

“I reckon, it’s now or never horse,” he said as he gently tossed the blanket, unfolded to diminish the weight, over the stallions back.

Rearing angrily as the blanket settled over his back, the stallion snorted and tossed his mane. Heath, taking care to once again avoid the slashing hoofs, grabbed a lasso from the fence post. Saying he was sorry for what he was about to do, he looped the horses neck, once again bringing him to a stand still.

As the horse calmed down, Heath decided to leave the blanket over his back. “Boy howdy, don’t you look fine. If you were my horse I’d name you Thunder, since you remind me of the angry winds and storms that sweep over the plains. But you aren’t my horse are you? I bet you get a proud name, horse. Yep, Nick’ll give you a proud name. A name worthy of you.” he continued to mumble as he groomed the horse. It had amazed him how easily the horse took to being groomed. It seemed to settle him, and Heath found himself resorting to this, whenever the stallion showed signs of balking.

Finishing, he once again caressed the silky nose, returned to Gal, and headed off to George and Edna’s, promising the stallion he would return tomorrow.

While Heath was enjoying the morning ride, the Barkleys Sunday at church, progressed as usual. Hard pews, long homily, and an even longer time spent saying their farewells, thanks to the Festival the night before. No one could say anything out of the ordinary occurred. At least they couldn’t swear to it, but as Victoria spent time with the ladies, rehashing the festivals strong and weak points, she was quiet. Some would have said she was preoccupied, others, that she was contemplating the priests words. Colleen thought differently. Every time her mother spoke, no matter what the issue, Victoria engaged another lady in conversation. Not once did she address a question posed by her mother. Not once did she join in the self congratulations on a job well done. When her Mother asked who wanted to be involved next year, Victoria had answered her only answer of the day, before returning to her family and heading home.

Her answer had been, and Colleen could repeat it verbatim, “I will happily support any function not manned by narrow minded individuals.” As Victoria left, her response was discussed, and the ladies concluded that Victoria had meant that she wanted the festival to evolve, not remain stagnant. Colleen knew better. She had seen the same determination in Heath at the dance, when he refused to voice his opinion, but Victoria had made them crystal clear. No one had better consider Heath any less than a full fledged Barkley.

*****

Reaching George’s home, he dismounted and, seeing George fixing the farm equipment, he waved hi, as he went into the barn.

“Edna, George called, he’s here early today.”

Emerging from the root cellar, and moving toward George, she called, “Did you tell him I’d get him breakfast?”

“I reckon if he wants breakfast, he’ll ask, or mention he’s hungry. Stop fussing over him.”

“George, how can you be so cold! I bet he never even had breakfast. He hardly eats when he’s here. He never takes the time. I’ll go ask, and also try to find out why he didn’t spend more time with Virginia at the festival.”

Lifting her skirts, Edna hastened toward the barn, where she knew she would find Heath. Knocking, even though she now thought it was a silly formality, she called “Heath, son, do you want breakfast?”

“No Edna, I grabbed a bite before I headed over.” Seeing her still standing there Heath added “Something on your mind?”

“Well now , um, actually, um , yes.” she said as he grinned. “Would you quit looking at me like that Heath!”

“Like what?” he said still looking at her in confusion.

“You know, like that! I bet you already know what I want to ask you, and you’re just trying to make me say it. MEN!” Edna huffed. Seeing his continued look of confusion, she added, “Heath, I made sure Virginia Wheeler spent some time with you at the festival. What do you think of her?”

“Oh, Edna, well she’s fine and all. She’s a friend of Audra’s.”

“She’s perfect for you, Heath,” Edna emphasized.

“Edna, I really don’t…….”

“Heath, I said she’s perfect. She knows horses, and you like horses don’t you?”

“Yes, but……….”

“She can cook, and sew, she would make a great wife, and your not getting any younger. You’ll never meet anybody spending all your time here.”

“Edna, I really don’t think…..” Heath said more loudly.

“Well that’s obvious, “she retorted, as she saw her matchmaking skills being thwarted. “Maybe you should,” she continued, emboldened by his silence. Maybe he was thinking it over after all, but what was this? He was smirking. Smirking in that infuriating way she had come to know. As she continued more hesitantly, she noted his eyes peered behind her. As a feeling of dread made its way up from her feet, to her head, she turned slowly around to see George, hands on his hips, in the doorway.

“Edna! You leave Heath alone. For God’s sake woman, I told you, I only met the girl once, and she scared me to death with all that prattling.

And Heath laughed!

They knew in an instant that her matchmaking skills were not done in vain. Heath had laughed. Openly, honestly, and wholeheartedly. It was a sound they needed to hear more often as they approached the time when they would no longer be independent. It was a sound they wanted to take to their graves. His laughter was a gift.

Gasping and barely able to control himself, Heath choked out, “I don’t have time for anybody as foolish as Virginia Wheeler, now I really must get back to work. Thanks for the diversion.”

As George and Edna left the barn, Heath returned to his current project. The job was starting to become arduous and overly time consuming, but he refused to skimp on the quality and detail needed to complete Victoria’s gift on time and with the degree of perfection he was requiring of himself.

Finally the day ended and Heath picked up his discarded coat, while thinking of the irony of the situation. Now that he had it he hadn’t needed it except on the ride over. He hoped that today was just unseasonably warm, and not the beginning of an Indian summer.

“Ready to go Gal? I know I am. How would you like a nice swift ride home? We both could use the exercise, working in the barn is confining.” He slapped her flank and away they tore, moving in unison, both thrilling to the feel of the wind against their faces. He loved a fast gallop on a good horse, better than almost anything on earth. Fully enjoying himself, as Gal raced the wind, he was stunned, when moments later, he was sailing through the air watching as the hard ground rose to meet him. Landing with a resounding THUD, he looked toward Gal, wondering what had startled her. He hadn’t seen any reason for her to just stop cold. Picking himself up and wiping his hand across his forehead, he gathered his hat, dusted it off and returned it to his head. As he moved nearer Gal, he noticed she was favoring her left rear leg. As he calmed her, and he was beginning to think that all he did was calm horses, he bent to examine her hurt leg. Bending her leg at the fetlock joint, he noticed that she had thrown a shoe, and was cut as well. As he gently probed the cut he removed a few pieces of wood that had embedded themselves in her leg. This led him to believe she had broken one of the many pieces of dry scrub that dotted the area, and had been cut by it in the process. It was not uncommon, but once again he had a walk in front of him. He also reckoned he would miss dinner again.

“Let’s get going, Gal,” he said as they began the long walk home. The return trip was slow going and it was well passed dinner by the time they arrived. Heath took Gal into the stable, cleaned her wound, applied a poultice, and brushed her til she shown. After feeding her and assuring himself she would be fine, he headed toward the house to explain his absence.

As he passed the stalls of the other horses he heard a nicker coming from Charger’s stall.

Smiling to himself, he said, “No Charger I haven’t forgotten you. I have the sugar cube right here.” As Heath gave Charger the treat, he carried especially for him, Charger leaned in to nuzzle Heath. “I know boy, I know. But you’re not my horse. Wish you were. Finest horse I’ve ever seen, you are. Well it looks like for the next week anyway , we can be pals again. I’m looking forward to it. How about you?” As if in answer, Charger pushed up against Heath’s chest and neighed softly. With a final pat, he left closing the door on his horse and his dream companion.

Opening the door he could hear quiet laughter from the parlor. As he strode in he tossed his hat on the table, and headed in to say hello.

Before he could get the words out. Nick exclaimed,”what happened to you? You look beat.”

Seeing everyone turn expectantly to hear his answer, he said “Gal threw a shoe, and cut her leg. Had to walk her home.”

“Well you’ll need a horse tomorrow, Nick said as he drew another card, take Dusty.”

“Nick, I was figuring on using Charger again.”

“Charger, No. Heath, he’s ornery. Not ready to be working yet.”

“Yep, he’s young, Nick, but I can handle him.”

“You better listen to your brother, Nick, Jarrod said, his tone says he doesn’t intend to argue.”

“No, Jarrod, he’ll ride Dusty” Nick was silently still fuming over Heath and Colleen, and missing the auction. He knew he was being as stubborn as Heath, but he wanted to win this one. Heath would ride Dusty!

Unable to hide his disappointment, but to weary to continue the inevitable, back and forth disagreement, Heath mumbled, “Fine. Whatever you say. You’re the boss. I’m heading to bed now. Night.”

After the chorus of goodnights were said, and Heath had climbed the stairs, Victoria requested a few minutes of Nick’s time. Agreeing, he allowed her to proceed him into Jarrod’s study.

“Nick, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I wouldn’t expect you to listen to an ultimatum, but I would like you to think about something.”

“It’s about Heath again, isn’t it? Well I’ll tell you Mother, he just keeps coming out on top, everyone being all nice to him, making concessions: so he can make dinners, no mention of his missing church, raisin bread, well you name it, we do it for him. I’m not going to do it any longer. I run this ranch! He will do as I say.”

“Nick! All I asked was that you hear me out.”

“I’m listening.”

“Short of what you feel the family is doing for Heath, how is he doing otherwise? In your opinion.”

“He’s great. Good with the hands, able to do the work of two men on any task given. He has a way with horses that defies explanation, and he makes good decisions, usually.” Nick answered. “Why?”

“Sounds like he knows what he’s doing.”

“Yes.”

“Any backlash from anyone any longer?” Victoria, again, questioned Nick.

“Not often anymore, the hands respect him. Why?”

“Anywhere, Nick?”

“Where are you going with this, Mother?”

“Just answer.”

“Not often, unless the hands from another ranch are drunk and mad, then they pick on him.” Nick answered.

“So, as you see it he has no trouble fitting in anywhere any longer.” Victoria again pressed.

“No?” but it was said as a question.

“Nick, think back to high school. You liked that girl. What’s her name?”

“Helga,” he answered.

“Yes, that’s it. Helga. Now, I remember you spending days thinking of just the right words to ask her to the dance. I couldn’t wait to see your face when you told me she said yes. I always knew she would say yes. Anyway, you came home, and I asked how it went and…..”

“And I said I didn’t ask her.” Nick mumbled, hanging his head.

“That’s right, and when I asked for an explanation, you replied that your friends thought she was strange. No one wore their hair like that and her dresses were odd. You said you didn’t want to have your friends laugh at you. You needed to be accepted. You were Nick Barkley. They all looked up to you, and still you were insecure.”

“Well, I …….”

‘Nick, confidentially, Heath still isn’t often accepted, at least not in all circles, only tolerated due to our name. How would you feel if you were him. You knew you weren’t accepted, and had to face a family member that you respect,…. and let me tell you Nick, that boy loves and respects you fiercely,….always ordered you around, and never listened to what you said or accepted your thoughts with out a battle?” “Night Nick, she said kissing him on the cheek, and leaving the room, and him alone with his thoughts.

Nick spent a restless night, and awoke feeling out of sorts. Heath never really said anything, never complained, they got on well. Was he really that wrong in insisting that Heath do things his way? It was his ranch to run. Did his Mother mean everything, or just the horse issue. Why was she involved? She never gave him advice anymore, well rarely ever. As these thoughts went round and round, he decided that a ride on Coco, might help him sort out his feelings. As he reached the barn, he slipped inside the partly open door, and once again stopped. Heath was inside saddling Dusty, while talking to Charger.

“Well boy, I guess I was wrong last night. It’ll be me and Dusty this week.” As he moved the now saddled Dusty out of her stall he fed Charger a sugar cube.

Nick watched as Charger gently took the cube then pushed his head against Heath. This wasn’t the feisty young male he rode occasionally. Charger was patient, and looked intelligent as he closely watched Heath’s movements. As Heath walked on past, Charger butted the stall door. Heath dropped Dusty’s lead, and moved back over to the stallion. As Heath approached, Charger quieted.

“Now Charger, Heaths voice, while soothing, sounded sad, I know I told you last night it would be us, like it was the last time Gal was hurt, but things change. It’s just not my decision. You stay calm, hear. They’ll be in later to work you. Probably Steve, just not me. Now I gotta git or Nick’ll have my hide.”

As he turned to gather Dusty’s reins again, Nick slipped unnoticed, out of the barn. Taking a deep breath, Nick pushed through the door saying “You here, Heath?”

“Yep, Nick. Just leaving to ride the fence line.”

“Hold up a minute. I think you saddled the wrong horse .”

“Nick, maybe you better get your eyes checked. This is Dusty,” Heath answered, shaking his head.

“Yes it is Heath, but I gave it a lot of thought last night. Take Charger and get to work.”

The smile lighting Heath’s face as he quickly led Dusty back to her stall, and unsaddled her told Nick all he needed to know. God, but Heath could put him through an emotional wringer, but it was worth it. Life was easier before he got here, but having Heath more than made up for the new headaches, his presence sometimes caused.

“Hey Heath, let me saddle Coco, and lets work on the fences together.”

“I’d enjoy the company,” was the prompt reply.

As they worked, they talked through the next month of chores, made decisions, both large and small, while keeping up a friendly banter. *He reveals so little* Nick thought when Heath surprised him by saying, “Nick, about these birthdays you guys have, well what’s planned for yours?”

“What?”

“I mean, do you have a large party like Mother’s? Does everyone dress all fancy? I really don’t know what to expect.” It had been hard but Heath had finally asked.

“That’s right. How could you. Let’s see, Mother’s is always the same. A huge affair, each year being bigger than the last. Audra, almost always, has a party with fancy dresses, and us in suits, and dancing…..but you were here for that….. Wait, her’s was just before you came. So was Jarrod’s. Mine is next then. Let’s see. Sometimes we go camping over my birthday, to break it up from Thanksgiving. I’ve had a party, but it didn’t seem right. This year I intend to play pool with my brothers while the ladies cheer me on to victory. Dinner will include steak, potatoes, gravy, bread, mushrooms, and chocolate cake for dessert. Of course, gifts are in the morning, as is usual for all of us.”

“Boy howdy, that sounds fine. Real fine.” Heath said, feeling very relieved. He could play pool, eat a steak, and he had a gift. No big surprises. No surprises suited him just fine.

“Heath, what are you getting me?’ Nick asked.

“Don’t rightly know,” came the quick reply. “You need socks?”

Laughing in unison, they finished for the day, and returned home in good spirits. This routine continued for the next couple of weeks. Nick often worked with Heath, as they continued to prepare the ranch for the rains to come. Both were concerned. The rains were late already. That often led to complications. Heath spent his spare time at George and Edna’s, putting the finishing touches on the gifts,, and occasionally helping around the place, much to Edna’s dismay. He also took the scraps of lumber and added a gift for Colleen and George and Edna as well. On Saturdays he saw Colleen.

Three days before Nick’s birthday, the rains began. The sky darkened at first, and showers came, one after another, with only minute breaks in between. By mid afternoon you couldn’t distinguish between daylight and night. The men spent even more time ensuring that everything was battened down. They returned home each night, drenched, shivering, and exhausted.

“Boy Nick, I can sure see why you don’t have any parties.” Heath commented at dinner the night before Nick’s birthday. He wasn’t looking forward to going back out that night, but he had to bring the stallion to the stable before Nick woke up the next morning.

“Yes, Jarrod said, the one time we tried a party all the fancy dresses looked like spotted sackcloth, before the ladies made it inside the front door. I think my job was to soothe all the ruffled feathers, of each lady present. He then went into a monologue of his night: Yes Cathy, your curls look fine, even wet. Nick will be entranced. Jennifer, your skirt still twirls just fine, I’m sure Nick will not mind them being wet when you dance. Denise, don’t worry. Your shoes are not to wet to dance on our carpets. I don’t think Nick will mind damp feet. Pam, you look fine. Don’t concern yourself with the rain. Come and dance with me! It just went on and on and on. As Jarrod observed the heaving shoulders of his family members, as they listened to his diatribe, he felt glad to have been able to inject some humor into the gloom that was surrounding Nick’s birthday.

The rains had been vicious, and despite everyone’s best efforts, rivers, lakes, and streams were rising at an alarming rate. He knew Nick, Heath, and the ranch hands had been standing in knee high water for at least two days, piling on extra sand bags. There was nothing more to be done. So far their ranch was fine, but the Willit’s , to the North, were buried under a foot of mud, when one of their levees broke that was to contain the rising Mokelumne river. Their levees were holding, but the strain was felt, as they worked feverishly, to repair holes. When Victoria had heard of the Willit’s disaster, she had wanted to help, and was frustrated when she was told she couldn’t get to their ranch by buggy or horse, due to the flooding. Jarrod figured he’d arrange a loan. It would help them get started again and decided to bring it up. Maybe if the felt that they could help in some way, everyone’s spirits would lift.

“Mother, Nick, all, I was toying with the idea of approaching Zeke Willit with a loan offer, to tide them over, and get them back on their feet for next year. What do you think?”

“Jarrod. Victoria answered, that’s a lovely idea, and one I was about to bring up myself.”

“Agreed,” Nick added.

As Jarrod said “Fine it’s settled.” Nick looked at his Mother and said, “No it’s not Jarrod. We haven’t heard from Heath or Audra.”

At this pronouncement Audra got up and hugged Nick, saying, “I never thought anyone would want to hear what I thought, but yes, you should loan them the money. Maybe even give them a steer or two, to start over with. I heard they lost their entire herd as well.”

As Heath added, “Sounds very neighborly.” Nick saw his Mother smile at him. The smile that said, I’m proud of you son.

“Well, it’s officially settled. I’ll go by later this week,” Jarrod amended, still smarting over forgetting to wait for his youngest siblings to answer. Wanting to redeem himself, he added, “Heath, pool after dinner?”

“Uh, no Jarrod. Looking outside I figure I’ll be just as cold and wet as I was today. Nick’s birthday or not, we will have work to do. I’m heading to bed.”

“Smart plan. I think I’ll turn in too,” Nick said.

“But who will play cards with me?” Audra pouted.

“Audra, don’t try to make your brothers feel guilty. They will get ill being out in this weather without proper rest and food, Victoria admonished. You can sit here and work on your cross stitch with me.”

Nick chuckled, as he heard Audra sigh, “Alright,” as though the world was going to end.

“Don’t forget Nick’s birthday begins with breakfast at seven a.m. You boys can start work after that,” she called to their retreating backs.

Nick promptly fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of his birthday, as he loved birthdays as much as the rest of his family. Heath on the other hand, read to keep himself awake. He finally heard Audra and Victoria’s doors close at about ten o’clock, and Jarrod’s by eleven. Giving them another half hour to ensure they were asleep, he dressed warmly and quietly crept out of the house. Opening the door, which he had oiled two days ago to prevent the loud creaking, he slipped into the stable.

He stopped to briefly pet Charger, then moved on down to saddle Gal, and said “I know. This isn’t fair to you girl, but we have no choice. I gotta get Nick’s present here and I need your help.” Taking an extra length of rope, he led Gal into the cold night air and driving rain. “I’ll be ready for bed before the night is through, girl, but if I see the inside of my room before sunrise I’ll be lucky. Come on. Let’s go,.”

The usual forty five minute ride took over an hour and a half, as they picked their way through, mud, water, and rain, which often made visibility impossible. It didn’t help that there was virtually no moon and the lantern didn’t want to stay lit.

“Not a fit night to be out, is it Gal? Just a little farther.” he said into his rain slicker and pulled up coat collar. As he reached the line shack’s coral, he saw the standing puddles. They had been there yesterday when he had come by to check on and work briefly with the stallion, but they were much deeper. The stallion was huddled over near the left side of the coral, under the lone tree that grew near it. Heath doubted that the horse was any less wet then if he had stood in the middle of the corrall, but the mud and puddles weren’t as bad over there, so the tree was helping some.

“Ok Gal, now I get real wet,” he said, sliding off her back. He looped her lead over the fence post and began speaking softly to the stallion. Moving through the solid mud that lined the bottom of the coral was hard work. He was coated with mud to his knees, by the time he was within touching distance of the stallion. As he approached, the stallion, who was not enjoying the rain at all, moved near the man he was coming to trust, as if to say, why are you here so late, and get me out of this weather.

Placing the lead on the horse, Heath gingerly led him around the perimeter of the coral, to the open gate across the paddock, knowing if the horse took one false move he could ruin a leg permanently He was not about to shoot Nick’s present when he was within four hours of giving it to him. After seeing him safely outside, Heath mounted Gal, and the trio, wet, cold, and muddy, slowly began the walk home. This was the first time the stallion had been outside the coral since capture, and the night was not conducive to reassurances, so Heath kept up a steady stream of soft talk, telling the stallion all about Nick, the fine stall it had, and how nice it would be after they got there and he was all cleaned up. The talk was as much for Heath as it was for the horses. A voice, even his own, was reassuring.

After what seemed like days, but had only been hours, Heath could see the shape of the ranch house and outlying buildings, including their destination, the stable. Checking that he saw no lights on in the house, he led both tired horses inside. As he closed the door behind them he was overwhelmed by the sudden heat he was enveloped in. He led the stallion to an empty stall near the back. It had no other horses near, so the stallion would be less likely to be frightened. Next he led Gal to her stall.

As he unsaddled Gal, he said, “Tonight girl you’re second. If I could get this wet coat off to check my watch I could be sure, but I reckon it’s about four thirty in the morning and I gotta get Nick’s present ready. You and I will have to wait.”

Heath took his time. First rinsing off the black stallion, making sure all the mud was removed from his coat. He then curried him til he shown. The once rain soaked, mud splattered mane was a beautiful sight, and the dim black coat seemed once again to glow with vitality. The horse was as ready as Heath could get him. Bedding him down for the next hour, Heath chuckled with “Doubt that will do any real good, but you can get used to it being regular and dry. See you soon fella. Now I gotta take care of Gal. He once again repeated the entire process then removed his own mud soaked boots, and quietly headed inside to clean himself up, as the sun rose.

Although he wanted a full bath, he decided to hurriedly rinse off, figuring the bath water might wake someone. All he really wanted was bed anyway. He was tired. His throat was sore from talking to the horses nonstop, and he ached from keeping both horses under control the entire trip. As he lay down, he figured he’d get a good hour of sleep before Audra came and roused him. He was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

In his exhausted state it seemed like he’d been asleep about five minutes, before he heard Audra calling “Heath, rise and shine. Get dressed. Nick’s birthday breakfast is in about twenty minutes.”

Dragging himself from beneath the warm covers, he padded over to his closet, grabbed the closet items of clothing, and shrugged into the shirt and pants. Ready for his boots, he realized they were still in the stable, so he put on his socks and headed groggily downstairs, feeling his muscles protest at every step. It took all his will power not to turn around and return to bed.

Jarrod’s “Good Morning Heath! Ready for the big day?” followed by a pat to his back, made him cringe. Jarrod’s voice seemed awfully loud.

“Morning,” he mumbled as he took his seat at the table.

As the choruses of good wishes and happy birthdays continued, he felt his lethargy lift and he also joined in wishing Nick a happy birthday. Heath didn’t think Nick’s grin could get any bigger, but he was proved wrong as Silas presented a breakfast fit for the king of Sheba. There was steak, eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, pancakes with Canadian maple syrup, french toast with powdered sugar, corned beef hash, milk, and hot coffee. With every bite Nick took, Heath felt his appetite diminish. He got a strong cup of coffee, and thought *Why can’t there be raisin bread?*

As Nick put away a breakfast that had the entire family staring at him in amazement, Victoria decided to begin the festivities. She really hated to think of Nick having to work on his birthday, of all days, but some things couldn’t be helped. Well they would have gifts in the morning, and by dinner, a cake to top all cakes would be ready. She and Audra had it all planned.

“Nick, I think it’s about time for you to open your gifts.”

“Oh yes, Mother, who’s do you want to be first, Nick?” Audra enthused.

“Let me see. I’ll take Mother’s. Hers are predictable, she almost always gives me clothes. Right Mother?” he smiled.

As she handed him her two packages, she smiled thinking, I hope he likes the clothes this year.

“Well what do you know. Clothes!” Nick said holding up five new shirts, in blue, cream, and white, a new vest, four pairs of pants, and a new pair of leather work gloves. Her second box contained a new hand gun, imported from England, and detailed by a local silversmith that Nick admired. It was perfectly balanced. He could tell as he hefted it .

“Boy howdy, doesn’t that look fine, brother Nick.” Heath commented.

“Thank you mother. These were sorely needed, and I was holding out until today, hoping you would have picked out some clothes for me. As to the gun, what can I say,” he added, moving to kiss her cheek.

“You’re welcome, Nick,” she beamed. He always got so wrapped up in the gifts, that she enjoyed buying for him. She was unaware that to the rest of the family she and Nick were very much alike.

“Heath, your next.” Nick stated.

Heath replied, “I think mine will have to be last, Nick.”

“Oh how mysterious, Audra said, what is it Heath? Seeing his eyes twinkle but his lips close she added “Well I’ll just wait along with everybody else, unless you’ll agree to give your favorite sister a hint.” As there was no response, she added, “Okay, I’ll wait.”

“Well then, Jarrod, its yours next, since I can’t take any more of Audra’s prattle.” Nick said, smiling at his sister.

“Oh you, she flashed angrily, just for that here’s mine,” and she also handed him two packages.

“Two, thanks sis,” he replied, taking her beautifully wrapped packages, and in an exact opposite to his mother, destroyed the wrapping in a single swipe of his hand. Opening the lid of the first one, he found lovely hand embroidered handkerchiefs. Hastily laying them aside, he reached for the second gift, just like a greedy boy asking for his third slice of pie. He was thrilled to find a woven tackle box, and new fishing gear.

“Oh Audra, thank you. I almost forgot I lost my fishing gear on that trip last year. I sure hope that whopper is happy pulling around my rod. Maybe now I can try for him again.”

“Okay Heath, since you claim last rights, I’m next,” Jarrod said, handing Nick a long rectangular box wrapped in blue. This too was ripped open in a matter of seconds to reveal an imported German shotgun designed for accuracy and with a tag claiming that with just one shot it could take down a bear.

Nick laughed saying, “I still think you would need to hit the bear in the head, Jarrod, and do they have bears in Germany? This is wonderful, Jarrod. How did you know that I have wanted this to add to my collection of rifles?

“Like I said at Mother’s birthday Nick, just a keen sense of knowing my families tastes exactly, dear brother.”

Standing, Nick moved to kiss his sister, and hug Jarrod. He then turned to Heath and said “Well, you’re the only one left. Bet you can’t top these beauties?”

He was wishing he had never followed Heath, and that he didn’t know about the horse, so he could be totally surprised, but he was still excited. Well at least as long as he didn’t think about Coco. He thought Heath would need to be last, so by asking him early, he thought it would reaffirm that he had no idea what was coming. The others were doing a good job as well. They hadn’t let anything slip. Preparing to put on his rain gear and make the trek to the line shack he was surprised by Heath’s next comment.

“You will all have to come outside to the front porch in five minutes. I wish the rain had let up, but it hasn’t so just wait under cover. Okay?” and he rose and left the house.

As he led the stallion out of his stall, he began once again crooning softly to him. “Today you’ll meet Nick, fella. Come on with me. I know you don’t want to get in this rain again, and neither do I. At least it isn’t raining as steady as last night. Must be the drizzle before those dark clouds over yonder hit us again around noon. By then you’ll be dry and I’ll be wet again.” He led the horse to the main entrance of the house and held the reins, waiting for the family to appear. As he waited he watched men coming out of the woodwork, like ants to a picnic, all staring at the magnificent stallion. “Well they like you boy, but it’s Nick you gotta impress.”

Just then the door opened and despite knowing Heath had been working on breaking a horse for Nick, nobody was prepared for the magnificence that greeted them. Even Nick had only seen the horse from a distance. Standing there, their mouths agape, Heath said, “Well Nick, come on over. He’s all yours.”

Although he had been prepared, Nick found he didn’t have the words to express his feelings. As he moved toward the horse, to let it begin to get familiar with him, he noted the glistening black coat, the lightning white mane and tail, the white socks, and perfect blaze. The stallion stood a good seventeen hands high, and was perfectly proportional. He had a powerful chest, straight back, long legs, and more importantly a keen intelligence peered at him through the luminous black eyes. The horse was truly splendid.

The ranch hands were talking, the family was talking, Heath was talking, and Nick just stood there, completely stunned. As he continued to allow the horse to become familiar with him, he began to allow Heath’s voice break through. As he tried to focus on his words, he finally heard, “You’ll have to name him, and he’s been gentle broke and is saddle ready, but no more. I thought you should be the one to put him through his paces.”

“Heath, I don’t know what to say.”

Smiling tiredly, Heath said, “Say you like him, and if you want me to lead him back to the stable or would you like to do it.?”

He responded, “I like him Heath. I want to hear all about how you managed this. He’s the stallion from the ridge, isn’t he? I’ll take him to the stable, then be right back.”

As Nick took the horse, their eyes met briefly and Heath thought that maybe Nick’s were a little brighter than usual. Feeling pleased, he watched Nick lead his new horse to the barn, and as he stood in the rain watching he overheard Victoria complain that she wished Nick didn’t have to work on his birthday. Knowing that he would do anything to make her happy and give Nick a perfect birthday, he moved to talk to Jarrod.

“How about you and I do Nick’s work today. That way he can clean his new guns, try on clothes, tell fishing tales, and just relax. He’s been working so hard Jarrod, he could use the break.”

“Right you are Heath. Any indoor jobs need doing?” Jarrod joked.

“Nice try. I expect you and I will be standing in about one to two feet of water all day. How does that sound?” he said with a yawn.

As Jarrod and Heath began making plans for their day, Audra caught Heath’s second yawn of the morning, and hurriedly spoke to her mother.

Nick entered the front door and began again to thank everyone for his gifts when they all heard Victoria state with a finality that no one was going to argue with, that she refused to have any of her son’s working in the rain today. They could work twice as fast and hard tomorrow, if needed, but today they would all relax.

“Mother, Nick said, we can’t do that. The sand bagging must be kept up. I don’t want to lose Shiller field, and that bend leaked yesterday, until we got it repaired. I need to go check it again today.”

“Nick, not today, and that’s final. Have Harry coordinate the jobs, but you are all staying in. Now, Audra and I are going to the kitchen to work. Please do not disturb us.”

As they ladies left, Victoria said, “Thanks for catching that Audra, the rest of us missed it. You and Heath are so in tune sometimes it amazes me, and then after a second she added, and other times not,” as she thought back to Colleen, Audra’s best friend, and the secret Colleen and Heath were keeping.

“Wonder what that was about, Nick questioned as he made up the job list for the foreman. We can’t afford to just sit.”

“Well I for one am going to take her advice. I think I’ll get back to bed,” Heath said as he wearily began climbing the stairs. Nick had liked his gift. He had done well. He let these thoughts run through his head as he slipped under the covers and slept for an undisturbed eight hours.

By one o’clock the cake was finished, complete with an entire ranch scene on top. Audra laughed that no matter where Nick cut the cake, everyone would still be eating beef for dessert. The cows were that plentiful.

“Let’s go find the boys and play cards Mother.” Audra said.

“Sounds fine. I have some reading to do,” Victoria agreed. They joined Nick and Jarrod in the family room where the two were playing pool. Nick was losing.

“Now Jarrod, It’s my birthday. I’m supposed to win,” Nick grumbled.

“Just be glad you’re not playing Heath,” Jarrod stated.

“Speaking of your brother, where is he?” Victoria questioned.

“Still upstairs, sleeping I guess.” Nick replied offhandedly.

“Then I am glad that I refused to allow any of you to work today,” she replied.

“Mother?” Jarrod and Nick questioned.

As she laughed, she explained that while the rest of them were oblivious, Audra had noticed his yawns, and put together how much work it must have been to move the horse from the line shack to the ranch last night, and then also clean him up so well.

“Hadn’t thought about all that,” Nick said as Jarrod nodded in agreement.

“Now who will play cards with me?” Audra questioned each in turn.

“You go ahead, Nick. I’ll just sit and watch,” Jarrod replied.

As the day progressed the group reminisced about other birthdays, each relating their favorite gifts, favorite parties, and favorite ages.

“It has been a nice group of birthdays, hasn’t it Mother?” Audra said.

“Yes, dear, we are all very fortunate,” she responded.

As Heath made his way downstairs, Jarrod looked up, eyes wide, and hurriedly whispered, “When’s Heath’s?”

Feeling much better, but still slightly sore, Heath entered the room to see four pairs of eyes trained on him.

“Did I mis-button my shirt?” he joked in an attempt to take their focus off of him. God, they were quiet and still staring at him. What had he done?

“Heath?” Victoria rose, and taking his hands she led him to a chair.

The thoughts rushed through his head. *I don’t know anybody I care about who might have died. The rain has slowed considerably, I doubt we’ve lost an orchard yet. They have proof that Tom isn’t my father.* and as his world began to go black, Victoria asked, “When’s your birthday?” Drawing a deep relaxing breath, he was relieved as he thought so that was what they wanted.

“May tenth. Why?” he replied.

“You should have said something Heath, Audra cried, we didn’t know.”

“It didn’t worry me none, don’t let it worry you.” but as he said this all four pairs of eyes watched him twist the button on his shirt sleeve continuously.

“We’ll make it up to you. Audra exclaimed, rising and becoming more animated. I can bake a cake…………”

“No!” “This year is this year. Next year is next. I wasn’t concerned, don’t let it upset you We didn’t even celebrate birthdays, except for a walk. Anyway it’s taken me a long time to get used to this much fal de rah, but I guess everyone celebrates differently. You do what you can, he muttered lost in memories of his early birthdays, while still twisting the button.

To ease the tension, Nick said, “Pool Heath?”

The entire family was amused by Heath’s response of, “Are you sure you want to get beat on your birthday?”

Slapping Heath’s back and laughing, Nick said “It’s a Barkley law that you get to win on your birthday!”

“Don’t believe him Heath,” Jarrod said conspiratorially. I already won one.”

As Nick moved to the pool table calling “I break,” he was astonished as Heath promptly beat him four games in a row.

“I think that’s enough for now. How long have you been holding back, boy.”

“Just lucky today, big brother. Just lucky,” Heath grinned.

Almost immediately, Silas announced that dinner was served. Victoria offered Nick her arm, while Heath took Audra’s. Jarrod followed behind anxious to see what his Mother had set up this year. Each of them had something special done for them on their birthdays. Audra, always had a fancy dress party, with a different theme. This year it had been, the masquerade, and everyone invited had come masked. At midnight you revealed who you were. It truly had been fun, although he hadn’t admitted it. He usually had a practical joke played on him, as his birthday was March 16th. They carried on the leprechaun idea, to this day, and he had to look carefully and try to deduce what the trick was. Usually he failed. This year had been the same. The trick, was that there wasn’t a trick. Nick’s birthday usually had an outdoor theme. Nick loved being outside, and this time of year was usually cooped up. So, Mother and Father, had decorated to turn the indoors into the outdoors for Nick. Jarrod was anticipating what she and Audra had done to the dining room this year.

“Would you look at that,” Nick exclaimed, entering the dining room. No one had been allowed in the room all day and Nick was very surprised to see what his Mother and sister had achieved. Each year the decorations were spectacular, and wondering about them was always fun, but this year they had outdone themselves.

Everyone was delighted when they looked at the transformation. Not only had Silas set the table and provided Nick’s favorite meal, but the dining room had been turned into a full scale diorama, reminiscent of a camping trip.

Blue was Nick’s favorite color, and it was in abundance The ceiling had been draped in deep blue sheets, and covered with sewn on stars. Jarrod could recognize his Mother’s and sister’s hand in the stitching. Plants had been moved in to surround the table. Another pale blue cloth was placed on the floor with wrinkles, that resembled waves. It was embroidered with fish. Nick’s new fishing gear was set up to suggest that a fisherman was nearby, waiting for a good catch. Sleeping bags, were rolled out on the floor, and a tent stood open on one side.

As Nick, began to examine the room in depth, they heard a bird call. “Mother, don’t you think live birds is carrying the theme to far?” Nick said.

“Nick, I didn’t bring in birds, live or caged. I don’t understand where the bird came from.”

As they were discussing the bird, they heard the call once more. Then again, and again. Each call sounding a bit different.

“I don’t see any birds,” Audra said, looking under the tablecloth for them.

“Nor do I sis,” Nick added, looking at the tops of the curtains, to see if they were up there.

“Well, there must be birds here somewhere, Audra stated still searching, I refuse to eat food in the dining room, if there are birds flying overhead.”

Hearing the chirping again, Jarrod moved toward the sound. As the rest of his family frantically searched for the birds, Jarrod finally found what he was looking for. He saw Heath and Silas making bird calls to each other from behind the potted trees. Deciding to see how long the ruse could continue, he cupped his hands and added a loud whippoorwill call to the myriad of birds now filling their home.

“Was that a whippoorwill?” Victoria asked, thoroughly confused.

“Couldn’t have been, Mother, they don’t even live here,” Nick answered.

As Jarrod began making the call again, he noticed Silas leave the room and Heath move from behind the plant toward him. As the Whippoorwill call left his lips, he felt his younger brothers hand on his sleeve, and heard him say, “Well look at what I found. Your bird is a Ruby throated Lawyer.”

“Jarrod, Nick exclaimed, as the entire family turned to look at him, that wasn’t funny.”

“Boy howdy, it sure wasn’t, Heath added, a disgusted look on his face, but pure devilment in his eyes.

“Now Heath,” Jarrod started, only to be interrupted by Victoria saying, “enough if this foolishness, Nick’s birthday dinner will be cold if we don’t eat soon.”

Moving beside Heath, Jarrod said, “just wait,” and was shocked when he saw Heath stick his tongue out at him. His brother must be coming out of his shell. This was the second time he’d seen Heath pull a practical joke.

Taking their places around the table, they said grace, then dug into the meal that was exactly what Nick had promised Heath it would be. They had steak, potatoes, gravy, mushrooms, bread and Heath figured that since Nick had mentioned chocolate cake, that they would have it for dessert. The table conversation was light, and centered around the decorations. Nick remarked how pleased he was, since he never got to go camping on his birthday. The weather, virtually never permitted it. He also fondly spoke of the one year when he was fourteen, and they had gone camping. Finally the meal was brought to an end, when Nick declared that he was done. Again Victoria marveled at how much he could eat.

Silas, who must have been waiting to see Nick lay aside his fork, poked his head around the corner and asked, “now Mrs. Barkley?”

“Yes, Silas, she said rising, but I want to help with the presentation.”

“May I as well, Mother?” Audra asked.

“Of course, you get our special gift, and I will bring in the cake with Silas.”

“Certainly,” and Audra too, left the table.

“Special gift? Jarrod and Nick, said in unison, what do you think she means by that?”

As Audra entered carrying a large, wrapped package, Silas and Victoria entered, rolling a huge cake toward Nick, borne on the enormous tea cart. As they placed it in front of Nick, the family began singing:

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear Nicholas,
Happy birthday to you.

Their voices blending in harmony, from Audra’s perfect soprano, to the deep baritone of Jarrod’s voice, mixing with the high and low ends of the alto range that Heath and Victoria contributed, thus adding depth to the often heard words.

Nick stood silently, accepting the tribute, while he gazed at the cake with wonder. As the song ended, he quietly said, “Thank you. I really don’t believe what I’m seeing.” The cake he was staring at was a detailed relief map of the Barkley holdings, complete with: hills, valleys, a miniature house, corals, horses, timber, orchards, a mine entrance, gold dust (which he assumed was colored sugar), and cows. An entire herd of cows! The cattle that made running this ranch into his dream job. Ranching was his life. It was in his blood. His mother and sister not only took him camping for his birthday but they gave him the ranch on a silver platter.

“Magnificent,” Jarrod exclaimed.

Noting that his brother was overwhelmed, Heath said, “Boy Howdy, but that would feed the entire valley. Nick, when do we get some?”

Picking up on Heath’s intentions, Audra added, “Yes Heath, I told Mother that no matter where Nick cuts the cake, we will still be having beef, even for dessert.”

At that everyone laughed, and Nick said, “who wants what?,” as he picked up the knife to cut his cake. As each person ate a good chunk of the Barkley ranch, Victoria handed Nick the last gift.

“Mother?” Nick questioned.

“No explanations, just open it.”

As the paper once again fell in a heap to the floor, Nick pulled out a quilt, and opening it, was treated to a work of art, depicting scenes from his life on the ranch. As emotion once again overwhelmed him, he found his birth date, embroidered over his bedroom on the house. There was the date he got Coco, embroidered over a horse, the date of each land acquisition, and the dates went on and on, each bringing up loving memories of his life with his family.

A whispered, “Mother, did you……” was interrupted by, “Yes, dear. I did. Now lets finish the cake and go play some birthday games.”

The family enjoyed themselves well into the night, but finally it was time to retire. Heath and Jarrod were the first to turn in, claiming that they both had busy days ahead of them. Next went Victoria, which left Nick very frustrated. He had wanted to speak with his mother, and now he would have to wait. Waiting didn’t suit him!

“Well Audra, guess I’ll turn in too,” he mentioned, as he moved to the stairs.

“I’ll join you, wait up.”

As they went upstairs, Audra put her hand on Nick’s shoulder, stopping his forward progress.

“Happy Birthday, big brother,” she said.

As he resumed his climb, he thought better of it, and turned to see her standing still, watching him. As he looked at her, he found he could contain his question no longer.

“Audra, why the gift at dinner?”

Softly she uttered, “Nick, sometimes you forget that you are special to us. It was to be for Christmas, but Mother and I thought you could use a reminder of how loved you are, right about now.”

Wiping the tears from her eyes, she climbed the stairs to his side and tenderly kissed his cheek, as she looped an arm around his waist. This gesture eased Nick greatly, as he released his anger. Anger he hadn’t admitted to. He hadn’t realized he felt he was losing his sister to his new brother. It wasn’t so. He had been distant for months, and had been becoming more so. His mother and sister were bringing him home.

Arm in arm, the two turned and went back to the dining room. Nick drew Audra down by the fake lake, and as he fingered her gifts, the two talked well into the night. He learned a lot. Things that he needed to know. He was indebted to his sister for reminding him that he mattered. Mattered as much as his blonde haired brother. They not only had love, they had history. No matter what they did for him, Heath would never share that. It had taken a quilt, his sister, and a stallion in the stable, to show him that his family cared. His entire family cared. He might not have realized it before, but Heaths’ coming was a blessing, and after all the rough spots were smoothed out, they would all be richer for it. He in some ways more than the others.

As the night drew to a close, they returned upstairs, arm in arm, and as Audra entered her room Nick heard, “I love you , big brother. Never forget it again. If you do get lost again there is a small heart on the quilt with an A beside it dated, Feb. 14, 1862.

“I don’t remember Audra. What is that date?”

“It’s the day you beat up Gil and Nate, because they called me ugly and stupid. You were then, and have always been my protector.”

Blinking his eyes hard, he moved into his room and went to bed, the quilt held tight in one hand.

Nick’s restful sleep was rudely interrupted, by Heath’s forceful knocks, followed by, “Out of bed, we’ve got work to do. See you downstairs for breakfast.”

Grumbling, Nick cleaned up and threw on his work clothes, knowing the next few weeks would be long. Refusing to look outside and see even more rain, he decided to eat breakfast in peace, then greet the work day. As he arrived at the table, he heard the conversation in full swing, Jarrod and Victoria at opposite ends, speaking happily for all to hear.

“Good morning, Nick, Jarrod greeted him. Have you looked outside yet this morning?”

“No I was saving that pleasure til later,” he said, sarcastically.

“Never fear, Nick. The rains have let up.”

“What!” he exclaimed, rushing to the window and peering outside. Sure enough, although the clouds were dark, they weren’t ominous. It looked like they might get a days reprieve before the rains began again.

Smiling happily, he turned to Heath and said, “you know what this means, don’t you?”

“Yep Nick. I get to spend the day only standing in ankle high water.”

“Hey, you’re right. I just decided I’m going to leave you in charge, while I spend the day with my new horse, Lightning.”

“Aptly named,” Jarrod said.

Heath thought, *I still prefer Thunder,* but before mentioning it, he changed his mind. He had no hold on the horse, and Nick didn’t need the guilt.

“Lightning, it is, he affirmed. Tell me what you think of him when I get back tonight.”

Grabbing his coat, he headed out to get the men back to the levees, to see what damage the torrential rains had caused. It was a grueling task, and he had been right about the ankle high water. When the days work was completed, he turned Gal around and headed to George’s.

Having completed his gifts for Christmas, just before Nick’s birthday, Heath had no reason to return to George and Edna’s, however he was drawn back, almost on the same schedule as before. He could tell that the cold weather was hard on George, even though he refused to admit it. Edna too was worried, so Heath happily helped out when they would allow it. He mended the house roof this time, since a water spot had appeared. They also allowed him to chop some more of the firewood into manageable sizes that they could handle easily.. He spent one evening just moving firewood from the barn to the house. He would often stay for a cup of coffee, and a leisurely chat before he returned home. They learned about Nick’s birthday, enjoyed hearing about the stallions progress, and laughed at Audra’s attempts at making a perfect Beef Wellington. Edna failed to mention that she also heard about these things from Victoria. They had kept in close contact since meeting each other.

As Heath headed home, his thoughts turned to the upcoming weeks. It seemed to him like it would be a dreary few weeks, the only break being Thanksgiving, before the Christmas season was upon them. He was not looking forward to Christmas.

The rains continued to fall on and off the entire time, keeping the ranchers hopping, but it did little to dampen the Thanksgiving spirit, as each gave thoughts to what they were thankful for.

The ranch hands had the day off, and the ones who had no place to go, were treated to a full Thanksgiving feast, compliments of the Barkley family. While Silas cooked his first Thanksgiving meal of the day, the family continued the tradition of visiting good friends. Audra and Jarrod were left at the ranch to receive guests, while Victoria, Nick, and Heath accompanied her on her rounds.

To the boys the rounds were tedious. Nick and Heath sat quietly with Victoria, and endured what they termed, useless prattle. Finally, after their sixth stop of the morning, Victoria announced that the next stop was their last. Laughing, as both boys cheered, she told Nick to head to Edna’s. As Heath turned white with shock, Nick replied that he didn’t know where she lived. Victoria directed him, explaining their place was nestled, just off the north side of their ranch, near the Black Diamond Hills.

“You’d have thought I’d have noticed their house,” Nick stated.

“You’ve never noticed it Nick? Heath said, I’ve seen it, but then again I spend more time working this end of the ranch, while you work the south side, where the cattle are.”

“True Heath, true. That must be it.”

The next half hour loomed like a brick wall to Heath. He needed to be able to sit there, and not give anything away, either in word or action, and his mother was very observant. Also, while he hated lying, lying on Thanksgiving seemed criminal.

As Nick pulled the buggy as close to the door as possible, Victoria dismounted and knocked, Heath by her side, and Nick rapidly approaching.

Opening the door, Edna exclaimed, “Victoria, how lovely to see you. These must be your boys, Nick and Heath, is it. Pleased to meet you both. Victoria has told me so much about you. Come on in. Make yourself comfortable.”

Heath smiled as she led them to the small living room, talking a mile a minute. As they all took seats, Victoria passed Edna a large basket, filled with preserves and canned vegetables that had been put up earlier that year, saying “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“How very generous Victoria. Would you enjoy some tea? Nick, Heath, anything for you?”

“No Ma’am,” Heath fairly spat.

“Nothing for me either,” Nick politely replied.

“Victoria, you then?”

“Yes, thank you. Tea sounds pleasant.” And over a nice warm cup of tea the ladies talked.

Heath didn’t say a word, just sat gratefully, that Edna never once let on that they knew each other. He was going to make it home free and clear.

As he relaxed, George entered, and seeing Heath said “Heath, what are you doing here?
I–“

“–Uh, Mr., uh, George, I came with my mother,” Heath added quickly before George could finish his sentence.

Victoria, engaged in close conversation with Edna, was unaware, but Nick sensed something was going on, and asked, “Heath, how do you know Mr. Temple?”

“We met and spent a few minutes together at the auction Nick,” he hastily answered, while giving thanks that Nick had asked him and not George. He might hate lying, but George was as good at lying as he was at carpentry. Heath settled back and decided to stay silent the rest of the visit.

As the visit wore on, Nick grew bored, and patience was not a virtue he enjoyed, so he decided to start a conversation with the only male that looked like he might speak.

“George, what exactly does your farm produce?” Nick probed.

George quickly replied, “Peach orchard. Almond orchard, corn and hay. Edna grows vegetables for us.”

“Place looks in good repair,” Nick tried again.

“Yep,” came the monosyllabic answer.

“You raise animals?” it was Nick’s last try, before he resigned himself to more silence.

“I have a cow, a pig, a horse, and some chickens. Why!?” George answered so brusquely that Nick knew the why, implied shut up!

“Sounds interesting,” Nick replied, more to get in the last word than anything. He was sure not another word would be uttered among the men. He was almost correct. As they took their leave, he noticed George lean over and speak briefly to Heath. He noticed Heath’s lips twitch, but no matter how he pestered Heath on the way home, he could get no answer from his brother.

Heath was still laughing inwardly, at George’s parting words. He had said, “Didn’t I do good son. I didn’t tell that boy nothing. What a loudmouth.”

While they were making calls, Jarrod and Audra were busy receiving callers as well. From ten until noon, a steady stream of guests had entered their home. The tea pot had been refilled, the snacks consumed and replenished, and the door closed so many times that they were exhausted, and ready for some quiet time. Thinking that they had just closed the door on their last caller, they were starting to straighten up, when they heard the distinctive sound of their door knocker once again. Exchanging surprised glances, Jarrod headed to the door, and stopped when Silas reached it first. Resuming his place beside Audra, he waited to see who was there.

“Mrs. Mary McDougal and Colleen, Sir,” Silas intoned in his most masterful voice.

As Jarrod welcomed them to the house and indicated chairs, Mary promptly took one, while Colleen embraced Audra, whispering in her ear, “Could I speak to you privately before we leave?”

“I’ll find a way,” Audra whispered back.

After a few minutes of pleasantries had passed, Audra said, “Mrs. McDougal, Jarrod, would you excuse Colleen and myself briefly? I need some advice on a dress for church next week.”

“Of course Audra, Jarrod said, I’d be happy to enjoy more of Mrs. McDougals company.”

Mrs. McDougal also added her consent, and the two friends went quickly to Audra’s room, knowing they would only have about ten minutes, before they would have to return downstairs. Closing the door Audra turned expectantly to Colleen, and said, “Okay, tell me. Is it about a man? Do you have a boyfriend? Is he gorgeous?”

“Audra,” Colleen’s tone stopped her fantasies, and caused her to refocus on her best friends face.

“I’m sorry Colleen, you wanted to talk with me?”

Colleen had given this conversation a lot of thought, and although apprehensive, felt she needed to speak her mind. Could she do it and not let Audra know she cared deeply for Heath?

“Yes, Audra, I want to talk to you about what happened at the festival.”

“When?” Audra questioned.

“I was there when your mother gave Heath that coat, and he didn’t seem real pleased. Did you notice?”

Finding this conversation odd, Audra answered, “yes, I’m sure he wanted to pick one out for himself. Why?”

“Well I thought about it a lot Audra, and I see Nick in town often, and of course Jarrod works there, but Heath is hardly ever there.”

“Colleen, that’s why he didn’t have a coat! He kept saying he had to get to town to buy one every time Mother asked him where his coat was.”

“Maybe that’s it, Colleen said, but perhaps he didn’t understand how things work. He doesn’t wear many new clothes compared to Nick and Jarrod.”

“Well he works a lot, maybe he doesn’t care about how he looks, Audra replied, but I don’t see what it matters to you.”

*Oh this was going badly* Colleen thought. Audra was misunderstanding all her hints, and she couldn’t find a way to get it said without saying she thought that they had neglected to explain things to Heath about money.

“Audra, I’m trying to say that maybe–“

“Yes Jarrod, were coming, Audra yelled. Sorry Colleen, your mother is ready to leave. You can tell me later this week. Okay?”

“Sure Audra,” she replied. They both left Audra’s room feeling very confused and frustrated.

After their guests left Jarrod asked, “Did you sort out your dress problem?”

“There was no dress problem!” Audra snapped.

“Then I must admit to being confused. I seem to recall that you were going upstairs to ask Colleen for dress advice.”

“Jarrod, she said exasperated, that was just to have time alone.”

“Of course,” he smiled, and let it drop.

About ten minutes later Audra said “Jarrod? Colleen was trying to tell me something, but I’m not sure what. We’ve never had trouble talking before. Why would she think I wanted to know about Heath’s coat?”

“Heath’s coat. Why don’t you start at the beginning.”

“Well Jarrod, she said taking his hand and leading him to a chair, she asked if Heath seemed upset when Mother gave him the coat. I said yes, he wanted to get his own, then she said that you and Nick were in town a lot but Heath wasn’t. She also said that she had never seen him in much new clothes, like she did you and Nick. I said he probably didn’t care about new clothes much and she said something that really confused me. She said maybe he didn’t understand. Understand what Jarrod? That he would look better in a different color shirt. That girls would like him more if he had different clothes. I’m just so confused.”

“I must admit I’m stumped as well. Don’t let it concern you. She will tell you later.”

“Okay Jarrod, thanks. Now lets get this place cleaned up. Mother, Nick and Heath should be back any minute, and I can smell the turkey. I bet dinner will be about two today.”

As they cleared, the front door opened and the rest of the family entered. They all talked about their respective visits, Nick stating, quite forcefully, that he was glad that they only did this three times each year. It was all he could stand. Heath joked, that watching Nick stay still for so long, was a treat for him. Victoria left to check on Thanksgiving dinner and finally Silas announced that it was ready.

The dining room was elegantly laid out, with fine china and crystal. The turkey was perfectly presented on a large platter, surrounded by candied apples and brussel sprouts. There were mounds of mashed potatoes, and gravy was almost overflowing the sides of the sterling gravy boat. Dressing was in abundance, as well as fresh bread, and Victoria’s cranberry preserves. Local Cabernet Sauvignon was the wine of the night, and the crystal goblets contained iced water. Pumpkin pie was for dessert.

Taking their places, Heath once again was overwhelmed by the bounty of food before him. He knew the remains wouldn’t go to waste, but still seeing this much food at one time astounded him. He kept thinking he would get used to it, but it seemed that the more he found placed in front of him, the less he ate.

After the prayers were said, Heath picked up his fork, when Victoria raised her glass and began speaking. Heath let his fork drop back to his napkin as she said, ”Today is Thanksgiving. A day to celebrate all the riches we have in our lives. I am asking each one of you to tell what you are thankful for today. Nick, as you are on my right, please go first.”

As Nick began, Jarrod’s gaze was focused on Heath. Something was nagging at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t bring it to the forefront.

Heath, too, was thinking. He was trying to come up with something to say, but nothing fit. This must be another tradition. Well next year he would be ready, but what would he say this year. He needed time to think. Let’s see. He was thankful he wasn’t on Victoria’s right. He was thankful to have a roof over his head, this year. He was thankful to be dry. Thankful they let him stay. Thankful for George and Edna, thankful for Colleen, thankful Gal was okay, thankful he got to ride Charger last week, thankful for pumpkins, thankful for them, his family, but how did he say what he felt? The thoughts kept coming but the words refused to do so. He refused to blurt out something like, I’m thankful for gravy. Good Lord where had that come from?

“Happily Mother, Nick replied. I am thankful that the rains stopped before destroying everything that so many have worked so hard for.”

Jarrod continued, by adding, “In that vein brother, I am thankful that when tragedy has befallen those we know, that we have been fortunate enough to be able to aid them ourselves.”

Next, Audra said, “I am thankful for the orphanage, for Father Joseph, and for all the children that they help.”

All eyes next centered on Heath, and after a seconds hesitation, it hit him. It was the words to his mama’s prayer. Offering his mama, a silent thank you for guiding him right now, he said, “I am thankful for the food that we are about to receive.”

Victoria knew that of all the words spoken at the table, Heath’s were the most heartfelt. She followed with, “I am thankful to have my family, healthy, and gathered around me as we celebrate.”

Once again Jarrod saw Heath lift his fork, then set it back down, as Victoria requested that Jarrod do the honors of carving the turkey.

“Certainly Mother,” he said. Taking the stag handled carving set, he sharpened the knife and deftly carved the Thanksgiving turkey into thin slices of meat. As he laid down the carving set, he saw Heath look at his fork, but refrain from reaching for it. Finding it endearing, he said, “ Dinner is officially served,” and was rewarded with Heath’s grin as the fork this time stayed in his hand.

Everyone was thoughtful and quiet, as they gave thanks for their good fortune and the clank of cutlery could be heard as Nick’s voice, for once, wasn’t overshadowing it. As their stomachs filled, and the wine bottle emptied, the conversation grew louder. Finally Heath noted, that you could once again hear Nick and very little else. He hadn’t been paying attention, but it sounded like Nick and Audra were talking about a Christmas dance, and he fully listened when Nick mentioned asking Virginia Wheeler to go with him.

At that, he said, “Are you nuts.”

To which Nick replied, “I may be, but I think I kind of like her.”

As Audra brought up her friends and their likely partners, Colleen’s name was mentioned. This led Jarrod to think back to the conversation with Audra, and as he did that nagging feeling grew. How frustrating this was. It was like this when he was working on a case, and the answer to freeing a client was visible but he still couldn’t grasp it. When the answer finally did come to him, the relief he felt was palpable. That was the feeling he had now. A nagging feeling that something had been overlooked, but the harder he tried to pin it down, the further it retreated from his mind. He worried his way through his dessert of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, barely tasting a bite.

Nick refused a slice, and returned to his tirade against the orange beasts. He and Heath traded banter, one extolling the virtues of the pumpkin, the other denigrating their existence.

Jarrod looked at Nick. Nick looked fine. He looked at Heath. Heath looked fine.

Think Jarrod…… his mind screamed…….think! Maybe more wine would clarify the situation. Pouring himself a last glass, he stared at the patterns it made on the white starched tablecloth. They had used this tablecloth at every Thanksgiving he could remember. *Funny thing about traditions, you just take them for granted, and he pictured Heath picking up his fork and returning it. What were his Thanksgivings like? Did he celebrate any? He hadn’t known what to expect tonight. How could he his mind screamed again. No one explained to him what to expect. How many times had this occurred. Instantly he could picture at least five. The first dinner Heath had with them, the table fully set, Easter, his mother’s birthday, the fourth of July, heck you would have thought that he had never seen fireworks before, and tonight. They hadn’t told him what to expect, but he adapted well. Nope this wasn’t it. The angle was wrong, the feeling was still there, nagging him. Well maybe it will come to me Jarrod decided, as Silas cleared the table.

As the family left the Thanksgiving table, Heath said, “I need some exercise. Think I’ll go for a ride. See you later.” He was out the door before anyone could protest.

“He loves riding,” Audra smiled as she moved to the piano to play a few songs before there annual Thanksgiving game of charades began. “ I was hoping to be his partner, but I guess it’ll be you and I again this year, Nick.”

As the family played charades, Heath rode. He would have liked to have stayed home, if just to avoid the questions that would come when he returned, but the need to leave was stronger. Riding over the now very familiar terrain, he tied Gal in front of George and Edna’s and went inside, with out even knocking.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said as Edna jumped up to hug him. He was getting used to it finally. He shook George’s offered hand and sat at the table as they requested.

“Can I get you something, Heath,” Edna fussed.

“Actually we just ate, but if you have cornbread, I might have a slice.” He asked for the cornbread because he knew they would be upset if he didn’t eat, and he could see the crumbs by George’s place, where Edna hadn’t finished cleaning yet.

“Here you go Heath. So glad to see you,” Edna said, handing him a huge hunk of cornbread. Doing his best to eat his way through the enormous piece, he allowed himself to relax. He needed to spend Thanksgiving in both houses.

“Well Heath, don’t just sit there and eat, tell me how I did this afternoon?” George said gruffly, trying to hide his concern that he might have caused Heath problems. They all knew that Heath’s being with them was a secret he kept from his family.

“You did great, George, Heath answered. Nick pestered me the whole way home asking what you said to me as we left. I told him that you said he talked a lot.” With that they both laughed, and Edna sat back to enjoy the view.

How she had wanted children. She felt so fortunate that George had just accepted things and never sought to hold her accountable. In Heath they had found their son. George had already drawn up a will, leaving Heath their property, when they had both passed over, but it was a secret they would take to their graves. Heath would be furious if he found out, and they didn’t want to face him. She felt safer, and smiled at the image of Heath, yelling at their gravestones, his fists clenched, his face red, but too late to do anything about it. Finally she began laughing as well, the image being to much to take.

George and Heath stopped talking to look at her. “Something funny?” Heath asked.

“Yes, but you wouldn’t understand,” she giggled, knowing George would get a kick out of it later that night. As her laughter subsided, George proposed a game of Hearts.

“Sounds like a fine idea to me,” Heath said, and Edna agreed. Three games later a fuming George, was bidding goodbye to a victorious Heath, as he decided he’d better get back home. As George shut the door, he held onto Edna, trying to hold on to some of the warmth that seemed to have left when Heath did.

On the ride home, he contrasted the two homes. It was so easy at George and Edna’s. There were no expectations to live up to, no glaring mistakes to be made, just easy comfort. Somehow thought, the elegance was missing, and he was coming to enjoy that as well, since it was always done with love, not for show. Remembering the first time he’d had raisin bread at home, they placed it on the sideboard on the very best silver platter they owned. He had felt so honored. Both ways felt good. Both came from love. He was lucky.

Reaching the house he entered quietly, as he could hear riotous laughter coming from inside, and he just wanted to observe for a bit. What he saw amazed him. They were all gathered in the parlor, and Nick was standing in the center of the group.

He listened as Audra said,”First word, little word. A? And? The?”

As Nick pointed to his nose, Aurda said, “the , the” and at Nick’s nod she said, “Second word,” and Nick dropped to his knees on the floor. As he crawled around wiggling his rear end, Audra, Victoria, and Jarrod all collapsed in a fit of laughter. Heath was hard pressed not to join them but really wanted to see what would happen, so he pursed his lips and continued to view the strange goings on.

Finally Audra choked out, “sheep?”

Now Nick was shaking his head no, and his rear end moved in time to his head. Once again she laughed uncontrollably. “Nick, this isn’t helping. Are you an animal?”

“We can see that sis, but you can’t ask questions,” Jarrod ever practical managed to choke through his laughter.

Now Nick was shaking his head yes to Audra’s question, and shaking his rear end, making him look like a love sick seal. Audra couldn’t even get a word out, when Nick got disgusted and stood up. He thought his dog was exceptional.

“Audra, he snapped, think, try again!”

This sent Victoria over the edge, as she grasped her sides in pain.

“Now watch me closely,” he said, resuming his on all fours position and again shaking his rear end, this time getting the brilliant idea to pretend to chase his tail as Audra’s dogs did. Crawling frantically in ever widening circles, he was gratified when Audra choked out “Dog?”

Pointing once again to his nose, he heard Audra say “The dog______. Last word.”

Staying on all fours he planted his rear on the floor the spitting image of a dog sitting up, then he stuck out his tongue and breathed loudly. At just that minute, three things happened.

Audra yelled “ Pants. The dog pants!”

Heath collapsed on the floor, grasping his sides and laughing uncontrollably.

And Jarrod noticed Nick was wearing new pants, while Heath was wearing the same ones he always wore, and that they looked a little thin. The nagging feeling stopped, as the light went on, only to be replaced by a feeling of enormous guilt.

Heath didn’t understand their traditions.

Heath didn’t understand their methods.

Heath didn’t understand!

Heath didn’t understand that he could buy things.

Heath didn’t understand how they handled the finances.

Heath didn’t understand that he had money.

His laughter instantly stopping, he gazed at his brother, laughing on the floor. He had to take care of this issue immediately. Heath needed to know, and know now. How could they have overlooked this. This was important! He decided to briefly talk with his mother first, to see if she wanted it handled any special way, and to fill her in, but he assumed everyone had thought he’d already told Heath. He was guilty of neglect. He had never thought about the finances, just added Heath’s name to the list and done for him what he did for the others. He had assumed Heath would know. He should have known better. Lawyers never assume they assure. As self inflicted recriminations consumed him, he grew short tempered, and everyone called a halt to the evening, each deciding to do their own things.

Victoria and Heath were reading, Audra was embroidering, and Nick was playing solitaire. Jarrod was brooding.

“Mother, may I see you in my office?” he snapped.

Angry at her sons tone, Victoria glared at him, only to see what looked like grief on his face. Allowing her anger to pass, she said, “Coming,” and rose to follow his quickly departing form.

As she entered, he shut the door behind her, and dropped into his chair.

“Jarrod?” she questioned, concerned for her eldest son.

“In a minute Mother, I need to get this right.”

Allowing him the same silence she often gave Heath, she noted that he gripped the edges of his desk forcefully, but kept his head bent. Knowing that he only did this when he was feeling guilty, she waited for him to speak. Guilt was hard for all her children. Each tried to do the best they could. Each felt compelled to live up to an unknown standard, and if they fell short they would hit themselves over the head forever, allowing it to eat away at them until they finally relented and talked it through. Puzzled she could think of nothing that could have put Jarrod in such a state.

He had won his last four cases, he and Helen were seeing each other, he wasn’t angry with any family member, even the Willit’s loan had been handled gracefully and gladly accepted. Patience, Victoria, she thought, patience. Finally he was talking.

“Mother, I’ve hurt Heath, Served him a terrible injustice.” His dramatic tone lent emphasis to his words and brought his guilt to life.

“I don’t understand,” was all she added.

“I never explained to him that he had money. Nine months Mother, nine months. How do you make that up to him?”

“Jarrod, I’m sure he knows, she began, then sat down hard, remembering the coat and his extra embarrassment. He hand covering her mouth, she exclaimed, “Oh, Jarrod, then after taking a moment to compose herself she added, I’d just assumed………..

“That I’d taken care of it. Yes I know Mother. I know.” he interrupted, the self loathing evident.

“No, Jarrod, I’d just assumed he’d know. Why would you be any different. Nobody has known or they would have said something. We must fix this now, but Jarrod, feeling guilty for an honest oversight won’t help. There have been so many changes and upheavals, that some things are bound to slip through the cracks. How did you figure it out?”

“I feel even worse about that. I didn’t figure it out first, Colleen did. She tried to tell Audra today, but they left before she could finish.”

When Jarrod left to get Heath, Victoria offered up a prayer of thanks that Colleen was looking out for her son as well.

As they both entered, Victoria thought, somewhat humorously, that both looked like they were going in front of a firing squad. Her unintentional, short burst of laughter helped ease the tension in the room.

Jarrod motioned Heath to a chair, and took a seat behind his desk. This time Heath chose to remain standing as the fear assailed him once again. This was it! Attempting to quiet the demons, and trust, he gazed at the floor as Jarrod began speaking, in what Heath termed lawyer lingo. Detached and factual, feeling nothing. That was the voice he was using.

As the fear built, and the band once again began constricting Heath’s soul Jarrod said “Heath, I’ve been very neglectful, and I intend to remedy that situation right now.”

That didn’t sound like what he expected a leave immediately bastard speech should sound like. Paying closer attention, he brought his eyes up, and looked at both Victoria and Jarrod..

Jarrod continued to say, “I neglected to tell you how the finances worked. I keep an account for each of the family members, and make regular deposits for everyone based on the ranches profits for the quarter. The money is yours when ever you need it. Also for casual purchases, like clothes, work gear, books, etc., we operate on credit in Stockton. You pick out what you need, and then sign your name to the tab. These are sent to me monthly and I pay them out of a household fund. If you will come around here, I’ll show you your account balance, and give you your bank number.”

Heath turned to Victoria and saw her nod, so he did as instructed. What Jarrod showed him, left him breathless. He had never seen a number that big in his entire life applied to him. Not even the number on his Carterson prison shirt was that big.

“Are you telling me that this is mine,” he said shocked.

“Yes, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you weren’t aware sooner.”

“I can’t accept this,” he stated flatly.

“It’s not a matter of accepting it, Victoria spoke, its yours. Yours for all the work you do, yours for your share of the ranch, yours for being a Barkley.”

“It’s too much. I don’t deserve this. If you insist maybe you could just pay me a cow hands wages.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Heath.” Victoria said.

“Never,” Jarrod added. Heath you’re a Barkley. You share in the good and the bad.”

“I thought I was the bad.” he stated.

“Heath, Victoria spoke sharply, I never want to hear anything like that out of you again. Do you understand? You’re a wonderful part of this family. I’ve always tried to show you that,” she said placing her hands on his tense shoulders.

Sitting down, Heath said, “this will take some getting used to. Don’t expect any big bills from me Jarrod, an occasional shirt maybe. Nothing much.”

“You don’t need to justify your expenses. We trust you as each of us trusts each other. We expect you to trust us as well.”

He hated the word trust. It was so hard! Heath just sat there looking stunned, and shaking his head when Victoria said, “Heath, how did you buy that new saddle?”

Caught off guard he responded, “Working for George and Edna.”

“WHAT! thundered Nick, who had been shamelessly eavesdropping through the open patio doors. Nobody can work as hard as you do, and work somewhere else as well.”

“Heath, no, Victoria said, you’ll kill yourself.”

Jarrod just let his head drop further. He had caused his brother to take an extra job just to get by.

“Did they pay you anything boy, anything near what your worth?”. Nick yelled again.

Thinking of the wages, the good feeling of being able to buy his brother the beers, their companionship, and the lumber and extras he had asked for, he felt he had been well paid, so he nodded yes.

“Good Lord, how did this happen?” Nick yelled.

“Lower your voice Nick,” she snapped back, her fear for Heath’s health adding to her distress. All those weeks that he had been cold and without a coat, making excuses. Even the orphans had coats. Why hadn’t he asked them for money. It was moments like these that drove her to distraction with her new son. She hadn’t shared his life until the past nine months. She had to guess what it had been like from bits and pieces he had said. Even her trip to Strawberry, while solving her problem, hadn’t explained much about Heath. He had been poor, of that she was sure. His reaction here would tell anyone that. His pride was a strong as any Barkleys, perhaps stronger. He wouldn’t ask for anything that he couldn’t provide, that wasn’t his. None of her children could. But to go to work at Edna’s. To lie to them for a few dollars. She was as angry with him as she was with Jarrod.

“Heath, how could you work for someone else?” she questioned.

“Well you’ve seen George try to build that stage at the auction,” Heath laughed, and she joined him. If anyone needed help it was George, and they had a good worker in Heath. She would need to speak to them.

Then another thought hit her. “Heath, where did you ride tonight?”

Twisting his button he said, ”just around.”

“Heath, look at me and answer.”

“Yes Ma’am,” he answered.

Victoria was unaware but Edna would have known that Heath was on the spot, just from the ma’am. “I’ll repeat the question. Where did you ride tonight?” All eyes were on him again.

“Over to George and Edna’s ma’am,” he responded quietly.

“I hope you had a nice time. How were they?”

“Fine.”

She needed to talk to Edna sooner than she thought. Tomorrow would be the earliest she could go and Heath would go with her. She wasn’t about to lose this son, to another mother figure. Now what was Nick saying, she thought.

“I expect you to work here full time,” Nick said.

“And I can’t wait to have you around for more dinners.” Victoria added.

“Yes Heath, the controlled lawyer voice spoke. As we have said before, we’ve missed you. I realize why you were gone, and that I caused it, but you no longer need to work double jobs.” Jarrod finished.

Silence reigned as everyone once again drifted to their own thoughts.

Finally Nick broke the silence with, “Pool, Heath, I’ll let you win a game before we turn in.”

“Sure” Heath responded, following Nick from Jarrod’s office to the pol room. Seeing his mother follow them out, he said, “Nick you rack them. I’ll be right there.” He turned and went back into the office.

For the first time since coming there, he was able to offer comfort. Touching Jarrod’s shoulder, he said “ I could have asked for money anytime, if I wasn’t so stubborn. Don’t blame yourself. This is a family, you keep telling me. Things work two ways. Come in and play pool with us. We can both beat Nick.”

Smiling Jarrod allowed Heath to talk him out of his dark mood. He knew he would feel guilty for weeks, but Heath had started him on the road to healing.

As the game of pool commenced Heath quickly let his mind drift back over the conversation, and figured out that they were right. He no longer needed to work the double jobs, and he no longer needed to lie, but he could still help out his friends. Realizing he would sleep well this night, he quit the pool game, and turned in early. His body once again ached from the tension, and he wanted a hot bath, and a warm bed.

Victoria’s first priority the next morning was to see George and Edna, and explain that Heath would no longer be working for them, as he had explained to his family the entire situation, and it had been remedied. She explained this to the family over breakfast, and was prepared to ride immediately after. She expected Heath to be pleased, so she was surprised when she met with resistance in the form of Heath, bodily blocking the front door.

“I won’t have you telling them that I’m not working for them.”

“Heath, we’ve been over this enough, you don’t need the job.” Victoria stated. As she listened to his next words, she felt her heart sink.

“I agree, but I do need George and Edna, and they need my help. I will no longer get paid, or work as often, but I refuse to let down those two people who have given me so much.”

“We need you here. You’re not working there, and that’s final.” Nick said, rehashing the entire conversation from last night.

“NO!” Heath adamantly refused to be swayed.

“Heath!” Nick took a menacing step toward him.

“Stop this immediately, have you forgotten you still owe me for one vase, Nick Barkley?”

As he stood there defiantly, Heath tried to find a way to explain his feelings. He hated feelings sometimes. He needed George and Edna in his life. They were there when he was overwhelmed. He would be there for them always. Simple thoughts, impossible to express to four of the people he loved more than anything in the world. He wasn’t trying to pick sides, but that seemed to be what they wanted. He would not do it. Tempers were high all around, and he just wanted to escape. To ride Charger, um, Gal until they dropped. Despite his good nights sleep, he was still tired. He thought he might be getting sick, but then it would pass, and he would feel fine. But he was tired of thinking.

As they all stood lost in their own thoughts and fears, while glaring at one another, they heard an angelic voice of reason from the staircase. “Let me see if I understand this correctly?” Audra’s words brought them up short. She had missed last night’s conversation, and had only been briefed on the basics, so she wasn’t hung up on details. “Mother, Jarrod, Nick, you want Heath to never work at George and Edna’s again, Correct?”

Stated that bluntly, Victoria recognized her error, and that it had been made out of fear. Saying Thank you to Audra, she asked, not ordered Heath to ride with her. As he hesitantly agreed, she had Ciego saddle their horses, and they left. She stayed beside Heath, but let him lead, and was once again reminded of his stubbornness. They were heading directly away from her intended destination.

As they rode he felt the tension lift, and spurred Gal to a full gallop. Victoria reigned in Silver, and just watched him take pleasure in the outdoors. Presently he slowed and made his way back to her side.

They rode in silence, side by side, for about a mile before Victoria felt ready to talk. Spying an old tree trunk, Victoria said, “Could we rest here?”

Heath said nothing, but dismounted and steadied Silver, while she got down. As she sat on the gnarled tree stump, Heath moved aimlessly around, digging with his toe, in the mud freshly speckled with new green shoots of grass. The rains always rejuvenated the face of the valley, turning the golden hills to a verdant green.

Finally she could take his silence no longer. Feeling a strong kinship to Nick at this point, she said, “Heath, I’m sorry, I was wrong.”

As short, clipped, “no need to be sorry,” was returned.

“You didn’t mention the wrong, Heath.”

“That’s because you were.”

“Yes, I was. Do you know why?” she questioned.

“You just were, what you wanted isn’t right.”

“Heath, let me tell you why. I was wrong because I was scared of losing you. I was wrong, because I love you.”

“Loving isn’t wrong.”

“No Heath, loving isn’t wrong, she said looking at his face. He seemed very confused, but was remaining very closed. Okay Victoria, try again. Be blunt. Force him to understand. To accept the love he deserves. “Heath, look at me. At my eyes.”

He stopped toying with the earth, and moved to her side, looking into her eyes, his gaze unwavering.

“We’ve determined that I was wrong, but you must understand why to forgive.” she calmly repeated.

Bewilderment was evident, as he thought that this was the second time he had been asked to forgive someone. She had said the right words. He was ready to listen.

“Let me ask you a question. Have you ever been jealous?”

“Yes!” he replied, thinking of Charger.

“That’s how I felt. I didn’t want to share you with them. I didn’t want you to prefer them to me, to us.”

His simple clear response told her all she needed to know, as he said, “ Nick and Jarrod are my brothers, Audra my sister, you my Mother. How could I not love you?”

Taking his hand, she said, “Lets go tell George and Edna that.”

“They already know,” was his comment as they both rode back the way they had come, and over the hills to Heath’s other home.

Once again Victoria found herself on Edna’s doorstep, but this time the entire story was out. There would be no pretending. When George answered, he took an immediate step back and tripped, looking greatly confused. As Heath reached out to steady him, Victoria saw the concern Heath exhibited, and the gratitude with which it was received. No she couldn’t forbid him to stop seeing these people. They needed him as much as she did.

“Edna!” George called, moving into the kitchen and leaving them standing on the doorstep.

“What is it this time, you lose another sock,” she called back.

“No, you got company,” he called.

“Now who could that be?” she said as she moved down the hallway, to the door. “Victoria, Heath, come in. Have a seat.” Heath sure looked miserable, she thought, and Victoria not that much better. “What can I do for you?”

“Edna, Victoria began, last night Jarrod discovered that Heath had been working for you. We feel he is working to hard, and have asked him to quit working here.” Just then the clatter of a breaking dish could be heard from the kitchen. “I thought that we should ride over and tell you” she continued.

“Heath?” George asked, holding a cut hand as he moved out of the kitchen, “Did you agree.”

“George, Edna, Heath said holding their gazes with his, I have agreed to stop being paid for working here. Not to stop working for you. I ‘ll still help you as often as I can, and I love that corn bread, and stew, and pot roast, so don’t be thinking that your prayers have been answered yet, he joked. I’m still coming over here. Can’t get rid of me that easily.” As they smiled he quietly added, with a catch in his voice, unless you don’t want me here, of course?”

“HEATH!, all three adults cried at once, and Edna added, “how could you even think such a thing.” His smile lit the room.

“Okay then George, let me help you with that new back door you got in last week,” Heath said as Victoria began talking to Edna.

“I thought they would never leave.” Edna said conspiratorially to Victoria, as the men departed. I am so glad to be able to talk openly with you now.”

Victoria smiled, as Edna chatted away, hardly allowing her to get a word in edgewise. They loved him, she could see this. She needed to let go of her fears, and trust Heath. Ironic, how she had spent so much time trying to teach him to trust, and she needed the lesson now.

“……..and Victoria, don’t you think he must have a wife? I thought Virginia Wheeler, but he laughed at me. Can you imagine? He laughed at me. Now what’s wrong with her I ask you? She seemed nice to me, but there you go. You just can’t figure men out. I think I’ll try Maggie next. What do you think about her? Oh and that boy talks non‑stop, well when he talks.. Actually he doesn’t talk all that much, but anyway its, Jarrod this, or Audra that, or Mother says…he must do nothing but think of you all. That and work. Now how is he ever going to meet a woman like that? Here is what I think we should do. First, we plan a party and ……..”

Hearing a back door slam, Victoria allowed herself to stop trying to follow the dizzying conversation, and looked up expectantly, as the men re-entered the sitting room.

“Ready to go, Mother?” Heath questioned.

“Of course, I need to get lunch going, and I know Nick thought you would get those horses broken today, so we should be off. Good day Edna, George,” she said rising, and heading happily to the door with Heath.

“You go get the horses ready Heath, Edna instructed, I need a few more minutes of Victoria’s time.”

Heath answered, “Certainly” as he smiled hearing Victoria’s sigh. “I’ll be right outside, don’t be long.”

Edna started up right where she left off, as soon as Heath left. “Now as I was saying, we have this party, and well I think the ideal girl must like horses. Don’t you? Heath loves them, so maybe not Maggie. Well who would you recommend, Victoria?” She waited patiently for the answer and Victoria was hard pressed not to laugh.

“Edna, I think that we should leave Heath to make his own choices. Now I really must be going. I’ve kept Heath waiting long enough.” and she left, wishing them a fond goodbye and telling them she would expect to see them soon.

Somehow the journey home didn’t seem as long to either of them, and they talked easily. Victoria asked about the ranch work, and listened as Heath laid out the plans for what needed to be done. Stating that she thought it sounded more ambitious than other winters, Heath told her of Nick and his plans to add two more orchards next year. As Stockton grew, the demand for fresh produce would as well. He explained that it would take years for the orchards to produce, so the sooner the ground work was laid the better. That meant extra winter work, aside from the levees and repairs that always needed attending to.

Victoria then took a turn and told him about the Christmas plans for the orphanage. He had been to the orphanage a number of times, but hadn’t realized that the number of children had tripled in the year before he came, due to an influenza epidemic, and a huge fire that took a number of parents with it. Audra and her friends were going to be making and filling stockings for each child, so they could have a Christmas. After Heath agreed that this was important, they talked of any number of things, including the visit to George and Edna’s, the Christmas season, and Jarrod’s latest court case. Heath even went so far as to mention Jarrod’s interest in Helen.

This allowed Victoria to broach a subject that she was anxiously in need of talking about. “How long have you been seeing Colleen. Heath?”

Not really wanting to answer but aware that since the festival she was aware of them courting, he answered truthfully, “Since the dance this spring. Wasn’t going to tell anybody, just yet, but I guess talking to you is fine. I’m serious about her ma’am.”

“I thought as much, Heath. I want you to know that I support you and the match. She is a great girl and you’re a wonderful young man.”

“Thank you,” he said. ‘Race you home,” and off they went.

As she gave chase, she laughed at the lengths he would go to, to avoid personal questions.

While not surprised, Victoria was amazed at the flurry of activity the weeks leading up to Christmas brought. Christmas was still three weeks away and she barely had any shopping done. She had just returned home from Stockton, passing Heath and Nick, both working in what she assumed was to be the new cherry grove, and entered the house to find Audra, Colleen, Helen, Virginia, Gloria, and Ellen, busily sewing the stockings, they had cut out the week before. It looked like they had a work circle going. Two were stitching the linings together, two were sewing the outer stocking together and the last two were putting together fur that was to go on the top of each stocking. She knew the number of children in the orphanage was twenty seven, but seeing all the fabric laid out in front of her, reminded her of what a large undertaking this was for the girls.

Handing her packages to Silas, she entered the parlor saying, “You look like you have this well under control, girls, would you like some tea, and perhaps a tray of cookies brought in for a snack?”

“That would be wonderful, Mrs. Barkley,” Helen commented.

“Yes, please,” Ellen and Virginia added in unison.

“Thank you Mother, I was so busy I forgot to offer,” Audra added.

“I’ll have it brought right out. Good work, girls.” she added, going to find Silas.

As the day wore on, the stockings began to take shape, and the girls gave thought on what should fill each one. Suggestions, were fast and furious, coming one after another.

“Candies,” Virginia, exclaimed.

“Nuts,” Colleen added.

“….and a quarter,” Helen threw out. “I always received a quarter.”

“Whirly gigs for the boys, and rag dolls for the girls,” Ellen threw in.

“Oh, and how about ribbons, for the girls hair,” Gloria said.

“These are great, let’s add paints. I loved getting paints.” Audra voiced.

“Fruit,” suggested Helen.

“..and small books” added Ellen.

“You know, we have very little for the boys,” Colleen stated.

A round of you’re right, I’d forgotten about that, and the boys would have so much less than the girls, was echoed around the room.

“Well, what do boys want?” Ellen asked. “I didn’t have brothers.”

“Well I sure do, Audra said. “Too bad none of them are home.”

“I wish they were here too,” Giggled some of the girls, while others nodded.

As the discussion continued, two very muddy cowboys, came home and entered together. As they put their hats down, they heard, “Nick, Heath, can you come in and join us?”

“What is it?” Nick said, as they both entered the room. He smiled when he saw the women there. Seeing Colleen, Heath’s eyes lit up as well, and he smiled. Virginia smiled back , then looked at Nick. *No, I think Nick is cuter than Heath. I wonder why I didn’t see it before.* She flashed Nick a huge grin.

“Nick, we so need your help.” she gushed.

“Glad to oblige,” he responded heading her direction.

Helen cut in with, “We’ve been trying to decide what to fill the stockings with, for the orphans, and realized that we have the girls well covered, but have no real ideas for the boys. What do boys want in their stockings?”

Looking at Heath expectantly, Colleen watched, as he lowered his head refusing to make eye contact with anyone in the room, as Nick rattled off, “tops, toy boats, candy, toy guns, whirlygigs, sling shots, marbles, pennies, a whistle, will that do, or do you need more?”

Laughing at the quickly recited list, Gloria said, “That should do Nick. Heath do you have anything to add?”

Lost in thought, he didn’t hear her question, and Nick loudly yelled, “Hey! You got anything else to add to my list of ideas?”

Bringing his head up at Nick’s question, he said, “I always wanted marbles.” He then left the room and entered Jarrod’s office, and poured himself a strong drink from Jarrod’s personal supply of brandy. I will never get through Christmas, he decided. I just can’t pull this off. His family hadn’t even begun preparing, and he was dreading every minute of it.

Colleen watched him move into the office, and decided to follow him. “If you will excuse me, I’m going to freshen up before I head home,” she said, and left heading up the stairway to Audra’s room. At the head of the stairs, she however turned and followed the back stairway down to the kitchen. Giving Victoria and Silas a saucy look, and no answer to their raised eyebrows, she left through the back door. When she reached the French doors that opened into Jarrod’s office, she could see Heath inside, but as she turned the handle, she found the door locked. RATS! Trying to decide if she should knock or not, she pressed her face to the glass.

At the sound of the door creaking as she pressed against it, Heath turned around. Noticing Colleen, her face distorted by the glass, he laughed. He moved to unlock the door, and swung her into the room.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, sneaking around outside some ones home?”

“Coming to get you Heath. You looked like you could use some cheering up.”

“Reckon I could at that. Not real good company right now, I’m afraid.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“Yes and no, Colleen, yes and no.” he murmured.

Pulling away from him, she moved to Jarrod’s chair and sat down. Assuming a very business like air, she said, “No won’t get me answers, and if you want to be my client, I can only help if you are totally forthcoming. I will have to insist you go with yes, and tell me all about it.”

Laughing, he pulled her to her feet and kissed her. “Thanks for making me laugh.”

“If I do it again, do I get another kiss?” she questioned.

“I’m not sure. Is that your fee for taking my case?”

A flirtatious glint to her eye, she replied, “Four kisses an hour, and they better be good, or I’ll drop the case like a hot potato.”

Murmuring, “Sounds good counselor,” he pulled her roughly to him and kissed her soundly. Raising his head, he said, “That takes care of fifteen minutes, but I think I’ll pay for the entire hour in advance.” and he again plundered her lips as she tightened her grip around his shoulders.

Finally Heath released her, took her hand, and sitting down on one of the fine leather chairs, drew her into his lap. “I do need to talk Colleen. Do ya have the time?”

“I think your passionate kisses ate up my time Heath. I pretended to need to freshen up. Could you ride part of the way home with me?”

“Reckon I could,” he smiled, and added, if you didn’t need to freshen up before, you probably should now.”

As she laughed they heard a polite knock on the glass doors. Jumping hastily apart, they saw Victoria open the doors and quickly motion Colleen outside.

“Audra and the girls are looking for you. It seems they are under the impression that you went upstairs. Silas is telling them that I asked you to walk with me. You had better join me quickly.”

“Thank you, Mother.’ Heath said, blushing as Colleen fairly fled out the door and took Victoria’s arm, as they hurriedly moved toward the garden. Heath watched as Victoria deftly answered all the girls questions, then he went upstairs and freshened up. He returned downstairs just in time to say goodby to the departing group. Only Ellen and Colleen remained behind.

‘Are you two staying for dinner?” he questioned.

“No, and I must be going,” Ellen said. “You coming , Colleen?”

“Yes, I am.” she replied.

“If you two are riding back toward town, I’ll accompany you. I’m headin’ that way,” Heath said, knowing that Ellen’s home was the other direction.

“No, I’m going home, Heath, not back to town,” Ellen replied, while Colleen said, “I’d be happy for the company.”

“Fine. I’ll be ready as soon as I saddle Gal,” and he left the girls to say their goodbyes. He was waiting with all three horses as the girls came out. Handing Ellen’s reins to her he said, “I think what you are doing for the orphans is wonderful.”

“We sure hope it brings them a little joy, Heath. Goodbye. Colleen I’ll see you on Wednesday, at two p.m. in town to pick up the gifts for the children. Goodbye.”

“See you then, Ellen,” Colleen confirmed, mounting, while Heath held her horse steady.

“Cobbler’s Creek?” she said with a smile, only to hear him say, “No. It’s been raining and many places along the bank aren’t safe. How about the almond grove. Its not near as pretty, but it is kinda dry?” he suggested as an alternative.

“Sounds fine, at least the trees will provide some shelter from the cold.”

“Don’t worry! I’ll personally make sure you’re warm.” came his wolfish reply.

They dismounted and he led her to an area where the trees had been buffeted by the wind, causing them to grow a little closer together than usual, hoping this would help keep her warm. Time would be limited as it was dark by five p.m. and she should be home before it was dark, for safeties sake. He figured they had a little under a half hour together at best.

While he was trying to gather his thoughts, she pushed him to the ground, and sat beside him, pulling her jacket close. “Okay, Heath Barkley, why don’t you just start talking to me? I can be as patient as you can be silent.”

“Figures.”

“Heath, please?”

“Don’t rightly know where to begin Colleen,” and with that he stopped talking again.

“How about starting right there Heath. What made you uncomfortable earlier?”

“Well, umn.. you were all talking about stockings, and wanting help with what to put in them. Colleen, I wanted to help, but couldn’t.”

“Sure you could, Heath, you just needed to speak up.”

Taking her hands and looking deep into her eyes, he said, “Remember our first date, and our conversation?”

“Yes.”

“Colleen, I told you then that my background changed things. Would be different for you, but it’s hard for me too, and in ways, you, they, couldn’t understand.”

“You’re right, Heath. I don’t understand.”

“Take today. I couldn’t answer. I never had a stocking. We celebrated Christmas, by having a mince pie and Mama bought me a candy. That was all. They’re talking trees, ornaments, greenery, garland, stringing berries. Things I don’t understand. All the holidays have been hard, and I reckon next year will be easier, and I do have my gifts ready, but Christmas just seems overwhelming. They talk and talk, and I just sit.”

As it started to rain, he pulled her onto his lap to help keep her warm. It was then that she allowed herself to give in to the tears that had been threatening for so long. He couldn’t see the tears streaming down her face. She couldn’t let him. That would be impossible. He would not reach out again if he felt she pitied him. How was she to help?

As she thought about what to say, he continued, “ I wished for this all my life, and now I’m scared. What if it doesn’t measure up to what I want? What if I mess it up for them?

Pretending to wipe the drizzle from her face, she dried her eyes with her glove. Taking his hand, she rose, and he followed. “Heath, she said walking amongst the trees, I never gave it any thought. Thank you for explaining it to me. Can you tell them?”

“Don’t think so,” he said shaking his head. “I’d love to, help. I heard Nick offer, but I wouldn’t even know how to fill a stocking.” he admitted.

“It’s easy. I could show you. The little things go in first, followed by the bigger items.”

Stopping he turned her to face him. Raising her face so their eyes met, he threaded one hand through her luxurious hair. “Don’t be sad. I can tell you’ve been crying. Talking has helped. It’s been hard dealing with it all alone. I have been dreading it for so long, it just kept getting worse and worse. Knowing you understand makes a lot if difference, and now I can fill a stocking,” he managed to smile.

“Oh, Heath.” She threw herself against his chest. “I want to make it all better. I feel so helpless.”

“Well then I have good company. It’s getting dark. Lets get you home.”

“I’ll be fine on my own.” she said.

“I wouldn’t let you ride home, alone, in the dark, with the rain beginning again. No one would forgive me,“ he smiled. “Even your mother might be grateful.”

“Heath!”

“Well fine, not your mother, but she’ll have to deal with me, cause I’m taking you to your door tonight.”

“Mother won’t make it pleasant.”

“Then I’ll annoy her, watch!” He added.

After helping her down from her horse, he escorted her to her door. Colleen opened it and quickly tried to step inside, while pushing him away.

“Hello, Mrs. McDougal!” Heath called. “I brought Colleen home, shall I see to her horse?”

Colleen’s glare was eclipsed by her Mothers, as she said, “Get out. Colleen, I expect you home before dark so you don’t need an escort.” and with that she slammed the door in Heath’s face.

Knocking once again, Heath watched as Mrs. McDougal answered it, and still glaring, huffed, “Yes?”

“Have a nice night Ma’am, Colleen.” he said, smiling for Colleen’s benefit. He then shut the door firmly behind himself and whistled his way back to Gal.

He arrived home in time for dinner, and sat quietly while everyone discussed Christmas plans. He figured the more he listened, the more he would understand, thus feeling less of an outsider in what he considered a very personal holiday. If someone would have intruded on his Christmas’s with Rachael, Hannah, and his mama, he would have been put out, and he couldn’t help, somewhere deep inside, feeling like an outsider intruding. Like right now. They were all talking about taking a half a day off tomorrow, and going to pick greenery for the house decorations. Was he expected to go? Did he have to? Maybe he could get out of it he decided, as he said, “I think I’ll stay and work with the horses for the army contract while you all go out tomorrow.’

“Nonsense.” Victoria said. “We go as a family.”

This gave him more to ponder. I guess I’ll figure out greenery tomorrow. The hotel used to decorate some. They put up candles and ribbons. Contemplating greenery took up the rest of his dinner, and he ate very little.

Joining in a card game with Audra, he saw the finished stockings and asked, “What did you decide to fill them with?”

“You were there when I told the ladies what to put in them weren’t you?” Nick grumbled. “Didn’t you listen?”

“Yeah, I listened,” he snapped, not liking Nick’s tone. “Just didn’t figure you would put all of that into each stocking.”

“Why not. Kids like toys,” Nick stated.

“We won’t Heath. Probably just the candy, nuts, a quarter, and then for the boys, marbles and a top, and for the girls, ribbons and a rag doll.” Audra replied.

“Seems an awful lot to me. Santa is going to be good to them.”

“Yes, he is. That’s the point. They have so little to look forward to. Christmas would be so dreary without presents, don’t you think?”

“Your turn, Audra,” he said, cutting off the discussion, and refusing to return to it.

When Victoria and Jarrod finished reading, and Audra had beaten Heath, they all decided to retire. Nick had already gone upstairs, claiming that he had to get up early, if he was to take half a day off tomorrow.

Blowing out his light, Heath returned to contemplating greenery. He really felt a little foolish. Here he was, twenty four years old, and he didn’t know what they meant. He didn’t think he had ever seen greenery in Strawberry. It was a very dry region, but they did have mistletoe. The Meyers brought it back each year from their trip to San Francisco. The army had no greenery. Christmas was a night of cease fire, so you didn’t have to fear dying on the Lord’s birthday. In Carterson, he never even knew if Christmas came. The months were so jumbled in his mind. After the war, he had traveled and worked odd jobs. He was by himself at Christmas. Didn’t recall greenery at all. He didn’t reckon they were talking greens. Those you ate, and he knew about them. Trees were green, but he knew they were going to have a tree. He had seen trees before, all decorated up, through the windows of the fancy houses, when he fished for crab in San Francisco. Boy those houses were elaborate, and the trees incredible. He thought the Barkleys might have a tree like that, but still he couldn’t get a handle on greenery.

As he lay there pondering, he felt himself drawn to the stockings. Slowly he put on his pants, and crept quietly downstairs. Moving into the parlor, by instinct, rather than by sight, as he didn’t want to rouse the family by lighting the lamps, he moved to where the assembled stockings were piled. Picking the top one off the stack, he let his fingers run over it, feeling the fur top, compared to the satin of the boot. He stuck a hand inside, and felt how much room there was for toys. He thought of marbles. All the boys had marbles. The poor boys had clay marbles, and the rich boys had some glass ones. One boy, Robert John, had a Chinese one. He could see it so clearly. Shiny porcelain white, with four orange bands running around it one way, intersected by two rows of blue bands, going the other. Caleb, had a big shooter, with a sulfide horse inside it. He never got tired of rubbing that piece of information in all the boys faces. He had seen the stockings hanging in the houses that he delivered laundry to. Just once he had wanted a stocking. Just one, filled with marbles of every color and size. Wishful thinking. His mother had explained that Santa was not real, and that the parents bought the presents for their children. He had been four, but he had understood. It wasn’t magical, and they could not afford luxuries.

Shaking his head to clear the memory, he went back to bed, this time noticing the light seeping out from under Jarrod’s office door. He didn’t know Jarrod had witnessed his solitary moments, as Jarrod had slipped into a shadow as he passed. Jarrod too, wasn’t sure what he had just witnessed.

They awoke to a wet morning, but the clouds were broken in the sky, and it looked as if the afternoons outing would be rain free.

Jarrod hastily went to Stockton to finish a report that needed filing with the courthouse, and unbeknownst to the rest of the family, finished his Christmas shopping. By the time he returned home for lunch he was feeling very pleased with himself.

Audra and Victoria had baked goodies that would be delivered to their neighbors. They made stolens, pralines, and would have the sugar cookies done by noon. As tradition would have it, the family would ice the cookies that night after decorating the house. The tree would come later in the week.

Nick and Heath both finished in the orchards, and then quickly inspected the levees, to ascertain how much if any repair work needed to be done. Then complaining good naturedly, they too headed home for lunch. Entering, they were assailed by the smell of wonderful baked goods.

“Those are the sugar cookies, Heath. I sure can’t wait to decorate them later. Personally it’s the only reason I put up with the greenery gathering ritual.”

“Uh huh. I better get cleaned up for lunch.” Heath uttered.

“I’ll just go make sure Ciego has the wagon ready, and the horses hitched for today, then I’ll be in to clean up. Tell mother if I’m late.”

*****

Part 3

 

As Heath joined the family for lunch, he could feel the excitement radiating off them. His nerves grew in direct proportion to their rising enthusiasm. All to soon for Heath, lunch was over and Silas was clearing the dishes. Audra had moved to put on her coat and Victoria was on her way to join her. The good natured chatter continued all the way to the wagon and no matter how hard he tried to drag his feet, the trip was about to begin.

They all loaded into the buggy, Jarrod took the reins, and headed to the wooded hills south of Stockton, near Moraga. The ride itself took about an hour and a half. It was spent singing Christmas songs and talking about last years trip, where it seemed Audra found the clump of holly with the reddest berries, thus winning the family prize. They also discussed the criteria for winning this year. The debate seemed to last forever to Heath, with everyone adding their two cents, and then arguing or agreeing with the others suggestions. Finally it was decided that the person who could find the largest pine bough for the front door wreath, would be this years winner. They were also to keep a look out for the perfect tree. Through out the entire exchange Heath was silent. He had no input of value, so kept his own council, and the family was so involved that they didn’t notice he was silent.

When the wagon stopped, he uttered the first words, with, “Boy howdy, but this is a lovely area. Very peaceful.” Colleen came to his mind. He would enjoy sharing this spot with her, allowing her to point out the greenery, and explain things to him. As far as he could tell, everything looked green. Hopefully they would pair up and he could watch. If not, he decided to look for the perfect tree. One like he had seen through the windows of the grand San Francisco homes.

Taking charge, Victoria said, “Everyone, you have two hours to fill this wagon, and don’t forget to locate our Christmas tree. Begin!”

Heath noticed, to his dismay, that everyone took off in a different direction, claiming they knew where the winning pine bough was, or the best holly, or a grove of mistletoe etc….. He had to do something. He would scout around for the best tree, while staying close to the wagon, so he could see what the others brought back, then go out and gather some of the same. He felt more alone than he had in months, but they were so excited, he didn’t want them to know how he felt.

Audra came back first, and this saved Heath’s day. “Heath, I need a brother. The holly I found is lovely, but to sharp for me to gather. Could you come and help?”

“Yes,” he said, much more relieved than he had been all day. As they walked to her location, she explained that holly grew in great bushes, but that her gloves didn’t protect her from the stickers. His leather work gloves should, and she led him to a beautiful bush covered with bright red berries.

“Heath, pick full branches that are covered with berries. I find those make the house much more festive.”

As he set to work, she said, “I’m going over to the pine grove for some boughs. Be right back.”

Picking the holly was easy, and he knew about pine trees so he was feeling much more confident when she returned, her arms laden with pine boughs.

“Gather the holly, Heath. I think that may be enough. Then help me get this back to the wagon.”

“Sure Sis,” he said, grateful for a job.

When they reached the wagon, Nick was already there piling in arm loads of greenery he had found, and it looked like someone else had been back as well. He added Audra’s finds as she set off again.

“Pine cones! Rats, we don’t have any colpar pine cones yet this year.” Nick yelled.

“I’ll gather some Nick.”

“Great Heath, I want to find the tree,” and off he tore.

Their good mood was infectious and as he had a job to do, that he couldn’t screw up, he felt himself relax and begin to enjoy the physical work, and the beauty that surrounded him. After gathering a suitable amount of pine cones, and knowing he could not contribute further this year, he found a quiet place to sit and just absorb the winter day.

The calmness of his meditation was broken by the harsh double shots of Nick’s gun, signaling that their time was at an end. Everyone was excited as he approached the buggy and a spirited conversation kept up the entire trip home. Jarrod and Nick would occasionally, burst into a rousing chorus of Good King Wensceslas.

Heath, knowing that he had survived, and had not been asked any questions about his lack of contributions, relaxed with every passing mile. He tried to learn the words to the Christmas carol, which seemed to be a family favorite. He personally always loved It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, and he of course knew Silent Night. Everyone did, but other than those two his repertoire was sorely lacking. The ride home seemed to take a fraction of the time that the ride there had taken. He put this down to lack of dread. All he had left to face was the decorating and the cookies. At least left to face today.

As Ciego steadied the horses they unloaded the heavily laden wagon, and on the very bottom was the biggest pine bough he had ever seen. Jarrod claimed he had climbed a tree to get it, and no one could deny that it was the winner.

He was crowned King of the Greenery. Elated he looked at his family, and seeing the question in Heath’s eyes, laid an arm around his shoulder and explained that this allowed him to place the star on top of the tree.

“When do you all put up your tree?” he questioned hoping this would make them think that he had a tree when he was growing up.

“Well, Nick, and I guess you this year, will cut it down, either tomorrow or the next day, and we will decorate it when you both get home. Is that what you did, Heath?”

Avoiding the question, he responded with, “If Nick usually goes alone, or if someone different usually goes with him, I’ll be glad to stay and keep the workers going. It must be hard juggling the ranch work, with all the extra time needed for the holidays. I bet you’re all glad when the season is over and things return to normal. I know I will be.”

“Don’t be silly, Heath. I wish Thanksgiving and Christmas lasted all year. It gets downright boring waiting for the other holidays to roll around, and then they only last one day,” Audra exclaimed. “This Christmas may be a little different for you, I know it will be different for us, with you here this year and……” she tactlessly continued.

Heath stared into the fireplace as Jarrod said, “Audra, go see if Silas has the dinner trays ready, so we can eat while we decorate.” He noticed that Heath had clammed up at Audra’s words and decided to be more solicitous, explaining things as they went, so Heath would feel included.

“The trays are ready Mother,” Audra said, reentering the room. Silas says to help ourselves, and wants to know if we need the berries yet.”

“Not yet Audra, lets get the greenery in place first.”

“I’ll tackle the parlor, Mother,” Nick said.

“I want to do the parlor to Mother. May I help, Nick?”

“Sure, Audra”

“Then Mother, this year you and I get the entry, foyer, and staircase,” Jarrod remarked, beginning to go get the greenery they required.

“Wait, Nick yelled, who does Heath help?”

“Hey Nick, don’t mind me, I’ll just sit and watch you all work. That’ll make a fun change.”

“Heath, you can help us,” Jarrod stepped in quickly. “We have a lot to do.”

“No, Audra put in. Help Nick and I. Mother and Jarrod make it look effortless, they’ve done it for so long. With your help I bet we can get done first.”

“Fine.” Heath said, and stayed right where he was, by the fire.

“Audra, Nick said taking charge, go and get the pine boughs and I’ll get the holly. I wouldn’t want you to get scratched up by the stuff, and it seems to get sharper with each passing day, if that’s possible. I’ll do the mantlepiece and you can do the table we use for the manger. Heath, you can take the tantalus table.”

As the family busily began to work and hum Christmas carols, Heath picked up a pine bough and watched the others work. Was it better to try and imitate their efforts, or get talked to about his lack of participation. Deciding he had better try his hand at greenery arranging, he carefully watched Audra arranging pine boughs on the small table top that Nick had indicated was for the manger. She placed each one with the stem end in the center of the table, and the widest end hanging over the table in feathery waves.

He had to admit that it looked pretty, and as far as he could tell, Nick was doing just as good a job with the mantle. He had cleared everything off, and placed the pine branches, as Audra had, on the bottom . Next he busily picked through he holly and put the branches with the reddest berries atop the pine. Heath loved the smell and stood fascinated as Nick picked up the silver candlesticks, and replaced them on the mantle, twining holly around them. He then contrasted the green pine, and red holly berries with clumps of mistletoe. This added a very festive white touch to the decorations, reminding Heath of the Mexican flag. He placed large pine cones at either end of the mantle.

After deciding that he had watched enough, Heath took the tantalus off the sidebar, and placed the pine boughs a he had seen both the others do, so that, he too had the soft ends hanging lightly over the top of the table. He replaced the tantalus, opened the side doors and top, and placed holly all around the ornate box, to add the red that he liked so much. He then noticed that Audra had used hay in hers as well, but reckoned that was for the manger. No other reason to use hay, that he could see.

“Uh…Nick, do you just want…”

“I’m busy Heath, give me a minute,” he said as he finished adorning the mirror that hung over the mantle with more of the lush holly. Now, what did you need Heath?” he said turning.

“Is there anything else you want me to do?”

“Well for starters, we need to get that holly off the table. It will make pouring drinks a hazard,” he said, beginning to remove the offending holly plants, Heath had just worked on. “Why don’t you run up to the attic, and get the trunks of decorations out.”

“Nick, I don’t rightly know which trunks you keep the decorations in, or what decorations you want.”

“GET THEM ALL, HEATH.”

“Nick! Is there a problem?” Victoria said as she entered and began helping Nick remove the holly.

“We’ve just finished the foyer, but need the decorations.”

“I just told Heath to go get them, but he says he doesn’t know where they are.”

“I’ll finish this then. Nick, you go and get them, and Heath you go with him, that way you’ll know where they are kept next year.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Heath muttered, as Nick called, “Come on then, lets get it done quickly.”

Nick grumbled all the way up the stairs and to the attic. It was obvious that he usually had to do this job, and it was one he didn’t look forward to. Stopping at the top stair, he pointed to three trunks along the left wall.

“Those three, Heath. Get them over here, and I’ll help you get them down.”

Three trunks Heath thought, and all full of Christmas items. How exciting, he mused, wonder what’s inside them? Maneuvering the trunks to the attic stairs, both boys began hauling them down. It took a long time to get all three trunks to the foyer, but finally they succeeded, and all three lids were thrown back. There were saved pine cones and lovely red ribbons that had been tied into bows. There were closed boxes, that Heath longed to look inside. One trunk contained mostly linens. Audra began with these, while Victoria began twining ribbons around the newel posts and up the stairway. Nick took the bows, and anchored them to either side of the mantle.

“Jarrod, Audra called, can you help me?”

“Certainly,” he replied, as he assisted her in opening a gorgeous hand embroidered tablecloth, covered in green holly leaves and more bright red berries. They checked it for damage, and then went to the dining room and covered the table with it. Jarrod moved to the china cabinet and removed an epergne, that was more stately than any other piece Heath had seen in the entire house. He wouldn’t have even known what it was called if Audra hadn’t said to go get the Christmas epergne. It must be French, he thought, as he watched Jarrod place it in the center of the table. They then filled its hanging baskets with pyracantha. Everywhere Heath looked, the house was transformed. The change reminded him of Victoria’s birthday, all over again, but it smelled better. Kind of like the outdoors had come in for a visit.

His thoughts were again interrupted by a family member talking, as Victoria said, “Silas, I think now would be a good time for the berries and oranges.”

“Not yet Mother, let’s do the manger first,” Jarrod said.

“But we always do the berries first,” Audra pouted.

“Yes, Jarrod, we do. Lets stick with tradition and do the pomander balls and berries next.” Victoria calmly said.

More words Heath didn’t know, but how hard could doing something with oranges and berries be. He sure was getting an education today.

As the family entered the kitchen more wonderful smells assailed their noses. Silas was cooking something Heath had never had before, he was sure of that. It did seem to delight Audra though. Actually he reckoned anything festive always delighted Audra. It was part of her charm.

The family took places around the kitchen table, and broke immediately into familiar teams, just like a scene from a play that had been rehearsed many times before. Jarrod, once again, noticed Heath not having a place and motioned him over to have a seat and help him. It was to be his year for the oranges he explained. Seeing Heath’s bewilderment at the comment Jarrod launched into a long detailed account of how to make pomander balls, and that it was a tradition Victoria had brought with her when she moved from the South. He then went on to explain how they gave off a fresh smell and helped add even more color to the house. Finally, he decided that the had given Heath enough information to clear up his confusion and not feel left out. As soon as Heath picked up an orange and the first clove, it became clear to Jarrod that Heath was still lost, as to what he was supposed to do with the two things.

“Heath, let me show you,” Jarrod said, taking an orange and sticking in one clove after another, forming a line from tip to navel. “Just keep doing this in rows around the orange.”

“Sure,” Heath mumbled, still red from embarrassment. He really hated to let them know that he didn’t understand what was going on.

Nick, Audra, and Victoria were busily working on threading berries along a length of line. As Jarrod and Heath stuck cloves into oranges, Heath watched the berry chains grow.

As the work continued, Silas broke in with, “It’s ready now!”

Heath watched as Audra and Nick practically knocked each other over in an attempt to get out of their chairs and over to the pot on the stove first. What in the world was going on now?

As they pushed each other, they accidentally knocked Silas into the trays of sugar cookies laid out for decorating later that day. The trays spilled breaking most of the cookies.

“Now look what you’ve done Nick,” Audra yelled.

“Me, you shoved me Audra,” Nick said his voice rising dramatically as he glared at her. “I love decorating those cookies.”

“Children! Silas and I can bake another batch. Quit fighting and be more careful,” Victoria warned.

Only Heath was thankful for the accident. He would not need to decorate cookies today.

Audra and Nick promptly forgot the cookie fight as Silas cleaned up the mess but resumed their original squabble.

“Audra, I’m first this year. You don’t get to go first!” Nick complained.

“But I got here first,” she responded reasonably.

“That’s only because you sat closest to the stove,” Nick grumped.

“You could have.”

Agreeing grumpily, Nick said, “Don’t just sit there everybody. The pudding must be stirred.”

Jarrod clasped Heath on the back and steered him to the stove and the bubbling mixture. Heath really thought he could find the stove himself, and wanted Jarrod to just leave him alone. He was sick to death of being spoon‑fed information, led, and coddled. What he really wanted to do was escape.

“Heath, Jarrod began, it’s tradition to stir the Christmas pudding, then when its served for Christmas dinner, what ever charm comes in your piece, is supposed to foretell your future. Just stir it once like Nick and Audra do. We each get a turn.”

Heath noticed right off that he had could stir it his own way. After watching Audra delicately move the spoon around clockwise, counting to five, before handing it to Nick, who stirred it any number of times, til his arm got tired, he realized that how it was stirred couldn’t be a problem, but rather that it must just be stirred. Victoria confirmed this by only rotating the spoon, once around the mixture. His turn was up next. He took the proffered spoon and repeated Victoria’s once around the pot stir, then handed the spoon to Jarrod. Smiling, Jarrod took the spoon, moved up, and stirred the grey stuff himself.

Each person, then returned to their labors around the table, as Heath watched Silas wrap the stuff in cloth and pour whiskey all over it. Lord but Christmas would be different. Looking around Heath realized that he had been busy. There was a large pile of oranges and Jarrod was getting a silver bowl to place them in. As he listened to Jarrod’s explanation, he realized that even the bowl was a special one that was always used. The berries seemed to be done as well, he reckoned, since everyone had quit working on them. There were strings and strings of them. What did they think they were going to do with all of them? He knew he would find out soon, but he was not sure he wanted to know. The time came sooner than he thought. As he rose, to stretch his legs, Victoria said that they should get the berries strung up. With that they all headed for the foyer. Jarrod stood and picked up the bowl containing the oranges, as Nick and Audra brought the berry strands. As he had nothing to do, he just observed, which if truth be told, suited him just fine. Heath watched in fascination as Jarrod centered the bowl of oranges in the middle of the marble entry table. What was it he had called the oranges again? Then Nick, coiling a strand of the berries like it was a lasso, climbed to the top of the stairway. Jarrod took the other and repeated Nick’s motions, but stayed at the bottom. Both started looping the cranberries around the already decorated banister, intent on meeting in the middle. The cranberries wine red truly added charm and vibrancy to the entryway, and he had to admit that the bowl of oranges, pomander balls, that was the term, was already putting out a spicy scent. The orange was a nice color too.

This peaceful moment was interrupted by Nick shouting “It’s the same thing every year Jarrod. You just never get it right. Well the last two years I had to redo mine. This year you redo your string.”

“Brother Nick, mine are once again placed exactly in the middle of each opening and spaced evenly. The two inch gap is caused by your reckless lack of care.”

“I’ll show you lack of care,” Nick spat as he started to undo Jarrod’s carefully woven strand of cranberries.

“Nick…..” Jarod said , only to be interrupted by Victoria, who demanded that the usual bickering be stopped. Looking at Audra she said, “Next year we’ll let those two handle the mantle and we’ll take the staircase. Nick, redo your section please.”

Heath slipped back out of the room, and headed to the sideboard to have another bite of the ham log. The ham log was also a tradition, Silas had informed him. As he ate, he could hear the bickering continue.

“Mine’s fine, It’s Jarrod’s that’s wrong!”

“Nick,” Audra said calmly, knowing it would provoke her brother. It was one thing she had learned from Heath. “You know your wrong! Last year you made us measure and you still had to redo yours.”Audra smiled, as Jarrod laughed.

What a wonderful family he had. They could bicker, fight , and yell, and still be the closest knit group of people he had ever known. It reminded him of the Three Musketeers story his mama told him. One for all and all for one! Generally this thought comforted him, but not this time. This time he thought of another story his mama and Rachael brought to life. A Christmas Carol. He was Scrooge, observing the well worn rituals of time as they moved past him, and feeling powerless to intervene. Like the scene Rachael told, of Scrooge, watching a happy dance at a party given by his first employer but unable to join in and be part of the warmth and closeness he felt. It really wasn’t worth thinking about, he told himself. The holidays would pass and next year, he would know what to expect. As he ate, his melancholy grew and he eventually became aware of another presence in the room with him. Jarrod! Of course, it would be Jarrod. He didn’t even need to turn around to confirm it. Ever since he told him about the money, he had been trying to assuage his guilt by being extra careful of his feelings.

“Well Heath, we were wondering where you escaped to. Were ready to do the manger. Now this manger is very special to all of us. It’s Mothers, from when she was in Arkansas. Her sister Gail, gave it to her on her wedding day. She explained that it was an unusual wedding present, but she didn’t want them to be separated at Christmas, and knew how tough it would be on both of them. The nativity was to remind Mother of Gail’s love for her, and of their reliance on Jesus to get them through the tough times. It was also to remind Mother, when she looked at it, that while they may be separated by mileage, they would be together in heaven.”

Touched by the story, but tired of Jarrod’s voice, Heath said, “Jarrod, enough! Stop playing catch up over the money issue. You don’t owe me anything. Go be with your family.”

“You are my family, Heath,” Jarrod quietly stated.

“I agree. I just need time Jarrod. Time to get this all worked out. Solicitousness is great when I’m soliciting, but right now I need to do things as I need them done, not as you need them done to appease your conscious. Understand?”

Gently laying a hand on Heath’s shoulder, Jarrod replied, “I think so.” and guided him back into the family fold just in time for Heath to see Audra pull a closed box out of one of the trunks. It was gingerly carried to the table covered with pine and straw. Jarrod watched as everyone seated themselves, either on the floor or on chairs around the manger’s resting place. He could feel the reverence, and wondered if Heath could as well. Heath had made it clear that he didn’t want any of Jarrod’s input, so he would do what he could to ease Heath’s way without drawing attention to what he was doing. He doubted it would work, as Heath was very astute, but he would try. This train of thought passed abruptly as the lid was removed from the box.

“Audra, as the youngest, you place the first figure,” Victoria instructed.

Heath was sure it was this way every year. He watched as Audra withdrew a very delicate Mary, which Heath found fitting, and placed her under the wooden roofed stable.

“Nick, you’re next,” Victoria said, then glanced up and saw Heath. She was mortified. For the last hour she hadn’t even missed him. She was so caught up in the familiarity of this night that she simply overlooked adding her newest son to the festivities. How he was faring? Knowing exactly how Jarrod had felt over his forgetfulness with the money, she tried to think of a rational way to include him without letting him know he had been overlooked.

Nick was placing Joseph on Mary’s left, his outstretched hand indicating where Jesus would lay.

“Jarrod, you next,” she intoned. He reached in and gently unwrapped baby Jesus and tenderly laid him in the manger, between his parents.

“Now you Heath,” Victoria prompted, feeling guilty that for one fleeting moment she wished she could have known last year that this boy would come to them. She would never have another Christmas like last years, and she mourned it’s loss, while rejoicing in the blonde haired, blue eyed child, now reaching in the box as her children had. Her children had done this since birth. It was her legacy to them. The ritual of the manger. Tom had never been included. It was from her beloved sister Gail. A closer sister, one could not wish for. It was her past, her family, and she didn’t want to share it with Tom’s son. Her son, now. If only this one thing could be kept sacred.

Heath tentatively removed a shepherd from the box, and placed it outside the manger, looking in.

“That’s not where it goes,” Nick said, picking up the figure and moving him to his trusted spot under an awning.

Audra then took her turn, by placing a cow on the right, facing the holy family. Nick, then removed a kneeling wise man with an offering, which was placed at the front of Jesus’ crib. Jarrod pulled out the porcelain angel and placed her on a nail over the manger. Heath, wishing that he could make himself skip his turn, reached into the box and pulled out a wise man. He placed this one behind the one kneeling near the crib. It only took him a second to realize that he had put this figure down in an incorrect location as well, as Audra whisked him up and moved him further back. She then reached into the box and removed the third wise man, which Heath decided must really have been the second, as this was the position Heath watched her place him in. He couldn’t see what the difference was, but it must be crucial as they were all nodding happily as Nick placed a sheep at the shepherds foot.

Jarrod then withdrew a camel and centered it off to the right of the wise men. He did it precisely, hoping to delay Heath’s turn. He had been watching Heath throughout the ordeal and had seen his face fall with every misplaced figure. Finally he released his grip on the camel, dreading Heath’s next move.

Then he heard Heath say “Would you all go on and finish without me. I’d rather watch if it would be okay?” and he retreated from the circle around the manger.

Immediately as if in a well orchestrated symphony the family all replied at once.

“If that’s what you want, Heath” Nick said.

Audra echoing his sentiments with, “If that’s how you want it,” her eyes alight with undisguised pleasure.

Even his Mother added, “Certainly dear,” and Jarrod could hear the relief in her tone as she refocused on the manger being erected before them.

Jarrod took a few moments to grieve for Heath, as the relief was evident. He had to admit that he felt relieved as well, then he returned to the manger.

Heath looked longingly at the scene, wanting to be part of this tradition, but knowing it would never be so. He would see to it. He had known how wrong it was when he had touched that first piece, but somehow couldn’t stop. He had tried with the second, but once again need won out with the wise man, but this felt better, more right somehow. Jarrod had let him know early on that he shouldn’t join in, but he knew Jarrod had been unaware. This was Victoria’s family. He might be her son now, and he would fight anyone who said different. Hell he would even defend Victoria to the death, but he was hers at twenty four. They were hers from birth. This was theirs. God how he longed to hold Colleen. Barring that a stiff drink or four would be comforting right now, he thought as he watched Audra place a camel, Nick a donkey, and Jarrod the final camel.

“Oh Jarrod, it’s perfect, Audra clapped, almost jumping up and down with excitement, almost like last yea…………”

Heath heard her voice trail off as her face flamed red with shame, guilt and embarrassment.

“Boy Howdy, isn’t that the nicest manger I ever did see,” Heath cut in to quell her raging emotions, his English slipping back to a time before, when everything wasn’t so proper. He was as unaware that this happened as the rest of the family, but had Edna been there she would have given Victoria a piece of her mind.

As they closed the boxes that had a few minutes before contained the manger, Heath looked at the family and let his thoughts drift.

Dusk had fallen hours ago and night now blanketed the horizon. The glow from the lanterns cast a soft light amongst the decorations, and Heath thought that it rivaled every home he’d ever seen decorated, including the Hopkins mansion, in the city of San Francisco. That night had been so long ago. Another lifetime. But to a tired, worldly, eighteen year old, it had been magical. The tree must have been fifteen feet tall. It stretched from the ground floor to the second story, with a shiny silver star topping it and peeking through an arbor window. It glistened, a myriad of lights ablaze as golden ornaments cast a luster that seemed brighter than the midday sun. He had sat on the hill outside the house all Christmas eve and through til noon the next day. He watched as five raven haired children and two parents opened their bulging stockings and gifts. He sat while the carriages arrived, bearing well dressed ladies and gentlemen, also bringing gifts. From the joyous greetings, he assumed they must be aunts, uncles, and grandparents. It was everything he wanted and nothing he thought he would ever have. When he went back to work that evening, he held the memory as a shield against the cold dirty job of bringing in the crab. Now he was part of a family, and their home looked much more welcoming than did the home from the Christmas of his memories. What would their tree be like? Were there sparkling ornaments as well? Did they light it with candles that out shined the darkness? He couldn’t wait to find out, and if he was truly to help Nick get the tree, he could. Chopping a tree down and bringing it home, was no problem. He just hoped he wouldn’t embarrass them by not knowing how to decorate the tree. Once again, watching seemed to be the best remedy to his discomfort.

His contemplative quietness as they finished for the night, had allowed the family time to regroup.

“Well Heath, we’d better get some sleep if were going to get that tree tomorrow,” Nick said.

“Sure thing, Nick, but I think I’d like to ride Gal before I turn in.”

“It’s late, Heath, the time always slips away when were busy like this,” Victoria added, worried about his being out so late in the cold. “Anything could happen to you on a dark road.”

“I’ll be fine, and back soon. Don’t wait up,” he replied, leaving.

“Where do you think he’s off to now?” Nick asked irritated. “I swear that boy has wanderlust.”

“Might be right Nick. He does need time to himself. Let him be.” Jarrod replied.

“It has been a long night children. Let’s all turn in, Victoria said. We have another busy day tomorrow.”

“Don’t I know it, Nick groused. First get the work crews organized, then I go get the tree we picked out, chop it down, and drag it back here.”

“Heath’ll help,” Audra said.

“Help, yeah! But I bet he’ll be as quiet as he’s been all week. Wouldn’t surprise me if he isn’t helping George and Edna fancy their house up for Christmas.”

“He wouldn’t. Would he?” Audra asked.

“That’s his business dear, as we were forced to concede,” she chuckled, remembering his stubbornness on the issue. But as they went to bed, where her youngest son was riding weighed heavily on her mind.

Heath was rejoicing in what he considered to be a few moments of freedom. Gal was picking her way down the familiar path toward George and Edna’s. He knew nobody would be awake, but just being there for a brief moment, looking over the house he spent hours fixing, and felt a part of, allowed him to retain his old self and merge it with his new life. He then headed Gal to the one place that housed the person, who allowed him to feel totally at peace during this holiday season. Colleen’s. Everyone tried to make things easier. He knew that. Appreciated that. Colleen was different. She sensed his wariness and didn’t try to ease his way, comfort him, or change his mind. She just accepted him. Understood his anxiety, but didn’t try to talk him through it, as Jarrod did, or skirt the issue, as others did. She simply listened. Lightly jumping off Gal, a quarter mile from her home, so he wouldn’t be heard, he walked to her bedroom window. It was dark, and he knew she was asleep. Could he awaken her? Did he dare? He needed to hold her, draw on her strength. Deciding it wasn’t the time or place, he touched her window briefly, then headed back to Gal, turning once more to take in her darkened home, before he returned to his.

Stabling Gal, and giving Charger a carrot, along with a light pat he whirled, startled by the sound of a delicate cough.

“Audra?”

“Morning, Heath. It is morning you know?” she said, shivering slightly in the damp barn.

“Sure is. Why aren’t you in bed?” he questioned, as he draped his coat over her shoulders.

“Just wanting to see if my brother made it home,” she said, leaning into his embrace.

“I’m home. Now let’s both get some rest,” he said, as he steered her from the barn to the house.

“Heath?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you find what you needed tonight?”

His dazzling grin flashed in the darkness, as he replied, “Yeah, and here I am, right where I need to be.”

Stopping and burying her face in his chest, she sobbed, “I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me? I didn’t mean anything.”

“Shhhhhh…..honey…shhhhhhh…….” The soothing sounds drifted over her. “It is different, bound to be, but its good too. My mama used to say God opens a window every time he shuts a door. Reckon right now that’s us, as a family, closing doors, but opening windows. Rachael always added something to this. Know what she said?”

A choked “No” filled her tear streaked eyes.

“She said doors were dark. Windows let in more light. You’re light Audra, bringing joy and sunshine……”

“Tonight Heath, I was a door,” she choked out, as her crying returned in earnest.

“Wrong Sis. Your being here, waiting for me, is a beacon in the darkness, like a lighthouse to lost ships. Now let’s go in and get to bed. I figure Nick’ll need me early.”

She laughed as she realized he was joking. He almost always awoke before Nick, no matter what time he got in.

“That’s better,” he said, ushering her upstairs. Hearing her door close, he crept back downstairs and re entered the front door. Stopping just over the threshold, he allowed himself time to smell the season. The greenery, cranberries, and pomander balls were refreshing. Tomorrow a pine tree would be added. Yep, despite his apprehension he never had it so good. Moving to look at the manger in the soft moonlight that filtered in, he thought about the holy family and knew that he too, had riches in abundance. Not the type that could be measured by wealth, but rather those measured by the depth of their care. His riches were currently all asleep in their beds, which was exactly where he was headed.

*****

The next morning started out much like every other, but Heath knew it wouldn’t last. By nine a.m. the team was ready, ropes were supplied, and Nick and Heath were off to the farewell chants of: “We can’t wait to see that beauty and bring her back in one piece this time Nick.” Heath decided he’d ask Nick to tell him that story later. Waving goodbye, the warmly bundled brothers rode back to where they had been the day before, making better time, as they weren’t hampered by the big wagon, as they only had a logging wagon this time.

“There she is Heath. Would you look at that. I do think this is the best tree we ever had,” Nick exclaimed.

“Sure is a beauty, all right,” Heath agreed. “How do you want to handle this?”

Deciding to move the team nearer the side they were to cut on, the brothers marked chopping locations and set to work, the steady flow of the axes pounding out a rhythm of their own. It wasn’t long before the tree was felled, landing within a foot of their desired location. They next took the sturdy ropes and wove them through the lower, stronger branches, in a crisscross pattern, that afforded maximum leverage with what they hoped would be the least amount of damage. Both met at the trunk end, gathered a rope and hauled the tree to the logging wagon. A they were hefting the tree aboard, Heath took the opportunity to ask Nick what the story was behind the broken tree comments.

Nick laughed, as he revealed, “Lets just say I took a detour, and Jarrod and I had to go get another tree.”

“I think I’d like the complete version, brother Nick,” Heath replied, then stayed silent. He knew most people wanted to fill the silence and he knew that Nick was no exception, in fact, as far as Heath knew, there was no one more ready to jump in and fill up the silences, as Nick. He was correct. Nick’s ears reddened, and although he kept busy with the ropes, a sheepish smile tugged at his lips, and he began talking.

“Well. It was a very cold year, one of the coldest, and I was very cold. I told Jarrod that if we went over talus hill, which isn’t steep, we could save an hour. Jarrod disagreed. Oh how he disagreed, but I was adamant. Finally Jarrod admitted he was cold as well and we took my improved route.”

Glancing at Nick as he paused, Heath noticed that his entire face was red. This must be some story, and he couldn’t wait to hear it. “Go on,” Heath prompted.

“Don’t be so impatient, boy!” Nick replied, then broke down chuckling. “How ridiculous. You impatient, is one of the funniest things I think I’ve ever heard. Anyway Heath, it was nothing but trouble from the start. Jarrod was standing at the rear of the wagon, trying to keep the tip up, when he tripped and fell in a squirrel hole. As he yelled I swept the team around, which caused the tree to slide, and broke off the top. About a foot to be exact. Jarrod found this so funny that he forgot his ankle. We checked the tree over, and decided it was still fine, so we changed positions and I let Jarrod drive the team. When we crested the hill, we both looked at one another as the mistake we made registered. The weight of the tree and wagon began pushing on itself and it picked up speed like a runaway horse. Jarrod risking life and limb, jumped from the horses back and unhitched the wagon, while the team reared in panic, as the wagon and tree hurtled down at them. As he freed the team, they took of to the hills like possessed demons. Then you know what happened?” he said, eyes dancing by this time.

“No.” Heath was spellbound, but enjoying the embellishing Nick was adding just like a typical fishing story, where the fish grew with the telling.

“Well Heath, that tree hit a bump and took off straight down the mountain, throwing the wagon from under it, and leaving it broken and battered, in its wake. Its branches shredded as it plummeted full force toward the bottom. Jarrod was trying to run after it, but since falling down the mine shaft he was having trouble with his ankle. Next thing you know………”

“Didn’t you say it was a hill, and a squirrel hole?” Heath interrupted merrily.

“Whatever! As I was saying, the next thing you know, Jarrod and I reach the bottom of the mount umn.. hill in different manners. I ran but Jarrod tumbled end over end til he landed in a heap beside me. We looked at the tree, if you could call it that to find that over ten feet was gone, and the remainder was in toothpicks. We picked up every toothpick we could find and took them home to Mother, who being the gracious lady that she is, sent us back out the next day. Guess I don’t need to add that we went around the hill this time.”

“Toothpicks, Nick!” Heath was gasping and totally out of control. “Come on!”

“Well I guess it was really about four feet tall, by the bottom of the mount umn…. hill. Anyway we were laughing so hard, mostly relieved that the horses were okay, and each other survived that the sight of the little tree all torn up was hysterical. We caught the horses, picked up the questionable tree. And just went home to face the music. Lord but Jarrod had fun at my expense that night, continually saying I told him not to do it, over and over, and over. So now you know! Let’s just get this tree home and in one piece,” Nick said as Heath continued to hold his sides envisioning them decorating toothpicks for Christmas.

Today might not be so awkward after all. Heath was still inwardly chuckling when they arrived home. He wasn’t surprised to see Audra rush out to greet them, calling, “Mother, Jarrod, its here and in one piece.” This reduced Heath to peals of laughter again. Jarrod joined them and commented that it looked in one piece, as he helped them untie the tree and move it through the front door of the house.

Victoria had already laid sheets on the floor in an effort to make moving the large tree easier and help with the cleanup of the fallen pine needles. Jarrod had made the crisscrossing planks with a large steel rod, in the center to anchor the tree in place. It took over an hour for the three men to wrestle the tree into an upright position and place in the foyer. It was magnificent. It stood almost fourteen feet tall, and after trimming only a few branches it was the perfect conical shape. Its tip reaching for the heavens, and its lowest branches sweeping the floor in another cloud of green.

“I think Jarrod has picked out the loveliest tree ever,” Audra said gaily.

“I must agree with you dear” Victoria concurred. “It will look lovely when we decorate it. Let’s have a bite of lunch first, then begin. Shall we?”

“Good idea, I’m so hungry I could eat a bear,” Nick agreed leading the way to the dining room.

Taking their places Nick began telling of the trip home with the tree at Victoria’s request, while Silas brought in ham, potatoes, beets, bread, and peaches that had been put up late in the summer. Heath decided that this was the fastest eaten lunch in history, as the family made hasty work of devouring the delectable dishes displayed before them. It seemed that lunch was a necessary evil, before the tree trimming could commence, and they all wanted it over as soon as possible. He didn’t even get to savor the peaches before Silas was clearing the table and the rest of the family were pushing back their chairs and moving to the trunks that still rested in the hallway.

Lagging behind, as he had decided on a last bite of peaches, he found them removing wooden boxes from the one unopened trunk. The few remaining items, Audra and Jarrod were taking from the already looted trunks. Moving the boxes to the foyer was a procession in itself. Each box was placed in a particular spot, and again Heath knew this was another long standing tradition.

Beginning to slip around the corner and retire to his room, or go for a ride, he wasn’t sure which, he heard Victoria call, “Heath, where are you?”

“Coming Mother,” he replied, turning and coming in the entryway.

“Oh there you are, she said, her voice lowering, as she added, while patting a chair, Why don’t you sit by me?”

“I was hoping….Audra stated, while giving Nick a conspiratorial wink, so he wouldn’t feel slighted, when Victoria interrupted with “No, I’d like Heath to myself today.”

Heath detected something in her tone, that brought memories surfacing with the sound. Memories of Rachael admiring a new dress in front of his mama, then turning away, her face showing feelings of shame at her good fortune. His mama’s reassuring voice telling Rachael that she deserved a new dress, and would look lovely in it, and how happy Mr. Milliken would be. Rachael replying yes, but I feel so guilty having a new dress. Guilt. That was it. Victoria was feeling guilty. But he could also see Rachael and his mama hugging as they shared in the good fortune of one of them. He needed to help his mother get over her guilty feelings.

Moving to the chair beside her, he took her hand and whispered, “Thank you for making this so special for me. I think I had the best time getting that tree with Nick.. I haven’t laughed so hard in ages. So what’s the next step for today?”

Certain she was going to say that they would put on the ornaments, he was amazed as she catalogued the whole day. This tree decorating sounded like a real undertaking. As he looked up, he realized, that while they had been conversing, the decorating was in full swing. Nick was perched on top of a ladder, and even then could barely anchor the chain of silver glass beads. He was slowly working them around the uppermost branches and sloping them toward the bottom of the tree. As a passing thought raced through his mind, he chuckled, immediately drawing everybody’s attention.

“What’s so funny?” Audra wanted to know.

“Yes, do tell, brother Heath,” Jarrod added.

As Nick started to chime in, Heath silenced him with, “Nick, this may be one thing you don’t want to know about.” He then explained that he envisioned Jarrod beginning at the bottom, while Nick continued from his present location, and when they reached the middle, there was one row that was bare. Nick would then be ordered to redo the entire top half just to make ends meet.

“The banister. I see,” Jarrod laughed. “Yes that would probably happen.”

“And of course it would be all Nick’s fault,” Audra put in.

Nick stood on the ladder, hands on his hips, emphatically stating, “That isn’t funny. Everyone with two eyes knows Jarrod was wrong, but still I didn’t make waves. I just redo mine so he can feel superior. Well I tell you….”, he said, but as he glanced at the four below, helplessly holding their sides, he laughed, and cautiously lowered himself into a sitting position, so as not to fall and end the merriment with a broken neck. Finally everyone calmed down, and Nick resumed his downward stringing. Only occasional muffled chuckles still reached his ears.

He was enjoying hearing his younger brother laugh, even at his expense. Heath had been quiet, even more so than usual, and Nick was concerned. He thought Heath seemed more tired than usual as well, but that could be put down to anything. Lack of sleep, excitement, or the start of an illness, but he knew if he brought it up, there would be hell to pay. Heath would be furious if Mother questioned him on Nick’s say so, or tried to curtail his activities. Also Heath was right. This extra holiday work was causing backlogs in the ranch work that needed to be done. He needed Heath’s support to catch up. He currently had Heath doing a little extra work, now that the nights were short, so he could spend an hour working with Lightning. God but he was a magnificent beast. Heath had done a wonderful job of breaking him, but training was very time consuming, and Nick wanted him to live up to his full potential. Lightning! The name fit. He could tell, when he named the stallion that Heath was hoping for something else, but he didn’t utter a word, and for this he was thankful. Lightning! By far the quickest horse he’d ever had the pleasure to ride, both in speed and reasoning, hence his name.

As he continued stringing, and he figured he had one more row, before he could hand the beads over to Jarrod, he mentally reviewed his Christmas list, and hoped that heath would be as happy with his gift as he had been with Lightning. Making a special note to again mention how much he admired the stallion to Heath, he handed the beads off to Jarrod, and jumped from the ladder, drawing a gasp of dismay from his Mother.

“Nick! Must you do that? You might miss one year.”

“At least this year I’m not wearing my spurs,” he reminded her as he moved to kiss her cheek.

Smiling up at Nick, she said, “Lovely job, as always. I love you.” and she squeezed his hand as he moved to help Jarrod. Heath smiled at the exchange and tried even harder to blend into the wall. He didn’t want to draw anyone’s attention, and he hoped they would allow him to passively participate in this. So strong was his desire that he was wearing no boots, so he could move without sound, thinking this might allow him more freedom to slip away occasionally. He noticed that Jarrod was expertly entwining the slim beads amongst the tree branches, and Audra was not in sight. Come to think of it, neither was Nick. Thinking that maybe he could slip away for a bit, he backed into the dining room and headed quickly to the door on the other side, when he stopped as he heard Audra and Nick conversing. Drawing nearer, the faint voices became more distinct.

Not wanting to be noticed, clashed with not wanting to eavesdrop, and as he tried to figure out the best way to retreat with out rejoining Jarrod and Victoria, he heard the door open and Audra say, “Remember Nick, Heath mustn’t know. I don’t want him upset.”

“I know Sis, I know,” was returned in Nick’s exasperated voice as Heath darted behind a curtain. He watched as Nick followed Audra back to the foyer chattering happily with each other. He had no idea what the conversation was about, but the words hurt. Tapped into his deepest hidden fears. What would he be upset about? If he would be upset, shouldn’t he know? So much change, so many unanswered questions. Wanting nothing more than air, but realizing that with Audra and Nick back he would have to return, so he headed back to the foyer, taking as long as possible to get there, and helping himself to a generous portion of Jarrod’s whiskey on the way.

“Heath, Audra said, as she saw him enter, I need help.”

“What do ya need?”

“Help me put the candles in the candle holders, and then check the clips.

Heath said, “Fine!” and Victoria glanced up at his abruptness. He’d been quiet but not abrupt. Looking at Heath and Audra working together, it seemed like everything was fine. She knew he loved his sister and the task, while boring, wasn’t hard, so he shouldn’t feel out of his depth. She thought that this was causing his pensive quietness and greater need for time alone, but even after almost a complete year, she really didn’t have a full concept of his moods. Time was making it easier, but still he occasionally threw her.

She still had so much to do this year, and a lot of it pertained to him. She didn’t want him to feel left out, so she needed to complete his stocking so he could hang it when the family did. It wasn’t ready yet, and she had asked Audra to tell Nick they wouldn’t be hanging them as usual today. She wanted his done first, so she figured she would be spending the night sewing. She also needed to shop. As far as she knew, only Jarrod was finished. Audra still had gifts to buy, and Nick and Heath hadn’t been near shops for weeks, so she doubted that either of them were done. Tomorrow would mark the seventeenth. Time was running away from her this year, and she needed to focus. This was becoming a very rough Christmas for her, and it was because of Heath. He reminded her of Tom. Without being aware, many of his mannerisms were the same. And brood, Heath had nothing on Tom there. Then that half smile would appear and again Tom was with her. Heath wasn’t the problem, but she missed Tom deeply, more this Christmas than any other since the first year after his death. She would give anything to have Tom here for just this one Christmas. To see him again, hold him, refresh his presence in her mind.

“Jarrod, what…,” she snapped, as she heard his questioning voice, but not his words.

“I was saying Mother, that the beads are on. Do you want to do the candles or ornaments next?”

Oh damn! Ornaments. Heath wouldn’t have any.

“Candles, Jarrod. It must be candles! Are you finished with them yet Audra?”

“Almost Mother, about ten minutes. Heath is a great help.”

“That’s great dear. I think I’ll get a cup of hot cider, could you help me Nick?”

“Uh…sure,” he said surprised by the demanding look in her eye, that he knew meant there was no way to say no. Trailing her into the kitchen, he met Jarrod’s upraised eyebrows and shrugged.

“Mother?”

“Quiet, Nick. We have a problem.”

“What is it. Can I help?”

Her agitation showing she snapped, “Quiet! Let me talk. You’re as bad as Edna. Nick, how can we put up ornaments? Heath has none. I didn’t think.”

“Lord, Mother, none of us did.”

“I need suggestions. We can’t all come discuss this, as that will make him suspicious and then everything will get worse.”

“You’re right of course. Jarrod, Audra, and I each have a box of ornaments, one a year since we were kids. You have a box of ornaments that were yours and fathers. I know that there were a couple special ones of fathers. How about we give Heath one of those, since it will be from his father, then Audra, Jarrod, and I can each pick out one of ours for him so he has one from each of his siblings. That will make four. We each also have a lucky horseshoe. I can go get one of those. There are a lot of those freshly made. He’ll never know. We can tie a ribbon on it real quick, so he can hang it.”

“That sounds like a great idea, and a brilliant way out of this mess. Do you think Audra or Jarrod will mind giving up one of their special ornaments?”

“No. I know I would be pleased for my brother to have something to remember me by, and I’m sure the others will feel the same.”

“Nick, can you secretly tell Jarrod and Audra, and have them get you an ornament each, and also take care of the horseshoe?”

“Sure. I’ll also get a box, so it looks thought out.”

“Thank you Nick. Your quick thinking just saved us all a lot of pain, and Heath a lot of heartache.”

“No problem. Anything is better than the thought of Heath having nothing.”

“I agree Nick, I agree.”

“Yep, Gal might get run ragged over an oversight like this. Just be glad that our quick thinking saved a horse,” he said, to lighten her mood, as he moved to carry out the plan.

He quickly took Jarrod aside, then Audra, and explained what each needed to do. They both readily agreed, and took great pains to surreptitiously locate, remove, and hand to Nick, the requested items.

While all this was occurring, Heath, oblivious for once, was busy clipping the dainty multi colored candle holders to the tree at it’s highest branches. He was also wondering what the star would look like and how Jarrod was to get it on the top of the tree.

“Heath, that’s plenty up top. We need to make sure the tree is evenly covered or else it doesn’t look right. I think for next year we will need to buy more candle holders. Could you help me in the middle section now? I’m having trouble reaching.” Audra said, while she, on tiptoe, continued to liberally cover the bottom two thirds with candles.

“Sure, Audra. Mother said the star is next. How does Jarrod get it up there?”

“Father gets credit for that Heath. As the tree got taller each year, it got harder and harder to get the star on top, so he developed a star hanger. It’s some tool you loop over the star, then it extends, so you can get it placed with out falling off the ladder. Actually a bad fall is what caused him to invent it. He was laid up all Christmas and for the two days following. I think that was one of my favorite Christmases, don’t you Jarrod?”

“Yes I do.” Jarrod responded. “We spent the next three days in his bedroom. When I look back, I realize he thought he’d ruined Christmas, but he played games, we camped out in his room, he told stories, we even all ate together in his room. Remember?”

“It was special Jarrod. We were so close. I was seven that year.”

“Do you remember the cider?” Nick jumped in. “I do. Silas kept it warm all three days. I loved it and drank it at every opportunity. The second night after you had all fallen asleep, Father spiked it with whiskey. I felt like such a big man.”

“I remember that,” Jarrod laughed. “You strutted around, so proud. I realized my little brother was grown up that night.”

“Sounds very special,” Heath said, his tone wistful.

“What did you do when you were seven at Christmas, Heath?” Audra questioned.

“I’d rather hear about your Christmases since I’m part of this family now,” Heath responded.

“They were all so special. I can hardly pick which ones to tell you about. Sometimes it was the gift that made it special, like the year I got my first pony. Other times it was being together as a family. Once what made Christmas special, was the sharing with others. Do you remember that year Mother? I was twelve I think. The floods came on the twenty third, leaving eleven families homeless, everything they had destroyed. You and Father took in six families and we shared Christmas with them. Our food, gifts, everything. I remember picking out toys for three of the smaller girls from my own room. How their faces lit up when they got their presents. Giving to others that year was what made Christmas special.”

Victoria moved to Audra and put her arm around her shoulders. “You are special my dear. Your kindness knows no bounds.”

“Enough reminiscing for now,” Nick said. “Time for the star, Jarrod.”

As he replied, “But of course,” with a bow to the ladies, Heath walked by Audra and quietly whispered, “See, you are a lighthouse” which left her grinning and Victoria confused as she had overheard the passing remark.

As Jarrod unwrapped the glistening silver star, made of highly polished filigree, Heath watched, his thoughts once again warring with each other. Anger, sadness, frustration, jealousy. Each one coming to his head one after another.

Anger at so much. Could he ever explain his seventh Christmas. He was cleaning out stables until five p.m. since it was a slow day as everyone was home with their families.

Sadness that overflowed. He’d never had the opportunity to help another during the holidays. He would never share their memories. What had he missed?

Frustration that the feeling never went away. When would the uneasiness end? When could he freely share his past, without destroying them? Why couldn’t he force Colleen’s Mother to accept him? What were they hiding from him?

And Jealousy, the pettiest emotion he knew, and right now it was the strongest. He wanted to be the one putting on the star!

He refocused on Jarrod as he hooked the ornate star on the end of a pole. He then climbed a few steps up the ladder and began extending the pole. It didn’t take him long to center the star over the top of the tree and lower it into place. As he unhooked the pole with a deft flip of his wrist, the star settled more deeply over the tip, and Jarrod climbed down. As one the entire family stared at the star. It was breathtaking.

Each was lost in their own thoughts, when Jarrod managed to put into words, the question Heath wanted answered and the others all knew from experience. “It will light the night sky once again as the candles’ glow is reflected from all its points.”

“How soon can we light the tree?” Heath asked, sounding happier than he had in days.

Funnily enough, each person interpreted his tone differently.

He’s finally content, Audra assumed.

He’s excited, thought Jarrod.

“He’s planning something sneaky, Nick guessed, while Victoria right on target, saw and heard her two sons, as children voice the same question in the same eager tone.

“Heath, I’m sorry, but not yet son. We still need to put on the decorations” Victoria said in a choked voice, as tears threatened to fall, for a little boy who was eager, and being told no.

“Decorations! It looks right nice to me now.”

“Oh you haven’t seen anything yet. Until the decorations go up it isn’t truly our tree,” Jarrod began to explain, then stopped abruptly remembering their conversation of the other day.

“Could you explain why, Jarrod?” Heath asked, adding, “I really want to know.”

“Since you asked, Jarrod said pointedly, we each have been given one decoration a year since birth. It’s a tradition of ours, and as we put the ornaments on the tree it becomes more and more ours, since each ornament holds a memory of a year in our life.”

Grabbing his boots, and heading straight out the door, Heath went directly to the stables. He should have said he’d be back later, but couldn’t get the words past the lump in his throat. His chest was hurting as the long forgotten but very familiar constricting band tightened with each step. If that wasn’t enough, he felt like he’d been punched in the gut. Making his way blindly to the barn, and Gal’s side, he hastily began saddling her, then in frustration un‑cinched the saddle, letting it fall to the ground. Taking only his saddle bags he mounted bareback in a swift fluid motion, and rode quickly from the barn. Turning toward George and Edna’s he didn’t give a second thought to why his family was frantically waving to him from the porch.

Tradition. Tradition. Tradition! The word closed in on him with every mile Gal covered.

Without knowing how he got there, or why, he realized he was standing in George and Edna’s barn, fingering his gift to Colleen. They were to meet tomorrow, and he was going to give her this then, but he couldn’t wait. Not after today. Now, right this minute, he would begin a tradition of his own. Putting her gift in his saddle bag, he mounted and rode directly passed a stunned George, without even seeing him. He headed to Stockton. This time he rode directly to Colleen’s house, and let Gal rest under a tree as he quickly looped the reins around a low branch. Striding to the door, he knocked. Mrs. McDougal opened the door and seeing Heath, began to close it, and was shocked when he braced his hand firmly against the outside, not allowing her to complete her task.

“Heath, get your hand off my door,” she barked.

“Colleen, I need to see you,” Heath yelled.

“You’ll not see the likes of her. I forbid it.”

“Colleen!” Heath repeated, as he stared, blue eyes darkening and freezing as he looked at her mother.

“Just a minute, Heath. I’m getting my coat,” Colleen said clearly.

“Colleen McDougal, you’ll not leave the house with this man.”

“I will Mother, and that’s final,” Colleen said, taking Heath’s outstretched hand, as she shot her mother a glare as heated as Heath’s was cold.

“Colleen, I said no,” Mrs. McDougal repeated in a much more subdued tone, while Heath, his elation showing as Colleen defied her mother by choosing him said, “We’ll be right outside, and I promise she will come to no harm.”

As they turned, they heard the door close, not slam as expected, and Colleen said,”Do you want to sit in the swing, or take a walk?”

“Your choice.”

“The swing then. Mother can see us, and I want her to know how I feel. Have I said I’ve missed you?”

“Not today,” Heath answered.”This is the first time I’ve seen you today, she responded, lightly slapping his arm, how could I have told you today?”

“Then tell me now.”

Linking her arm through his and standing as close as possible, she lifted, what he felt were impossibly red lips, and said, “Heath, I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too. Couldn’t wait for tomorrow,” he said, lowering his face and bringing their lips together. The one kiss was tender beyond words, and as they broke apart, their need for each other showed in their eyes.

Mrs. McDougal, watching from a window as predicted, realized at that moment she had lost her daughter. She also understood that Heath would only be pushed so far, and Colleen’s temper was unparalled. As she wanted to see her grandchildren, she decided to begin being welcoming. He was a Barkley after all, and very good looking in a brooding sort of way. It may not have been the banker, as she hoped, but Colleen could have done worse. She turned from the window and began cooking. They would be cold and need something to warm themselves with. Hot chocolate. Everyone loved hot chocolate, and she began making enough for three.

Heath pulled Colleen down beside him on the swing and just sat, holding her close.

She relaxed fully, against him and could feel the tension in his rigid posture. As she sat with him, she felt the muscles relax as the tension eased. The last time she had seen him truly relaxed was at the harvest festival, during the pumpkin carving. Since then, even if he seemed fine, his back muscles were tight. She could feel it every time she hugged him. She could see it through his shirt. Hopefully the strain he felt would disappear with the holidays. She had never wanted for anything, and had not been able to shake the picture of a young boy without a stocking. It had broken her heart when he confided in her and she had vowed on the spot to make it up to him. A her mind drifted, she relaxed even more, enjoying his well muscled body keeping her safe, the musky smell of him against the cold air, his warm breath caressing her hair as he spoke. He was speaking.

“Heath, I was wool gathering. What did you say?” she asked impishly.

“Well if that’s all the attention I’m worth…..” he bantered back I’ll just leave before giving you your Christmas gift.”

“My Christmas gift! Really! Where is it?” She began looking around, then seeing nothing large she said, “is it in your coat?” and began searching his pockets.

“Stop!” he chuckled, halting her hands progress. “I’ll go get it.” As he stood he realized he would need to untangle her.

Laughing at his bemused face, she said, “ Have I mentioned that I adore presents?”

“I’m beginning to get the idea. Now sit down and be patient.”

“Patient! I can’t,” she said, moving to follow him.

“I promise you Colleen, if you don’t sit there and wait……he began, then looking at her flushed exuberant face, he relented with, “alright, come with me.”

She jumped up and grabbed his arm as he moved to his saddle bag. She was practically trembling in anticipation as he undid the leather bindings. Laughing freely at her eagerness, he reached in and handed her a leather pouch. “Go on. Open it.” he coaxed.

Fumbling with the drawstrings, she replied imperiously, “My hands must be cold sir. Could you assist me?”

“Certainly my lady,” he said bowing and opened the bag and placed the contents on her upturned palm. “It’s nothing much. I ….” he began, when she laid two fingers across his lips top silence him.

“It’s…” he began again.

“It’s,” she interrupted, “the most delicate piece of craftsmanship I’ve ever seen, and perfect for me. You would think that it was made just for me. Where did you find it? It must have cost a fortune.”

“I……” he started again.

“Look Heath, it’s perfect. It will be the prettiest ornament on our tree. Finer than all the glass blown German ones mother has. The Celtic cross of Ireland on the front and an angel in flight on the back.Where did you find it? I can’t wait to hang it? Well Heath, answer me.”

“How can I. I can’t get a word in edgewise.” he said, thoroughly amused by her chatter, and astonished by her reaction.

“Heath!” she said, stamping her foot, “this had to have come from San Francisco. When did you go, and why didn’t you tell me. Oh, maybe you had Jarrod pick it up! Wait. If you did that, you can keep it. I don’t want a present from you that someone else picked out. You remember that Heath Barkley.”

“Colleen, be quiet,” Heath’s raised voice stopped her in her tracks.

“What Heath. Are you okay?”

“I’ve been trying to tell you that I made it for you. It didn’t come from one of those fancy stores. It’s really just a little thing Colleen.”

Two emotions were battling with each other at his announcement and she couldn’t decide which to unleash first, the anger or the awe. Finding she could no longer stand, she sank to the ground as tears poured freely from her eyes.

“Colleen, I’m sorry,” Heath said, kneeling next to her, unsure of what to do. “I can get you something else.”

With that she grabbed his coat and sobbed into his shoulder. The only thing that Heath could figure out, was that women must like crying on shoulders. First there was Audra and now Colleen. Having no idea what to do to ease her obvious distress, Heath, was ready to go get her mother, when he heard her words.

“Heath, I am so angry with you I could just scream, and you have no idea why. Do you?”

“I admit, I’m a little lost right now,” he said, his voice very confused.

This brought a small chuckle and she looked at him. “Ready for a lecture Mr. Barkley, because you’re about to get an ear full.”

“Maybe I should be going, “ he quipped, rising.

As her hands grabbed him in a death grip, refusing too let go, she pulled him back beside her s she explained, “No Heath, I am thrilled beyond words with the ornament. I meant it when I said we had no finer. Then to find out that you carved it yourself, well, the craftsmanship, effort, and detail are outstanding. I can’t believe you can sit there and say it’s just a little thing, she said mimicking his tone. That makes me so angry I could slap you silly right now, or perhaps smash a pumpkin over your head, or trod on your toes! Heath, I’ve never received anything that means this much to me.”

An incredulous, “Really?” reached her ears, and irritated at the pigheadedness of this man she said “Really!!!” and stormed into the house slamming the door.

Entering, she looked at her mother, and saw hope etched on her face. Hope that the slamming door meant it was over and they wouldn’t be seeing Heath again.

Her mother was hopeful, but one look at her daughters face told her it was far from over. Despite her red eyes her bright green centers were sparkling with a light that boded fireworks to come and ill for the man outside. Thankful she wasn’t in Heath’s shoes, she returned to the kitchen and checked on the chocolate. He would be in soon. Men followed her daughter everywhere. For some reason this bored her daughter. Maybe there was hope yet. Returning to answer the knock that was sure to come, she thought, yes, there it is, as she heard heavy footsteps on the porch. Waiting for the knock that was sure to come, Mrs. McDougal gasped as the door swung open and Heath stepped boldly inside.

“There you are,” he said, advancing on her daughter. “It seems you forgot something outside.”

“What might that be?” Colleen asked, smiling, but remaining seated.

“That would be my thank you. Now we can go outside and take a walk, or you can deliver it here.” he said as he stopped directly in front of her.

Extending her hand, he took it and effortlessly applied upward pressure causing her to rise from her chair. She eagerly fell into his arms, kissing him and saying “Thank you Heath, thank you.”

As her mother stood shocked, not so much by the kiss she was witnessing, but rather at her fiery daughters capitulation, she decided to get the first step over with. “Would you both like a cup of hot chocolate, and a light snack? I have an assortment of seasonal breads, cookies and marzipan.” For some reason that she couldn’t fathom this reduced them both to fits of laughter as they fell on the couch together.

While trying to control himself and catch his breath, Heath managed to say, “Yes. Thank you ma’am.”

This caused Colleen to redouble her laughter, thinking of her mother offering Heath a repast.

“Colleen, control yourself. This is a very unladylike display, and we will talk later. Now you must entertain your gentleman caller.”

It was to much for Heath. He broke up again, promising himself that after this one last comment he would be the perfect model of decorum. He leaned over and whispered, “You want to entertain me by being my counselor again?” He then schooled his face, as he did in poker, to show only a polite smile as Colleen smacked him on the shoulder saying she would get even soon.

Mrs. McDougal carried out a platter of treats and three steaming mugs of hot chocolate and placed them on the low serving table, then seated herself primly on the leather chair directly opposite the pair.

“Looks delicious ma’am. Did you make them yourself?” Heath said imitating Victoria making her Thanksgiving rounds.

“Yes, Heath, I did. Help yourself.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” he replied, taking a piece of cranberry bread. Realizing that she was watching him expectantly he took a bite and stated that it was the finest cranberry bread he had ever tasted.

Looking very pleased, Mrs. McDougal said, “I’ll wrap you up a loaf, so you can take it home.”

“Thank you. That would be very kind.”, he said, helping himself to the hot chocolate and wondering how he had ever gotten himself into this situation.

Colleen too, was thinking, as her mother nattered on about bread recipes and awards, that Heath was the most mercurial man she had ever met. He allowed her to feel all ranges of emotion, and she never tired of it, but to go through four in the course of thirty minutes was almost to tiring to think about. Definitely feeling giddy, she knew this would last a lifetime.

She turned to look at him and her gaze drew his eyes. As they met she held up the ornament that she refused to relinquish, and a shared understanding passed between them. He would be carving one a year for the rest of his life. He had his tradition. Smiling gently, her eyes questioned, and he nodded.

“Mother.” Colleen said.

“Yes dear?”

“I’d like you to look at Heath’s Christmas gift to me, then I’ll need a moment of your time before he has to leave.”

“Gift? Is that appropriate, Colleen? I hope you……..”

“Mother,” she said sharply, extending the ornament.

Colleen watched expectantly, and Heath with trepidation, as her mother inspected it closely.

“I’m very sorry dear, but it wouldn’t be proper for you to accept a gift this valuable.”

“Mother, Heath carved it himself.”

“Colleen I refuse to hear…….himself……Heath, you made this?”

“Yes Ma’am”

“The inlay Heath, its silver,” she said awed.

“No ma’am, that’s just a fine piece of wire inlaid throughout the cross design, and outlining the angels gown and wings.”

“I notice that the angel has dark hair.”

“Yes Ma’am,” he said blushing, while Colleen smiled more than her mother had seen in the past five years. Gone was the boredom, and she had Heath, Tom Barkley’s bastard to thank for it. Well if anyone said a word against him in her presence, she would snub them completely. Her earlier transgressions forgotten, she said, “You’re right Colleen. We must hang this. It needs the perfect ribbon. Heath will you be okay by yourself while we go pick out exactly what is needed?”

“I really should be getting back,” he remarked, thinking of how he just raced out of the house.

“Not yet Heath. It will only take a minute,” Colleen said, eyes pleading.

“I still have to wrap the cranberry bread,” Mrs. McDougal added.

“I’ll be fine.”

“We’ll hurry,” Colleen added, picking up on the hesitancy in his voice.

Heath took the few minutes they were gone to observe the interior of Colleen’s home, as this was his first time inside. The home looked lovely and although he couldn’t see the rooms they disappeared in upstairs, he could see the parlor and the foyer, with the hint of other rooms through partially opened doorways. Boy Howdy, but greenery must be the thing, as every where he looked it adorned their house as well. They had a lovely tree, about nine feet tall, and decorated in silver and green. The sofa he was on was richly covered in brocade, and there were two large wing chairs surrounding the mahogany table he’d just been served from. They had pictures on all the walls and an Irish cross over the front door. The liquor table looked well stocked, and the fireplace inviting. He was hoping that he would be able to spend more time here, when they reappeared, all smiles.

“Heath, come with me,” Colleen said, taking his hand and leading him to the Christmas tree. “I would like you to see where it will hang, and the ribbon mother chose to hang it with.

The hole in the ornament was threaded with a delicate silver ribbon that accentuated the silver toned inlay. He watched as she and her mother moved around the tree looking for the perfect spot. Finally after moving three ornaments around, Colleen stretched slightly and hung his ornament on a branch about five and a half feet high, at almost perfect eye level for everyone entering the house, then she moved by Heath’s side and just stood by him as they both gazed at its beauty.

“I never knew it would look so good,” he said gently, now I must leave, and he added for Colleen’s ears only, “the abrupt way I left, I know I’ll have to face the music when I get home.”

“If it means I got this lovely present today, rather than later, I can live with you facing the music,” she giggled.

“Thank you for the refreshments, Mrs. McDougal,” Heath said taking the offered cranberry bread and heading out the door, Colleen on his heels. She walked with him to Gal, and watched as he placed the bread in his saddlebag.

“Colleen, I know we were to meet tomorrow instead of today, but would it be alright with you if we skipped tomorrow. I figure I’ll be paying a big penance, and I still need to see George and Edna.”

“Of course, Heath, and thank you.”

“One more thing Colleen. If your mother gives you a hard time and you need me, I want you to come straight to the ranch. I can take care of things from there.”

“Heath, I promise, I’ll be fine, but thanks for worrying.”

Smiling he mounted and left, missing her dreamy gaze as she made her way back inside.

With each passing mile, as he neared his home, his tension grew. How was he going to explain his leaving like that? The only good thing he could find was that the decorating would be finished and he would have avoided all the remember this, and wasn’t it special when, that he knew the entire family would have engaged in.

He was totally unaware that as soon as they realized he was leaving, they stopped decorating the tree and decided to wait for him. Audra went to work on the wreath for the front door. Victoria brought out the stocking material with the intention of completing it, hopefully before he returned. Nick would return to home based ranch work and be the lookout, while Jarrod headed, full gallop, into town to attempt to find another ornament or two, so Heath would have more than just the four. Audra had made a special request and he was going to try to fill it as well. All four were feeling very pleased with themselves, when they each completed their tasks before Heath returned. Jarrod had just arrived and was showing Audra and Victoria the ornament he purchased. Victoria had just finished putting away her sewing basket and laying Heath’s stocking with the rest of the families, when Nick came in saying, “He’s coming. At least he didn’t stay out late like he occasionally does.”

As they prepared to greet him, Heath curried Gal, spoke to Charger, in an effort to delay entering, then slowly headed for the house, excitement over seeing the tree finished and dread over his reception, causing his stomach to begin clenching again. He didn’t even make it to the door, before it was opened and they were pouring outside to greet him.

“There you are, Nick said, we still have work to do and we were waiting for you. Where did you go so fast?”

“Work? I thought that…..” he began, only to have Victoria cut him off.

“Why, the tree decorating of course. You left before we could really start.”

“But I thought..”

“We guessed what you thought,” Jarrod spoke this time, a friendly smile on his face. “Heath, could I see you in my office?”

“Sure Jarrod, but first, I shouldn’t have left like that. I’m uh..well I’m..”

“Sorry Heath. We know.” Audra supplied kissing his cheek. “Go see what Jarrod wants, then we need you, so hurry. You know how Jarrod can go on, so hurry him up as well.” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Sure.” he said as he followed Jarrod from the room.

“Heath, Jarrod began.”

“Jarrod, I’m really not in the mood for a lecture. Can’t we just skip this?”

“A lecture. You’re worried about a lecture. Do you really think I’d lecture you?” Jarrod said his temper rising. Then he saw Heath’s smile and the humor hit him. He was already in lecture mode. Chuckling, he said, “Sure Heath. I only wanted to tell you one thing anyway.”

“Go ahead.”

“Don’t assume the worst Heath. You didn’t let me finish earlier today before you took off. We care, trust us, please.”

As Heath hung his head and twisted the buttons on his sleeve, Jarrod heard a muffled “I know. I didn’t give anyone a chance.”

Smiling at Heath, Jarrod said “Let’s rejoin the others. By the way Heath, they don’t know what I wanted to say. It’s just between the two of us.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled as he reentered the foyer, complete with the huge undecorated tree and the grinning faces of his family.

Jarrod however, hung back, feeling the guilt of his duplicity with Heath. If Heath hadn’t left they wouldn’t have been ready, and Heath would have felt just like he expected to. Hopefully having everything ready would help ease Heath’s obvious discomfort over the Christmas holiday, but was the reward worth the lie, that could never be spoken of in Heath’s presence. If Heath ever found out the reaction would be severe, he felt. A fleeting thought brushed the edges of his mind as he lifted his head. Lowering it to try and recapture the brief glimpse of what he knew was very important, Jarrod abruptly turned and closed the door to his study, as the feeling hit him full force. He didn’t want to lose his brother! Helping himself to a double shot of scotch, Jarrod returned, determined to have a wonderful day enjoying Heath’s company. To his delight it seemed that Heath was enjoying himself, but they hadn’t started decorating yet.

“Jarrod, finally,” Nick thundered.

“Heath dear,” Victoria began again as if he had never left, “each year we put up the decorations that are our family’s memories. Jarrod wanted to give this to you earlier, but I think I’ll do it now. We have what I hope will be the start of your own additions to the family tree,” she said, as she handed him a box.

Looking up with a question in his eyes, she said, “Go on, open it. Just be prepared to listen to a lot of explanations for the next few minutes.”

As Nick, Jarrod, and Audra crowded close, Heath, hands visibly trembling, opened the wooden box. What he saw took his breath away, and while the trembling grew, and his eyes glistened, the constricting band loosened, and he felt included. Jarrod had said trust, and at this moment he would lay his life on the line for the few shiny trinkets that lay nestled in the box.

“Heath, please remove the red satin ball,” Victoria prompted. As he withdrew the requested object, she said,”I think you should have this. Your father had returned from a trip to Colorado, and we didn’t have extra money, as it was all going back in to buying more land. He however had purchased this set of ornaments, saying that it was the perfect set. There was one for us and one for each of our future children. We never had the fourth child Heath. I am sure that it was fate. You are that fourth child, and you should have the ornament that we have saved all these years..It’s from your father Heath, and now it’s yours.”

Heath kept turning the red ball around and around in his hands, head down, taking in the lace applique Christmas trees that trimmed it.

Before he could try to formulate an adequate response, Audra said, “Now look at the angel Heath. I realize you might think she’s too feminine for a man, but she was given to me by Dad on my thirteenth birthday. He said she was to guide me and represent my guardian angel as I grew. I wanted you to have something of mine and I picked her because you were guided to us. Every year when you hang her, please remember that you are loved, and have your own guardian angel. May she watch over both of us, as you watch over me.”

“Sis,” was all he managed to say as she leaned down and hugged him.

“Now take out the silver sword,” Nick’s loud voice instructed, and Heath was grateful, as it helped change the tone from overly sentimental, to more businesslike. “When I was seven or eight, I played Sir Lancelot, having great adventures, rescuing damsels in distress, slaying dragons, and taking on the world. I want you to have the sword now. Since you came here, I, given time have discovered that having a little brother is an adventure in itself. You have lived many adventures, and being part of this family is your latest. You deserve Sir Lancelot’s sword.”

Heath couldn’t get a word out, before Jarrod started in. “Heath, the miniature champagne glass is from me. It was to celebrate my graduation from college, but I would rather you have it, to remember me, as your brother, toasting your arrival. You are very special to me.”

As Heath looked up trying to find some words, any words to utter to express how deeply touched he was, Silas said, “Mrs. Barkley, if I may. I would like to give Heath an ornament as well.

“Certainly,” she said, somewhat shocked, but hiding it well.

“Heath, I’m not one for speeches, but since you’ve come you have given me a reason to cook food I hadn’t had since I was a child. You’ve helped me early in the morning when nobody else was around. You’ve shared yourself with me. I want to give you something in return.. I had Mr. Smith from my church carve this. I’ve told you how fine he is at carving.”

Heath took a small wooden hand painted raisin bread loaf from Silas’ outstretched hand.

“How perfect,” Audra exclaimed, “may I see it?”

Not really wanting to share, but knowing he must, he handed it to Audra to examine, then pass it around for everyone else to see.

“Silas. Audra is right. It is perfect.” Victoria said. “I had no idea you and Heath spent so much time together.” What other secrets was he hiding? George and Edna, money, Colleen, Silas. Each had to be pried out of him. Each person listed seemed to admire the man he was. Hopefully Christmas would help him open up and trust the family with his thoughts and concerns. Even Nick still occasionally remarked how he would realize by a look on Heath’s face that he disagreed with a plan on how to handle certain aspects of the ranch work, but it would take hours to days to get him to say what he thought should be done. It was almost as if Heath thought that if he caused a problem they wouldn’t let him stay with them. Resolving to give it more thought later, Victoria stood and announced, “I have this year’s ornament for each of you.”

“Jarrod, I’m giving you a miniature steam engine to signify your part in keeping the railroad off of our neighbors’ land. You deserve recognition as you not only stood up to them bodily, you fought them with the pen as well.”

“Nick, for you a German blown glass peach and almond, to show your forward thinking on the ranch and to symbolize our two new orchards.”

“Audra, you get this stained glass cross. As you have tirelessly devoted yourself to the orphanage, bible classes, and helpful deeds. I am proud of you.”

“Heath, I can’t say why, but Audra insisted on this being your ornament, so you get a lighthouse.”

Each of her children were thrilled with their ornaments for the year, and Heath even went so far as to kiss Audra, before gruffly saying, “I forgot to feed Gal when I got back. Be back soon.” Once again he was out the door before anyone could utter a sound, but this time they let him go happily, each knowing that he needed a few moments to gather his thoughts so he wasn’t completely overwhelmed.

Lucky Gal! Heath thought as he restocked her food. “You know girl, in that house is the finest set of ornaments and body has ever seen, and guess what? They’re mine. I tell you, you ain’t never seen anything so fine in all your life. Not even that new saddle I bought you is as grand as those ornaments. Boy Howdy, but I can’t even get a descent thank you out before I choke up. Gotta get back in there soon, or they’ll still be sitting there, waiting for me before they start decorating. Reckon this tree might never get done. Well here I go Gal. Reckon as soon as those ornaments are up, I can eat. I’m real hungry. You go on and eat your supper and I’ll go get mine,” he said, once again dragging his feet back to the house.

The last time it was in fear, over the pain he caused them, this time it was in fear of being able to maintain the precarious control he had over his emotions.

The sight of everyone decorating the tree was a joy to see. They were laughing and talking amongst themselves and he heard snatches of do you remember, and this was the best year because, just like he knew he would, but this time he didn’t mind. He had his own ornaments. An entire box of them. Picking up his box he hung his ornaments in the places he thought they would look best. It took him as long to hang his six as it took the others to hang eighteen or more, a he carefully examined each one in detail, making sure that they were ingrained in his memory. He needed memories. Always had. They kept him warm when the world turned cold. They gave him focus and hope. Right now he felt as cared for as he ever had. But he never knew when fate would change and memories would be all he had. Fate was very unpredictable.

When everyone was finished they picked up the boxes and carted the trunks to the guest bedroom. Dinner would be next, then after dinner they were going to light the tree. He couldn’t wait. Everyone was full of anticipation. The tree lighting signaled the official start of the Christmas holidays.

The family gathered in the parlor for pre dinner drinks, with Audra and Victoria enjoying a sherry, while Jarrod took a scotch from Nick’s hands allowing him to pour Heath and himself their customary whiskeys. The conversation was light and Heath found it easy to join in, as they discussed this Christmas, the ranch, the delivery of the stockings to the orphanage, and what games they would play if any that night.

When Silas announced dinner, Victoria looked to Heath, and allowed him to escort her in. Audra smiled, as she was sandwiched between, as she said, her two handsome dark haired brothers.

As they made their way to the dining table, Heath quietly said, “Thank you for the ornaments. I don’t rightly know how to tell you what this means to me.”

“I think I understand, Heath. Tom would be so proud, as am I.” she assured him with both her words and a hug.

Taking their places Heath watched, overwhelmed once again, as Silas started them off with French onion soup, then brought out roast beef, potatoes, gravy, caramelized carrots, onions, bread and baked garlic.

Heath’s emotions, already having been through the wringer, couldn’t take the overabundance of food as well. He vividly remembered, as a child, climbing into bed hungry, night after night. Even the soup before him would have been a meal in itself, and then it wouldn’t have been as rich, or contained as much onion, and it never would have had cheese. Cheese was too expensive. He knew he couldn’t explain how he felt, as they had never wanted. Just as they couldn’t explain stockings to him and have him understand. Experiences were gained by living through them, you just couldn’t tell someone and have them understand. They could do all those words Jarrod said, like sympathize, and empathize, and commiserate over, and feel for him, but they could never understand. Today he was to blessed to eat. Could he explain that? Not likely. First he saw Colleen, then her mother allowed him inside her house, they didn’t chastize him when he came home and had deserved it, they gave him ornaments and a place to belong. How could he tell them that too many good things, often led to bad, or that he couldn’t have all this and all the food as well, and not feel guilty for all his Mother’d suffered.

God, he was still just holding the spoon and everyone else was almost done. He needed to share some of his good fortune with his mama. She said Jesus fasted. So would he.

“Excuse me. I need to go take care of something,” he said pushing back his chair.

“Heath, you need to eat.”

“This is more important, but I’ll be back shortly. Wouldn’t miss the tree lighting for anything.”

“I’ll have Silas make a plate for you,” Victoria said, as he left his bewildered family once again that day.

Heading out the back, he briefly caught Silas’s eye in the kitchen. Silas gave him a slight nod and Heath was certain Silas understood. Then again Silas had gone hungry. They had spoken of it.

Changing his mind, he reversed direction and headed up the back stairs to his bedroom. He quietly closed the door and opened the bottom drawer of his dresser. Reaching all the way in the back, his hand finding the location by instinct, he withdrew a faded picture of his mama. Sitting at the foot of the dresser he then reached into his pants pocket, opened his wallet, and removed the scrap of quilt he had left. Running the small square of fabric through his fingers, he felt the familiar lines of stitching that held the pieces of the four dresses together, and talked. *Oh God mama, I miss you. I wish you were here tonight. They are wonderful, the house looks gorgeous, the tree is the finest thing you’ve ever seen, but I’d trade it for you. You should have had this mama. You deserve it. You had to take care of me, give up your chances at happiness for me. You were a true lady, like Mrs. Barkley is. You deserve this, not me. Anyway mama, let me tell you about the tree. It’s a good fourteen feet if it’s a day, and so green you’d think you were still in the middle of the forest. They’ve got tons of candles in those pretty colored holders all over it, and silvered chains of glass beads. There are over eighty ornaments of all colors on the tree. And the star, mama, is so fine. When it’s lit, I just know it will look like the stars in heaven. I bet it reflects all the colors they have on the tree. Colors mama. So many different colors. Just like this family I have now. Each is an individual. A color of their own, but together they blend the strengths of the individuals into a magnificent portrait just like the tree. So many colors, mama. You would be green, like the tree. There isn’t any green.

He was still sitting in the dark holding on to the picture and the scrap of material when he heard a discreet tap on his door.

“Mr. Heath,” Silas whispered, “they’s almost finished with dinner.”

“Thank you Silas” he returned and quietly replaced the picture in the drawer and the material in his wallet. He then rejoined them in the dining room for coffee.

“That was quick,” Nick remarked.

“Yep. Didn’t figure it would take too long,” he said. “Coffee sure is good.”

“Probably feels real good to you. Warm, after whatever you did outside,” Audra said, fishing for information. “It’s getting colder nightly.”

“Think it will freeze?” Heath asked.

“No,” Nick responded. “Probably just keep up with this infernal raining. I’m sick of it. Couldn’t believe it started again just after you got back. From the looks of the clouds, it will keep this up for days.”

“Reckon you’re right. Guess we’ll be wading again.” Heath added.

“Well, I for one, am going to work from home for the next week. I don’t fancy the idea of riding back and forth in the rain, and I don’t want to miss out on the family time before Christmas, by staying over in Stockton,” Jarrod said.

“Oh good, Jarrod. That’s wonderful news.” Victoria exclaimed.

“I know I’ll be happy, too. I bet I can find lots of worthwhile projects for you to do,” Audra dimpled.

“Wait a minute. I did say I’d be working,” Jarrod replied, grinning back at her.

“Can we stop this conversation and go light the tree now?” Nick asked.

“I’m up for it,” Heath happily put in, and Victoria was once again struck by the little boy enthusiasm and wistfulness in his tone.

Unable to deny him anything, when he sounded so young, she decided to forgo her second cup of coffee, and said, “Let’s do it right this minute.” Rising she led the way to the tree.

“Finally!” Nick said as enthusiastically as Heath had a moment before.

Pulling out a package of long fireplace matches, Nick handed one to Jarrod and one to Heath. Each lit the matches and then began working on a different section of the tree, lighting the candles from the top down, as Audra and Victoria watched carefully for any hint of a misplaced candle that might start a fire. As the men reached the bottom, Victoria said, “You and Heath did a wonderful job. Not one candle had to be moved for safety reasons.”

“May I extinguish the lamps now Mother?” Audra asked.

“Of course, dear,” she said as Jarrod, Nick, and Heath moved to stand by her. Just as Audra blew out the last light, Jarrod slipped a hand around Victoria’s shoulder and said “It’s as lovely as always, Mother.”

Victoria replied, “Yes it is,” and even Nick agreed quietly, as if a loud noise would ruin the moment.

Heath’s quiet sigh, caused Victoria to glance at him and thought that in the shadows cast by the flickering candles she saw a little boy that wanted to shout but was trying to behave politely. She saw Tom. Every Christmas was this way for him. He relished the holidays.

“Well we should probably blow the candles out before the tree catches fire” Jarrod said, ever practical.

“Can you wait a minute Jarrod?”

“Sure, Heath.”

“Excuse me then,” Heath said and opened the front door. They all watched, confused as he went and stood in the rain and stared at the tree through the window. They continued to watch, as he continued to stand, getting drenched, for at least five minutes, before he returned and said “Thank you.”

With that, Jarrod and Nick extinguished the candles, while Heath, still wet, moved to the parlor and helped himself to a whiskey.

“Heath?” Victoria questioned.

“Probably want to know what in the world I was doing. Right?”

“The thought crossed my mind,” she said, as she moved to stand next to him.

“I was just getting the answers to some questions.”

“Mind if I ask what questions?”

“Mostly just, does it shine as bright as the night sky. Can I get you a drink?”

Shaking her head no, she added, “I always find it incredible too. I don’t want people to talk. I just want to drink in its beauty. Maybe next year I’ll join you outside.”

With a huge smile, he said, “I think I’d like that.”

He left to change his clothes and returned as the rest of the family was gathering.

“Anybody up for cards?” Nick questioned.

“We can’t yet son, unless you don’t want to hang your stocking tonight.” Victoria laughed, knowing that hanging the stockings was Nick’s favorite part of Christmas after decorating the cookies. She knew he was disappointed that the cookies had been ruined, and she hoped to still surprise the family with cookies to decorate, but finding time this close to Christmas would be hard. Nick and Heath both needed to focus on the ranch.

“Stockings. Well why didn’t you say so,” Nick responded enthusiastically. “Where are they? Can we start now?”

“I’ll get them Nick, can you get the nails?”

“Back in a minute with the nails Mother. Want to race?” he cheerfully questioned.

“Can I place a bet on the outcome?” Heath joked.

“Only if the good odds are on Mother, and I get a piece of the action,” Jarrod responded.

Laughing, Victoria and Nick went to perform their tasks, Victoria returning a good five minutes before a wet Nick returned from the work shed. “Well here they are, now where is my stocking?” he said grabbing the pile from Victoria’s hand and locating his.

“Hey sis, here’s yours,” he called tossing it to her. “Mother, Jarrod, yours,” he said again, as he tossed Jarrod’s to him and handed Victoria hers. “And this one must be yours Heath,” he added tossing it to him.

“But I don’t…..” he said bewildered as Victoria said, “You didn’t think we’d let you celebrate Christmas without a stocking did you?”

“I didn’t think,“ he said tilting his head to look at it closely. It was a green satin, the color of the outdoors, and it had a hand embroidered winter scene stitched on the front, of trees, a pond, and a mountain in the background. It was soft, shiny, elegant, and his! As he was examining his stocking, Nick was busy hammering the nails into the holes in the mantlepiece. Heath had always wondered about the holes, but never asked, and now he knew why they were there.

Suddenly, Nick cursed, as he pounded the last nail in the hole. He removed all the nails he just put in. Except for the first one, and started over. It was obvious that he needed to add an extra nail this year and the spacing was off. It didn’t take Nick long to re do the nails and his face looked pleased at his efforts as he placed his stocking on the third peg.

Heath decided to go last. They might just have an order to this and he didn’t want his picked up and moved somewhere else.

Victoria placed her’s on the first nail, and Jarrod placed his between Nick’s and his Mother’s.

Nick said “Go ahead Audra. Hang yours.” when he noticed her confused expression.

“Should I hang mine next to yours Nick, like I always do, or leave a space for Heath since he’s older than me?”

“Birth order, Sis,” Jarrod called. “You know your always last.”

“Jarrod, on second thought, I think I will keep you busy helping me out with the orphanage Christmas plans,” she said taking the last nail in line.

Heath moved up and happily hung his on the only remaining nail. No errors this time.

“Now the home looks finished,” Nick said. “Never feels right to me without the stockings up. I just love Christmas morning. Stockings are the best.”

“You’ve always felt that way, Nick.” Victoria said, smiling happily at her strong son. It was wonderful to see him still enjoy a child’s delight, when he was so focused and serious most of the year. Stuffing his stocking, was always fun for her, as he delighted in every little item. The more she could get in it the happier he was. For some reason, dumping it out, all at once, and seeing the abundance of toys and gifts surround him, gave him immense pleasure. He acted like a little boy just allowed into a candy shop and handed a dollar, picking up first one item, then another, then back again and again. Christmas and stockings equaled Nick.

She looked at her family. Jarrod was pouring drinks for everyone, as he and Nick conversed. Audra had gotten out her needlework, and Heath was quietly sitting on the couch shuffling a deck of cards. She briefly wondered what he was thinking and if she would ever hear about his Christmases, or at least more than bits and pieces. As she stood observing, the room rearranged itself as Nick went and stood by the mantle and Jarrod brought Heath a glass of whiskey as they began to softly converse.

She moved to talk with Nick and thank him for his help with the ornaments.

“You’re welcome Mother,” he responded quietly.

“Is something wrong? You seemed so relaxed a few minutes ago.”

“Just curious. Do you wonder what they are talking about?” he said, inclining his head slightly to indicate Heath and Jarrod.

“I hadn’t given it any thought. I just assumed that it was talk like you and he have, or you and Jarrod do. Why?”

“Really, just curious. Sometimes Heath is so hard to reach, and I wonder if Jarrod has more luck getting information out of him than I do.”

“You and Heath are very close, and get on well.”

“Yes we do, but he doesn’t confide.”

“And you do?”

“Point taken, Mother,” he chuckled.

“Give him time Nick. He’s opening up slowly.”

“I know. Sometimes I just wish he’d talk, you know, not be so quiet, so I knew what he was thinking.”

“Me too, son. Me too.”

As they shared their drink in silence, Jarrod was asking Heath about the stocking and if he liked it. Seeing Heath, earlier, run his hands over the stocking brought back memories of another night, a few weeks ago, when he caught Heath holding the orphans’ stockings late at night.

“Do you like your stocking Heath?”

“Yep.”

“Mother made it for you.”

“Yep.”

There were the one word answers again, and he was tired of them. “Heath, if you’re unhappy, tell me why.” he insisted.

“Jarrod…” he began, then stopped. Jarrod just waited, not saying a word, then ever so quietly he heard Heath say, “Jarrod, I never had a stocking before. Can’t believe I have one now. I think I must be in shock,” he threw in to lighten the moment when he realized what he’d said. Damn Jarrod and his lawyer tricks. He didn’t see how anyone ever beat him in a lawyer case. He could probably get a deaf mute to understand and start talking again, just by looking at him in that lawyerly way of his, and he said as much to Jarrod.

Laughing at the image, Jarrod probed, “No stocking Heath? I don’t understand.”

“Nothing to understand. Let’s pretend I didn’t say anything.”

“If that’s what you want Heath.” he said, wondering if Heath could have been so poor that he didn’t have a stocking, or if Heath was fooling him. Everyone had stockings. “Well this rain has probably really hurt the levees,” he said, changing the subject so Heath would feel more comfortable, and was pleased to see the look of gratitude Heath flashed his way, as he expanded on the new topic.

Before long, Audra called it a night, and everyone else claimed that they should head to bed as well.

Victoria watched as her three sons climbed the stairs, then taking a good long look at the house, dressed in it’s finery for Christmas, she blew out the lamps, and headed to her own room for a restful night filled with pleasant dreams.

*****

Part 4 

 

It wasn’t restful however, and she tossed and turned, not really able to sleep. Her mind was to preoccupied to allow it. Finally deciding that she had enough, she got up, threw on her dressing gown, and went downstairs for a cup of tea. That usually calmed her down. When she reached the kitchen, she put a pot of water on to boil and got out her favorite china cup and saucer. As she waited for the water to boil, she got the sugar and a teaspoon from the drawer, when Silas popped his head out from his room, asking if she needed his help. She said no, and that he should go back to sleep, that she just needed some quiet time. Pouring the water over the tea bag, she stirred in some sugar and waited for it to steep. Realizing that she could drink all the tea in the world and still not go to sleep, she decided to see if Jarrod was up. Being alone wasn’t working. She needed to talk things over with someone, and Jarrod would be her first choice. Often times she was finding that Heath was a good person to talk to when troubled, but he wouldn’t do tonight, as he was indirectly why she was troubled.

Surprised, but thrilled to see the light on in Jarrod’s study, she knocked lightly and then entered when she heard him beckon.

“Mother, what are you doing up? Couldn’t you sleep?” he said laying aside the book he was reading.

“No Jarrod, I couldn’t. What about yourself. You went to bed, I didn’t expect to find you up.”

“One might assume there was a full moon tonight, but you’re right. I couldn’t sleep either.”

“Want to talk about it Jarrod?” Victoria questioned, hoping his problems might take her mind off its troubles for awhile.

“I would like to, but I’m not sure if I should.”

“Is this about a case Jarrod? I didn’t realize you were handling anything specific right now.”

“No Mother, its something I was told, but then asked to forget. It, of course, concerns Heath, and it has me upset, but he did ask that I didn’t mention it.”

‘He actually asked you not to mention it? That doesn’t sound like Heath. More like Nick actually.”

“Well, come to think of it, his exact words were, ‘Lets pretend I didn’t say anything.’ I guess that I can mention it, as technically he didn’t ask that I don’t bring it up.”

“Well Jarrod, what is bothering you that Heath wants forgotten”

“He said he didn’t have a stocking Mother. He tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal, but I could read the sadness in his eyes. You know, I am beginning to notice just how expressive his eyes are.”

“Didn’t have a stocking, Jarrod. How did you get him to admit that. He clams up when asked about his life, and he never tries to say anything about his poverty.”

“It just slipped out. I could tell he was mortified that he’d said it. Do you really think that he meant never? I have a hard time believing he was so poor that he never had a stocking. I know his life wasn’t easy, but to be a child and never have a stocking, I can really not understand. How do we give him what he should have had all along? I feel guilty that we can’t make up for the time he lost, by Father not knowing about him. I’m angry at his mother, for not notifying our father. I don’t want to see him hurt any more. Being powerless to help someone doesn’t sit well with me.”

As Jarrod finished his thoughts, and Victoria began hers, Heath headed toward the open doorway, hoping to find Jarrod up and willing to talk. Approaching the door he heard voices, and he turned to give them their privacy, when the few overheard words stopped him cold.

“Jarrod,” Victoria said, “you must remember that this isn’t our fault any more than it is Heath’s. We are helping him as much as he is allowing us to. Everyone is trying to make him feel part of the holidays. I was feeling guilty over the manger. I didn’t want him there Jarrod. Gosh, but it feels good to have said that to you. I needed to get it out. I am so mixed up. He reminds me so much of Tom, in some ways. Having him here this Christmas is a lot harder than I expected. I didn’t realize that I was as selfish as I am. Oh I love him Jarrod, make no mistake about it, but it would be so much easier if he wasn’t here this Christmas…….”

There it was. What he had been waiting for. It finally happened. He was a burden to the one person that he admired above all others. He vowed he would give her a special present for Christmas. He would give her the gift of his absence. Barely able to return upstairs, as his knees felt too weak to walk, and his heart felt like it would explode in his chest, he stumbled back up the stairs and into his room, closing the door behind him.

“……..I don’t mean that I don’t want him here. I do. You know that this is harder on him than it is on us. I just want to be able to tell him how much he looks like his father, how alike their mannerisms are, and how much I loved his father, your father, my Tom. When I see him, especially right now, during the holidays, that your father loved so much, I miss Tom more than ever. How do you explain to someone, that you love them all the more, for causing you pain. How do I explain to a man that won’t talk, that he is very special. Jarrod, he has been a blessing from the first day he walked in here. Nick depends on him, Audra cherishes him, you gain perspective from him, and I received a son. Another walking reminder of my husband. How could I not want to have included him in the manger?” she said crying.

Moving swiftly to his mother’s side, Jarrod sat next to her, and she leaned into him for strength, understanding, and forgiveness. “Mother, I think you are being too hard on yourself. He doesn’t share everything with us. We don’t need to share everything with him. Father was never included, Heath doesn’t need to be, and I think he would understand.”

“Really, Jarrod? Should I talk to him?”

“If you are this upset, maybe you should, but sleep on it and then make a decision.”

“Jarrod, I have made my decision. I’ll explain next year. I would hate to have him upset by something that is already done, and from his withdrawing, I think that he might already realize that his inclusion didn’t go to well.”

“I think I agree with you. Everyone seemed relieved, even Heath, so I doubt there is anything to worry about.”

“Thank you Jarrod. I imagine I will be able to sleep now.”

“I’ll turn in too. The talk helped me as well. Goodnight Mother.”

“Goodnight Jarrod” she said as she closed the door to her room for the last time that night.

As Jarrod and Victoria fell asleep, Heath planned. He had to make this look good. He couldn’t just walk out. He wasn’t going forever. It just seemed that having him around for the holidays was hard. Leaving for a few days was a small price to pay, for all they did for him. He even had a stocking. Not that he would get to open it, he reminded himself, but he could live with that. If he left early on the twenty forth, and returned on the twenty seventh, that should give them the holiday time they needed.

He just needed a reason to leave that wouldn’t make them suspicious. Finally it came to him. They wouldn’t question him if he said he received a telegram from Rachael and Hannah, asking for help.

They would let him go, knowing that he had no choice. Jarrod was his only snag. He would have to produce a telegram, just in case Jarrod asked to see it, and knowing Jarrod he would. He’d ask George to send it when he visited them tomorrow. That should work well. Finally settling all his plans, he returned to bed, but found sleep a long time in coming.

After a fitful night, he rejoiced in the dawn. Rising as soon as the sun broke, Heath made his way down the backstairs to the kitchen, to find Silas already awake.

“Isn’t this a little early, even for you Silas?” He questioned.

“No sir. Not during the holidays. There is a lot of extra baking to do, and Mrs. Barkley wants to try and re-make the cookies as well, since Mr. Nick is so upset over them being broken. He loves those cookies, and she doesn’t want his Christmas to be a disappointment.”

“I wouldn’t want that either, but then again it might turn out a fine Christmas for them anyway, with or without cookies. I’ll just grab some bread, then be on my way.”

“Mr. Heath, I’ve got raisin bread baking for this morning’s breakfast.”

“Now that is tempting Silas. How long til it’s done?”

“Won’t be ready for a while yet Mr. Heath.”

“Can you save me some? I’ll just grab the bread and go now. There’s lots of work to do,” He said, suiting actions to words, and quickly leaving through the backdoor.

“I’ll sure save some Mr. Heath, but Mrs. Barkley doesn’t like it when her family isn’t together for the meals,” Silas muttered under his breath, then returned to his daily chores.

Just as Silas predicted, the rest of the family was not pleased to learn that Heath had already left and wouldn’t be joining them at the table, but they weren’t really surprised, as Heath consistently rose earlier than all of them.

Nick found Heath by eight thirty, drenched in rain and calf deep in mud and stagnant water near the Turner levee, working hard at restoring it’s crumbling length to a state capable of withholding the pressure of the water it needed to contain, as the rain increased.

“Heath, he hollered to be heard over the roar of the water. Receiving no response, he dismounted and moved to join his brother. “How bad is it?”

“Reckon I’ve seen worse, but it won’t hold if the rain keeps up and the Tuolumne overflows, Nick.”

“Let me give you a hand then, and I’ll get extra men on it after lunch. How do the rest of the trouble spots look?” he asked, knowing that Heath would have already checked.

“Right as rain,” he joked, “unless there is a flash flood we shouldn’t have any trouble with them.”

They worked in companionable silence for over two hours before any real progress was noted, but finally it looked as if the men might once again be winning the battle against the forces of nature. As the eroded area was filled and packed, Nick loosened up.

“Heath, we’re so far behind that I sometimes wonder if we will ever catch up. I never really told anybody that before, but you seem to understand. As much as I love the holidays, I always worry that I’m not spending the time I need doing what needs to be done. Even for a ranching family, they seem to think, what’s a day, or two, or three.”

Nodding in sympathy, Heath confirmed that he understood Nick’s feelings and added, “I admire how you juggle all the ranch work and the family obligations. Guess I haven’t gotten the hang of it yet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, you haven’t gotten the hang of it yet?” Nick asked, secretly thrilled by the compliment.

Heath muttered something that Nick couldn’t make out and started back in on the levee with a vengeance. He worked fast enough for Nick to realize that they were through talking about Heath’s feelings for the day, possibly even the week. Finally in exasperation, Nick glared at his brother.

“Heath, you try and play Samson and Goliath all you want, but I’m hungry. Are you going to lunch, or are you going to build this levee into the Great Wall of China?”

Grinning, Heath said, “Let’s eat.” and the two mounted their horses and slowly made their muddy way home.

Lunch was very lively with everyone talking, and as the noise level grew louder, Heath grew quieter. He was going to miss this. They were so alive. No matter how many times he reminded himself that he would only be gone three days, it still felt like an eternity. All of a sudden his throat started to feel tight. His heart was pounding so hard he felt it would burst from his chest. His eyes wanted to pop from his head, and his hands grasped his legs, under the table, in a death grip. But it was the battle that was going on in his mind that kept him anchored to the spot. Three days Heath, only three days, his rational mind said. But it’s Christmas the cruel voices from his past taunted. It’s only three short days. Christmas alone. Three days, no more. Three days of hell. The sweating increased as the hammering of his heart grew greater. Stop it. It’s only three little days. Three days alone–alone–alone–his mind taunted. There was the feeling again. He couldn’t keep it at bay any longer, but he still needed to hide it.

I’m surrounded by my family. Affection. Warmth. Camaraderie. New family, the feeling cut in. Ornaments, stocking. Colleen, gifts, talks, walks.

There. It passed. The band loosened, he could breathe. In, out, in, out. That wasn’t so hard. God, he hadn’t had an attack like that since shortly after Carterson, but then the stakes hadn’t been so high before either. He could give them space. He couldn’t give them up.

For the first time since joining the Barkleys, Heath was the last one from the table. Somehow the act of getting up brought him closer to leaving. Victoria had looked in on him twice, and asked if he needed to talk once. Silas had cleared all but his plate, which was virtually empty. Finally Nick stormed in saying, “First I had a hard time getting you in here, now you won’t leave. We have work to do and I need you.”

Heath got up. It wasn’t as if his stomach could stand another bite, and no matter what he did, time passed, so working would at least keep his mind busy.

“Nick, what are the afternoon plans?”

“Jason just informed me that the stretch of fence near the gully was out. Knocked out by the cattle again. Let’s go reinforce it.”

Knowing that he needed to keep his mind occupied, and knowing that spending the afternoon with Nick would only increase his thinking about what he was leaving behind, he said “I want to work with the horses. We’ve got five that need to be broke.”

“Fine then, see you at dinner.”

“That reminds me, Nick, Mother, I won’t be here for dinner.”

“Where will you be, dear?” Victoria asked.

“Promised George and Edna I’d spend an evening with them before Christmas. I’m often there Saturday nights so I reckoned it’d be no problem, plus George said his buggy was mired during this last rain storm, and I thought I’d help him get it out. I hate to think of them without easy transportation. They are getting older. Well Nick, let’s get to work.” and the two left, side by side to finish the day, neither relishing their tasks, due to the ever constant rain.

As Victoria picked up her needlework, she thought. Of course George and Edna were getting older, but did Heath realize that he was the son they never had. While being very pleased that he was a kind, generous person, when he spoke of spending time with them, it hurt, and the emotion, although she was loathe to admit it, was jealously. Jealously seemed to be her cross to bear. While she didn’t think that others recognized it as an emotion that often got to her. She wasn’t jealous of others property or good fortune, but she did feel that she was jealous. When Nick had been seeing Layal, and spent so much time with her, she missed him. When Audra was involved with Cole Nichols, and spent their embroidery afternoons out on picnics , she missed her. Even Jarrod, and all the time he spent in San Francisco and Stockton caused her to miss him greatly. Now her new son was gone. She missed him. Sitting there thinking made her realize something that she had overlooked before. Maybe it wasn’t jealously , but rather loneliness, she feared. Tom’s death had left her desolate and lonely. Losing her children to life; husbands and wives, children, jobs, while knowing she would be proud, caused her to admit she was scared. She didn’t just want to be someone they visited as need necessitated, but wanted to be fully involved in her children’s lives, and that of her grandchildren, while not being a bother, or busy body to any of them.

In light of her depressing thoughts, she realized that all of her children were gone. She packed up her work and ventured outside to watch Heath work with the horses. He would be the only one close enough to the house for her to observe. Audra was at the orphanage, Jarrod rode to town for a brief visit, and Nick was at the gully. Making her way to the corral, she watched the men cheer as Heath worked on breaking a buckskin mustang with black stockings, mane and tail. What a beauty, Victoria thought as she stepped up to the corral fence.

Seeing her, Heath smiled and nodded before refocusing on his ride. It didn’t take long for him to be thrown, but he was up just as quickly for another go. A few more identical incidents passed before, at last the mare surrendered to his strong handling.

Heath trotted the mare over to her side. “Mother, he said, grinning, come to see me get coated in mud?”

“I must say that you do seem to be wearing a lot of it this time.”

“It’s the rain. It the army contract weren’t so specific, I’d wait for clear weather and a chance for the ground to dry out, but then again at least falling in the mud is soft.,” he chuckled. “I’m finished here. That’s the last horse. Will you allow a muddy cowboy to escort you back home?”

“I’d love that,” she said, extending her hand, as he effortlessly vaulted the fence.

The two were heading indoors when Jarrod pulled up in the buggy, Audra by his side, and Silver tied behind.

“Jarrod, Audra, how did you two ever end up together?” Victoria questioned.

“Just doing a good deed Mother. ” Jarrod said, helping Audra from the buggy.

Audra said, “Yes Mother, Jarrod stopped by the orphanage to help me read to the children. They love hearing a man read to them. It’s a welcome change for them, then he brought me home so I wouldn’t get wet.”

“Yes, I am a knight in shining armor,” Jarrod joked.

Heath added, “Well Jarrod, if you don’t get out of this rain your armor will tarnish.” and laughing they all made their way indoors, and up to their rooms to change.

Nick was just entering for the evening as Heath prepared to leave. Throwing his hat on the table, he announced “If this rain keeps up Heath, we can kiss those orchards goodbye.”

“I’m concerned too, Nick. Did you ride by and look at them?”

“The trees are standing in two inches of water. The roots will rot if it doesn’t dry out soon. Where are you going, Heath?” he asked noting that Heath was putting on his slicker and hat.

“I told you at lunch. I’m off to George and Edna’s tonight.”

“Oh Heath, Audra said, not tonight. I was looking forward to beating you at cards again. You seem distracted today. I only win when you’re distracted.”

“Then it’s my good fortune that I’m goin’ “ he grinned, at her downcast expression. “Night all.”

A chorus of goodnights reached his ears as he closed the door behind him. Taking time to spend a few minutes with Charger before saddling Gal, Heath left, excited about seeing George and Edna, but despising the idea of another drenching. The fireplace had looked so cheerful, and the rain so loathsome, he almost stayed.

He was happy he hadn’t when he saw George peering through he window while pretending not to be looking for him. Before he could reach the door, Edna had thrown it open and said “Come inside and warm up Heath.”

“I’d love to Edna, but if George still wants that wagon out of the mud I’d rather get that done before I get dry and comfortable.”

“I see your point” she laughed.

George said, “I’ll get my coat. It’ll just take me a minute.”

Heath had barely exchanged a simple how have you been with Edna, before George was back, looking like he could take on a monsoon. He had on rain boots, two slickers that Heath could see, and a large hat.

“Guess you don’t intend on getting wet today, George.”

“Rain’s tiresome. It won’t get me though. Come on, let’s get moving.”

Winking to Edna, who collapsed in giggles, Heath said, “You’re right. What are we waiting for?” and headed back outside to Gal.

“No need to ride boy, the wagon’s not far.” George said, stomping off past the barn. When Heath arrived at his side, he was hard pressed not to laugh out loud. The wagon was only ten feet behind the barn. How had George gotten it stuck there? The land on either side was still firm enough to support the wagons weight.

“How did the wagon end up here, George?”

“Well, it was the damndest thing. It’d okay with you if I say damndest isn’t it? Edna would kill me so I save them up and use them when I can.” Seeing Heath smile, George said, “I knew you wouldn’t mind. Anyway, I was backing it out of the barn with the horses and I pulled right on the reins, but the dang horses went right, driving my wagon straight into the mud. What do you say, Heath. Can we get it out tonight?”

“No problem. Why don’t you go inside and get dried off while I take care of this. Should only take a few minutes, then I can use your room and not drip all over while you clean up first. Edna hates to have water all over her floors.”

Knowing Edna and the potentially resulting words over her having to re-clean a non‑necessary mess, had George agreeing hastily. Heath returned to Gal and brought her around to the side of the barn, chucking as he explained the situation to her. “Gal, he pulled right, and was surprised that the wagon went right. I really wonder how they survived all these years out here. Anyway, the long and short of it is, we gotta get his wagon out of the mud. You know girl, I’m sick of mud!”

Once again using his rope and Gal’s pommel, he secured the free end to the wagon, and then with a very repulsed look at the mud, waded his way in and stepped behind the front wheel. Bracing his legs and maneuvering his shoulder behind the front wheel, he grasped the side of the wagon firmly and said, “Now, Gal. Pull!”, and began heaving at the same time. As Gal strained, Heath increased the pressure as he heard the first sucking sounds, that signaled the imminent release of, at least, the front end. As it came clear, he moved back a few steps to help speed up the back ends removal as Gal increased her pulling as the resistance lessened. Finally, with a loud, wet, sucking sound, the wagon pulled free. They kept it moving and in a few seconds it was again resting on the harder packed earth. Pleased that it hadn’t taken longer than he expected, he decided to let the rain clean the caked on mud.

“Good girl, Gal.” he said gently, as he walked her back to the tree covered area near the front door. “This should help keep you dry. I promise you a good rub down tonight. You’ve earned it.” he told her as he once again moved to enter their home. Taking a quick look downward, he decided that retracing his steps would be a better idea as he moved to their pump. He thoroughly drenched his legs, from the knees down, rinsing off what would have dried to be layers of mud. At least he was only wet, not wet and muddy. Again he moved to the house, but as he neared he thought about their presents in the barn. No Heath, go in and get warm, and have some dinner, he lectured himself. A quick dash to the barn later will be fine. As he drew near a beckoning light welcomed him inside and he was touched that George had opened the door and was watching his approach.

“Well?” he said roughly.

“She’s out George. I’m letting the rain wash the mud off. I’ll take her into the barn before I head home.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it, just let me at Edna’s cooking,” he called, loud enough for her to hear him.

“It’s ready Heath,” she said, her voice getting louder as she neared the door. Taking one look at him, she shook her head and said,”Take off those boots young man. Wet pants are one thing, but wet boots on my floor, are another. Now I’ve got…….”

“Uh, Ma’am if…..”

“Heath!” she scolded, “I told you months ago if you ma’amed me again I’d let you go hungry, so you better try again and call me Edna. You’re not upset are you?”

No ma’a….uh.Edna, I’m not upset,” he grinned, “it’s just that if I take off my boots, I’ll like to never get ‘em on again.”

“Fine, fine, leave them on, but don’t put your feet up on the table.”

Rolling his eyes as he entered, she lightly punched his arm and said, “I saw that young man. Now let’s eat. As I was saying, I made you roast potatoes, baked chicken, those little carrots that you like, and bread. Think that will fill you up?”

“Yes Ma’a……..Edna, and I’m right looking forward to it.”

George and Heath seated themselves at her table and she served all of them a generous portion of the meal. George was telling Heath about some hunting he wanted to do , so Edna decided to let her mind wander. Heath was smiling. Heath’s tone sounded light and happy, but he was troubled. He hadn’t used Ma’am in months, and she hadn’t heard him slip back into his childhood language patterns in months either. When he told her of his childhood was really the only time she ever heard him speak in what she liked to call, his back woods talk, but here it was again. Thinking as hard as possible, she could not come up with a reason for his being uncomfortable, that was out of the ordinary, but she did reason out two things.

They didn’t see as much of him as they used to, which meant that they treasured his visits all the more, and that she wasn’t really much good at thinking through peoples problems. She preferred to take life as it came, one joyous moment to the next. Her round face etched into a happy smile, she decided that no matter what Victoria said about letting Heath find a girl on his own, he needed a wife. That was it. A wife would make him happy.

“What George?” Edna said, looking confused. “Were you talking to me?”

The two men traded amused glances as George replied, “I asked if we were going to get dessert, or if we had to wait until you finished. Doesn’t look like you’re hungry.”

“Guess I’m not, but give me a minute and I’ll get the fruitcake.”

“Let me help you clear the table.” Heath said, as he stacked the dishes and took them to the sideboard.

“No need to help Heath, I can get it,” Edna began.

“No problem, I can at least help a bit. I haven’t seen enough of you lately. This gives me a few extra minutes.” he said, smiling at her.

“Well then, why don’t you carry out the cutting knife and plates, and I’ll bring the cake,” she said, as she handed him the items.

Heath set the table, and took the time that Edna was in the kitchen to say, “George, I have another favor to ask of you. Can we talk later, without Edna hearing?”

“How about now?” “ Edna” he called, “Heath and I are going to have a drink out on the porch. We will be in for fruitcake in a minute.” George poured two whiskeys and opened the door, as Heath moved to follow him outside. Never one to beat around the bush, George said, “Now what is it you need, boy?”

“Would you mind riding to Modesto and sending a telegram for me on the twenty second. I have it written out for you,” Heath said pressing the note and a few coins in George’s hand, to cover the cost.

“Let me take look at it,” he said, as he unfolded the note. Reading he saw:

 

To: Heath Barkley

Stockton–Barkley ranch

Rachael is sick. Please come.

Hannah

 

“I don’t understand Heath,” George said, as he looked at Heath’s trembling hands.

“I’m not asking you to understand, just to do me the favor. And don’t tell Edna.” Heath responded, very quietly.

“I’m not sure that I like it, but I‘m not sure why. I’ll do it for you though. I owe you that much.”

A huge grin of relief appeared on Heath’s face and George was certain that something was going on. He just wasn’t sure that he wanted to know what. Deciding to just do as he was asked, he said “Heath, shall we go in and have that fruitcake?”

“Sure sounds good to me.” Heath responded, in a contented tone, and George was glad to see that he had eased Heath’s mind.

“Edna, were coming in. Hope that cake is ready.” George called, to allow Edna time to get away from the door. Heath may not be aware of it, but his wife was a snoop. He was sure she had heard everything, including Heath’s, “don’t tell Edna,” and he also knew he would have to tell her tonight, but Heath didn’t need to know. Why should he have his night ruined.

When the were again seated at the table, Edna cut the homemade fruitcake, and they all ate large pieces as they talked about the weather, and the upcoming holiday. Edna and George told Heath all about their Christmases, including the one they spent huddled together in an old abandoned barn. According to Edna, if George had known that the area was prone to flash floods they would have been home, safe and warm, but instead they got caught out in a storm their first year here. They had to make a quick run to higher ground, and were pleased to even find an abandoned barn. To hear her tell it, they didn’t dry out until the New Year.

Heath figured that if anyone would get stuck outdoors in a flood it would be George. As he listened to them he felt warmed by them sharing their memories, and decided it was time for him to give them their gifts. “George, Edna, I think that I will go bring the wagon in for the night. I need to work off some of this food. It was so wonderful that I ate too much. I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Want company?” George questioned.

“No, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take care of this myself.” Heath said.

George, seeing the scheming look in Heath’s eye, relented gracefully. “Hurry back in, when we were out earlier it didn’t look like the rain was letting up any.”

“I’ll make it as fast as possible. I really don’t relish another drenching.” Heath said ,opening the door, and moving into the night. He hurriedly pulled the wagon, on squeaky wheels, into the shelter of the barn. After listening to it, he knew that he couldn’t leave it for George in this state. He quickly gathered some sand paper and oil, then went to work removing the rust and oiling the joints. The more he worked, the more he realized that the entire wagon needed to be refinished. He added that to his list of chores for the near future, then quickly grabbed his gifts for them and concealing them behind his back, he headed back inside.

They heard the door open, and expected to hear it close, but when they didn’t, both turned and looked to find Heath standing in the doorway wearing a look of anticipation.

“Heath, come in here. I made coffee.” Edna said going to get the coffee, while wondering what he was playing at.

“Uh, could you both just stay in here?” he asked. “I have a little something for you, uh…for Christmas.”

“Heath, you shouldn’t have,” they both echoed, as their faces took on the same look as Heath’s, one of eager anticipation.

“Uh, I’m not really sure how to do this, and I didn’t wrap them..” he said, as he moved behind the couch and put them both down so they were hidden from view. “Edna, this is for you” he said, head down, face turning red, as he handed her a cherry spice cabinet.

Taking it from his outstretched hands, she marveled over the work that obviously went into the piece. She would treasure it always, since he made it, but it was also a piece of beauty that would be very attractive in her kitchen, and help contain the bottles she was always complaining about. It was rectangular in shape with hinged doors that closed in the middle. He had carved the front to make it look like there were three panels and had secured knobs in the middle of each of the squares. A top was extended over the cabinet and rounded to soften its look. He had carved a beautiful tree branch with a robin sitting on it, as a decoration. When she opened the two doors, she noted that the inside was partitioned into three shelves, corresponding perfectly with the outside carving. Each shelf looked like it was the exact size needed to house her riot of spice bottles.

In amazement, she said, “Heath I have a million questions. Okay, just a few actually. Where do I begin? Let’s see, first, how did you make this when I wasn’t looking? As you know, I snooped, and I never found this. Second, how did you get the sizes right? Third, how did you know that this was what I needed more than anything? Fourth, how did you know that a robin is my favorite bird? Fifth, where did you learn to carve so well? Given a few minutes I am sure I will have more questions.”

Raising his hands in surrender at the onslaught of questions hurled his way, he laughed and tried to reply. “ Edna, I know that the robin is your favorite because you told me about the one that sat outside your window when you were a little girl. I measured the spice bottles one night when I came for dinner and offered to go get the coffee. I knew you needed it because you tell me every time we clear up, that you have no room thanks to the little bottles cluttering everything up. And for the question that you really want answered, I hadn’t started your gift when I caught you snooping, so I dug a hole in the barn, and basically made a trap door. I kept your gift in there, and slid Jarrod’s on top before I left each time. You never found my hiding spot.”

“Are you gloating, Heath?”

“Yes, I think I am,” he said, once again allowing laughter to overtake him. She looked so put out at having been tricked.

“Now George, I have one for you,” Heath said, handing over a sturdy looking hand held tool box.

“Unable to say anything at all, George just held it tight and looked at Heath. Finally with Edna’s prodding, he said, “I never had anything like this before.”

Heath knew that the statement was accurate, and smiled but managed to stop the snicker that wanted to escape his lips. The number of times he had prayed that George would have something as useful as a tool box was innumerable. “It should make things easier,” he said, flashing a quick smile at Edna. Heath had told her about George’s gift, to keep her from thinking about what he was making her.

“Think we could have that game of cards now,” he asked, as the silence lengthened.

“No, I don’t Heath,” Edna said. “ I need to cover the fruitcake first, then we can play. You can talk to George while you wait.”

Heath took his customary seat, still overcome by emotion. Colleen, and George and Edna were his first real attempts at gift giving, and they all seemed to be happy with their presents. He had done just fine, and hoped that the family would like theirs as much. He intended to give everybody his presents when he returned from his stay at the line shack.

George, on the other side of the room was as overwhelmed as Heath was. Edna and he exchanged gifts, but he never thought that he would receive a gift from Heath. He shouldn’t have been surprised, he reasoned, as Heath was a very considerate boy. He didn’t need to come over and help them, and he didn’t need to stop by just to talk once in awhile. But getting a gift, was like having a son, who cared about him and thought about him enough to really take his own time to show he cared. While Heath was working on his gift, he had to have been thinking about him, and using his time, just for him. He felt as special as the night Edna agreed to marry him. Heath was the second best thing in his life, and he loved him.

“Uh…Heath?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks again,” he said sticking out his hand and shaking Heath’s. He was surprised when Heath pulled him to his feet and gave him a very, very brief one armed hug. He sat back down, thrilled that now, both he and Edna had received hugs from this man they thought of as their son. He was also amused to see that Heath’s face was beet red and pointed directly at the floor. This boy, had as hard a time showing emotion as he himself did. What would they do, when Edna returned with their gift, to him.

It only took a second for him to answer the question as Edna re-entered the room at that moment, saying, “Heath, we would like you to open this. It’s our Christmas gift to you. I would have liked to give it to you on Christmas, but as you will be at home, I think tonight will be as good as any. I was thinking that if you took it over to…………”

“For God’s sake Edna, let him open it.” George said, winking at Heath.

Heath took the parcel and held it on his lap, just marveling that he was holding a gift that was to be his. It was about 2 feet square and maybe eight inches high. Looking up and seeing them nod he removed the string that held the lid closed and lifted off the top. His eyes grew wide as his hand reached in and felt the knitted sweater, that he knew Edna had made him. Pulling it from the box, he was startled when another object fell out and landed at his feet on the floor. Bending to pick it up, he grasped a deep walnut, heavy, wooden, pocket knife. Looking up questioningly, he glanced first at Edna, then at George.

George, realizing that Heath couldn’t ask what he wanted to know, supplied his own answers to the unspoken questions.

“Heath, the knife is mine. It’s a good whittling knife. You may have guessed that my talents don’t really lie with woodworking, and I think we can safely say that you are handy with knives and tools.”

“George tell him….”

“I am if you will be quiet.”

“Heath, the knife has a history. It belonged to my grandfather. His name was George, and it was his thirteenth birthday gift. It was the best knife that could be bought in this country at that time. He used it, which you can tell, as the blade has been sharpened a lot. He passed it to my father, who is also a George, for his thirteenth birthday. My father, a shop keeper in Bangor, couldn’t do anything with wood, and I seem to have inherited his talent along with the knife. Nothing would make me happier than having you carry it and use it as my grandfather did. A knife should be used. I don’t have a son to hand it on to, so I hope you will accept it. It would make me proud to know that you were using a knife that belonged to me.”

Blinking his eyes he laid the knife on the sofa beside him and once again picked up the sweater. Pulling it over his head, he remarked that it was a perfect fit. It was a cream colored hand worked cable knit that would keep him very warm for years to come.

“George, Edna, I don’t know how to thank you enough. You’ve both done so much for me…”he trailed off. “I……..” he tried again.

“We understand, Heath,” Edna smiled, thrilled by his reaction. “Can I have a hug?”

“I can do that.” he smiled, rising and locking her in his hard embrace.

Playfully swatting his back she said,” Okay Heath, let me go. You’ll make me blush as much as you are.” she teased.

As he released her he shook George’s hand, while trying to keep the lump in his throat from growing any larger. “How about that card game now?” he suggested, desperate to divert attention from his inability to adequately express himself.

“Great idea,” George added, feeling the same.

The three of them sat for the next hour and played poker. It was a real treat. Edna had never played before and was thrilled to learn. She kept commenting how it made her feel like she knew a secret that was usually reserved for males only. When the game broke up, Heath, despite trying to lose, was ahead by thirty five matches. Edna laughingly insisted that he keep his spoils, as George once again rolled his eyes at her perpetually lighthearted manner.

Pocketing the prized knife, and still wearing the sweater she knit for him, Heath bid them a happy Christmas and an affectionate goodnight, before he closed the door behind him. Mounting Gal, he turned once more and saw that the door was open and they were watching him ride off. It was a comforting feeling, and he was even more pleased to hear them say “Thank you, Heath. We’ll see you soon.”

Returning to his home, he once again, thanked God for George and Edna. They had both helped him when he needed it, although in different ways, making his first few months easier to bear. They were still giving, and the presents he took home proved it. To date, they were the first actual presents he had ever received, and he was grateful that he was with them, and not the Barkleys when he opened his first real gift. He would have been mortified to have dropped the knife on the floor, in front of his family. He assumed they would have known that another present might have been in the box, and he could see each of them, masterfully sliding their hand around to check, before removing whatever the item was. There was another lesson learned. This year was full of lessons, and he was enjoying them, despite the discomfort.

Edna was pestering George the entire time Heath was riding home to tell her what was in the note Heath handed him. Knowing that she would eventually work it out of him, he gave in and told her that Heath wanted him to send a telegram. When she asked what it said, he tried to be evasive, but again, she was too persistent for him and he let her read the entire thing. He was glad that he had given in, when she snuggled up to him in bed that night, and spoke of Heath. He was often in their thoughts at night, but they were rarely spoken out loud. Tonight they talked of his talents, the wonderful gifts he had made them, and their joy at his happiness.

Heath was unaware of their thoughts as he stabled Gal and gave her the brushing he promised. Then after checking on Charger, he crept into the house and upstairs to his room, where he removed the sweater and set the knife on his dresser. What a fine night, he thought as he climbed into bed and fell asleep.

As always, on the days he had breakfast with the family, rather than leaving earlier, Heath was struck with how early the whirlwind of activity began. Already he could hear Silas preparing the table, and he cursed inwardly, knowing that the raisin bread, while it would be there today, had been fresh the day before. Audra could be heard descending the stairs, and speaking to their Mother about a dance she had been invited to. Nick was pacing, he smiled. He truly had no way of knowing this for sure, but it fit. The meal wasn’t served, as they all weren’t assembled, and with the ladies talking, Nick would be left to cool his heels. Nick sure hated that, he thought as the half smile turned into a grin.

Shrugging into his shirt, he picked up the pocketknife and slipped it into his pants pocket, replacing his worn knife. He headed for the door then turned around and decided he would wear his new sweater as well. He was headed for the stairs, when he heard Jarrod’s door open behind him.

“Wait, Heath,” he heard Jarrod call, and stopped, as his brother caught up.

“Do you have a busy day today Jarrod?”

“Not to rough. I thought I would finish up that proposal to the land commission, then just take it easy.” he smiled, as he watched Heath think of a comeback.

“Why don’t you go over the books, with all that spare time you have brother, or perhaps help Audra in one of her charitable deeds.” came the quick rejoinder.

“Actually, I am going to do the household accounts today Heath. That should keep me busy, and dry, the entire afternoon.”

“Now just how did you say one went about getting a job like yours?” Heath remarked, slapping him on the back in a friendly manner.

“First there are the years of education, then…..”

“Now I remember why I like rain,” Heath teased, as they joined the others for breakfast.

Taking his place at the head of the table, Jarrod was surprised to hear Audra say, “Heath, I don’t think I have seen that sweater before. Is it new. You look really nice in it. I bet some of my friends……..”

As she continued to prattle, Victoria, along with the rest of the family looked at Heath and remarked on the sweater as well.

“Now when did you go and get that Heath?” Nick questioned. “It’s not fair that you got some time in town, and I didn’t.” he grumped, all of a sudden realizing that he had shopping to do.

Looking slightly embarrassed at the attention, but desperately wanting to show off his gift, Heath said “Isn’t it nice. I got it from Edna last night. They gave it to me for Christmas. What do you think?”

Victoria thought it was charming, how, with each word he uttered, he sounded more and more like a happy schoolboy. “I bet she made that herself. The cable stitching is superb. Did you know, that up until two years ago she won the county fair each and every year for her knitting. You should be very honored.” she said, trying to add to his pleasure.

“Well you can’t wear it out to work today,” Nick remarked. “It will get ruined by the rain. Save it for the next dance we have in town.”

“Oh yes, I was thinking the same thing. I know my friends will find it attractive on you,” Audra said, slyly.

Audra’s comment caused Victoria to smile, as she realized this was probably Edna’s plan. She didn’t think Edna agreed that Heath’s dating habits should be left alone, and was probably lining up girls to throw at him, as he sat here, in the new sweater. The color was handsome on him. He really was a very good looking young man. Colleen would have her hands full when the rest of the ladies realized that she had been snared by Heath. It would raise his credibility as a man to be fought over and they would probably vie for him until the date was set, and Victoria had no doubt that the date would be set.

That raised a second question. What were Heath’s Christmas plans for Colleen. She doubted that he would have none. Since he was the only child of hers that was currently involved in a serious relationship, she couldn’t really have a party and invite all their companions. Also this was even more complicated, as she still didn’t think Heath had told anyone about the two of them. She vowed to get him to herself, and question him before the week was up.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Audra, asking if she would go with her to make some deliveries.

“I think that would be a wonderful diversion today,” Victoria answered her daughter. “I can be ready in half an hour. Will that suit you?”

“Perfectly Mother, and thank you. I really didn’t want to go alone. The weather is to dismal to be out in by myself.”

“Well Heath and I have to get moving, as soon as we get done with breakfast,” Nick remarked. “We talked about it last night and think there is a way to drain the orchards, but, it will keep us out all day, so don’t expect us for lunch either.”

“Shall I have Silas pack sandwiches for your saddlebags?” Victoria asked.

“Don’t relish soggy bread, and doubt we’ll have time to eat anyway, do you Nick?” Heath said, munching his way through a big slice of raisin bread.

“No I don’t,” Nick replied through a mouthful of eggs. “We’ll just have to make breakfast last,” and he helped himself to another huge helping of steak and eggs, as the rest of the family looked on in awe.

“If you will excuse me, I’ll just go get ready, Audra.” Victoria said, making her way from the table to the stairs.

“We should head out too, Nick”

“Coming, just let me finish this steak,” Nick replied taking a last bite before also rising and heading for the door.

Grimacing, both brothers looked at the blanket of rain, and the endless gray skies.

“Why even bother with the slickers?” Nick fumed, as Heath passed his over. “We’ll be wet before we reach the barn.”

“Let’s go then,” Heath said, ducking his head against the onslaught, and making his way into the rain, as Jarrod laughed and said, “I don’t envy you your task, Nick.”

“Me either,” he threw back, as he moved after Heath, his prediction correct. He was drenched before he was even halfway to the barn.

Both men, wanting nothing more than to stay inside, worked furiously. Along with three ranch hands, they dug furrows that led to a lower patch of ground, in an attempt to create enough drainage to stop the tree roots from rotting. Hoping to make as much progress as possible before the day ended, they didn’t stop for lunch, and were thoroughly exhausted, drenched, and irritable by late afternoon. It didn’t help that while it looked like the almond grove would make it, the ground around the peaches had turned spongy, not just muddy. They were probably too late, but still they had pushed, feeling irritated at working for what was probably an expensive losing battle.

Victoria and Audra, faced the rain with trepidation as well, but made their way to the buggy Ciego had brought around, and headed to town.

“What errands do you need to run Audra?”

“I’m picking up some material that came in at the mercantile. Then I am stopping by Helen’s to drop off the stockings. She is taking them to Father Fernando tomorrow, so he will be prepared by Christmas morning. The next stop is Colleen’s to pick up the sheet music I need for Christmas eve mass. Last I need to stop briefly by the livery. They have the most adorable stray dog, and I thought we could keep it,” she said hesitantly, knowing that once her Mother saw him, she wouldn’t refuse.

“Audra, another stray?”

“Just wait until you see him to make up your mind. Please?”

Smiling Victoria said, “Of course we’ll take the dog, Audra” and was rewarded with a smile in return, and a “Thank you Mother. I’m really glad you came with me.”

Pulling up to the mercantile, Victoria looped the reins over the hitching post and the ladies made their way inside.

“Audra! Good morning. Mrs. Barkley, I wasn’t expecting you.” Thelma said. “Did you come to pick up….”

“Yes, yes I did. The material that came in,” Audra said, just a little bit to quickly.

Victoria was sure she was getting a Christmas gift or two as well. Deciding to give her daughter the time she needed, Victoria walked to the books that were on display, and spying one she thought Jarrod would like, she purchased it, after Audra had concluded her business, and had her parcels wrapped.

Thanking Thelma, and stowing their packages in the buggy, they went to Helen’s, dropped off the stockings, and after a fifteen minute chat with the woman Jarrod showed more than a passing interest in, they made their way to Colleen’s house. Audra was surprised when her mother announced that she would not be going inside with her, preferring to stay in the buggy. Finally, but not without a little bit of cajoling, Audra agreed and went to the door alone. Mrs. Mary McDougal answered the door, and spying Victoria, ushered Audra inside, then hastily donned her cape, rushed to the buggy, and insisted Victoria come in for a quick cup of tea, while the girls chatted. Knowing that she had no choice but to agree, unless she wanted to appear downright rude, Victoria capitulated, and sullenly entered, ahead of Mary. Taking a seat in the parlor, she graciously commented that the house looked lovely, as Mary brought out the tea. Victoria, then, hearing the girls giggling in the back room, steeled herself for a long tedious visit.

Mary McDougal chatted happily to Victoria as she sat, not picking up on her quietness as a sign of irritation. Finally as Victoria added as little to the conversation as possible, Mary asked, “Victoria, you are quiet today. Is anything amiss?”

“No Mary. Just tired of rain.”

“Isn’t that the truth. I was telling Heath, just yesterday, that I wasn’t sure the rain would ever quit.”

Bewildered, Victoria said, “Heath was here?”

“Oh my yes. He came to give Colleen her Christmas present. I must say he is a pleasant young man.” she gushed, acting like she and Heath were close friends.

Trying to make sense of what she was hearing, Victoria said firmly, “You made it clear at the harvest festival that he wasn’t someone you would like Colleen to see.”

“That was before I realized he was such a pleasant young man,” she said, trying to hide her disgust at the way he had just barged into their home, leaving her with no choice but to be polite, or lose her daughter. “My daughter seems very taken with him.”

“They make a nice couple,” Victoria answered, thawing slightly and virtually desperate to question Heath closely, but, within two minutes the need to question Heath was no longer there, as Mary continued, “I must say I was quite surprised that Colleen would go against my wishes. I had no idea until yesterday that Colleen and Heath were seeing each other. Children. I was so angry with Colleen, going behind my back, and seeing Heath. Well you understand how I felt, my Colleen with Heath, but Colleen is very strong willed and she seems to really enjoy Heath’s company, so I decided to give him a chance, and he acquitted himself quite well.” she added primly.

“Realizing that Mary was not being completely honest, Victoria pressed for more information and Mary said in a quiet but conspiratol whisper, “Whether he is exactly what I would hope for Victoria, he makes my daughter happy, and as a mother, you know, that is what is important. Colleen is happier than I have seen her in years.”

“But you’re still not pleased?” she pressed further, unwilling to relent, such was her anger over Mary’s previous treatment of her son.

Realizing that she, somewhere along the line, offended Victoria about her son’s parentage, she decided to be completely honest. “Victoria, No matter what I’ve said or done in the past, I will do anything not to lose my daughter. If she likes Heath, then Heath must be a wonderful man and that is going to have to be good enough for me.”

“He is wonderful.” Victoria declared, and not just because Colleen likes him. Thawing slightly at Mary’s honesty, if not particularly liking her reasoning, Victoria then changed the subject a bit by asking, “Heath has been a little closed mouth. What did he give Colleen, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Not at all Victoria, let me show you.” she said leading Victoria to their tree, where her eyes were drawn to a lovely wooden ornament.

“You have good taste, Victoria. That is Heath’s gift to Colleen. Magnificent isn’t it?” she added as Victoria allowed the delicate ornament to turn in her fingers.

“I had no idea.” she muttered to herself, entranced that her quiet, often sullen son, could hide a gift and a talent, but she knew at once he had made it. It was one of a kind and obviously made from love. A she continued to contemplate the ornament, noting the angel’s likeness to Colleen, the two girls returned and she let it drop from her fingers, and nestle back in its spot in the trees branches.

“Goodbye Audra, Mrs. Barkley,” Colleen said, as Mary opened the door and handed them their wraps

“Goodbye,” Audra called, holding her sheet music and stepping outside.

Victoria, glancing one more time at the tree, started as Colleen drew near and whispered, “Its lovely isn’t it? I’m glad you had a chance to see it. I’ve wanted to share it with you. Have a safe trip,” she added in a louder tone, as Victoria joined Audra in the buggy and headed for the livery.

“Mr. Carlson,” Audra called, dashing inside, “Where is he?”

“He’s over here Audra. Have you picked out a name?” Mr. Carlson asked.

Scooping the small dog up, Audra announced, “I was thinking Puddles, since were having so much rain. Isn’t he adorable, Mother?”

Reveling in the excitement in her daughter’s tone, Victoria replied, “Adorable Audra. Let’s get him home. Good day Mr. Carlson. I hope the rain isn’t upsetting business any.”

“Not much Mrs. Barkley. Just less travelers, so there is less work. But the Mrs. thinks this is a good thing and I find myself agreeing with her. You two have a good day.” he said, returning to his work, but looking back over his shoulder, as Audra kept the puppy warm all the way to the buggy. Yes, that pup would have a good home. Audra had such a kind heart. It wouldn’t be much longer before she made some lucky man very happy, Mr. Carlson mused.

By dinner the men had cleaned up and regained some semblance of polite behavior while Audra and Victoria told them all about the morning. When Silas announced dinner, Victoria again, selected Heath as her escort, leaving a puzzled Jarrod to follow in her wake. On the way in Victoria quietly told Heath, “Colleen has a very lovely hand carved ornament and I hear you are the man she is thanking for it.”

As the crimson stained his face, he replied, “Reckon so, how did you find out?”

“Surprisingly Heath, after having a talk with Mary, she pointed it out to me. I am pleased she is coming around. She is a hard woman to avoid, and that was my intention, as long as she was opposed to you.”

As the red once again crept up his face, he said, “You would have done that for me?”

“Do you really need to ask, Heath?” came her quick reply, followed by, “You are adorable when you blush.”

At these words, even his ears darkened, and she laughed playfully, as he seated her. The rest of the family commented on his reddened appearance, wanting to know what words were exchanged, but Victoria kept them at bay, and eventually the talk turned to other matters, but Heath remained flushed throughout the dinner, and it grew more pronounced as his mother periodically took the time to wink at him, when no one was watching.

Heath didn’t believe he would welcome another trip into the rain, but decided he really needed some fresh air to cool of. Over dessert Heath said, “Despite the weather, I’m going for a ride after dinner. Anyone want to come along?”

Four shocked faces turned to him in amazement.

Finally Nick broke the silence with, “You’re saying you want company?”

“Is that so odd?”

“Yes!” all four responded at once.

Flushing again, and ritualistically raising and lowering his fork, with a plink, Heath admitted, “Yep. I guess it is. Reckon I’ll need to change that some. I uh…enjoy your company. Should probably make a point of spending more time with you.”

Victoria and Jarrod both understood what the admission had cost him, opening up a small part of himself to possible hurt and rejection. As Victoria sat, as pleased as could be, Jarrod, unable to contain his enthusiasm, stood and said, “I haven’t had enough rain, being cooped up inside. I would be glad to join you. Let’s ride.”

“Do you think he could finish his fruit first?” Audra laughed, thrilled to see that Heath was asking for company and that she wasn’t being excluded. “If you’re up to it Heath, I’d love to show you Puddles.”

“Puddles!” Nick said, incredulously. “Have you lost what little mind you possess? All Heath and I do, day in and day out, is contend with puddles.”

Seeing their bewilderment, Audra realized that she hadn’t told them that they had a new puppy. “I guess I forgot to tell you that we have a new member in the family. His name is Puddles, and he was a stray that the livery owner found. We brought him home today.”

“I’d love to see your dog.” Heath said. “I’ll meet you after the ride.”

“Why don’t you show us all now, Audra.” Nick remarked.

Although she wanted to spend some time alone with Heath, she realized that Nick once again needed to be included, so she answered, “That sounds like a great idea. Let’s go now. The puppy is so sweet. A black and white mix. I thought I’d make him a bow for Christmas.”

“He sounds lovely,” Jarrod said, more to still her chatter, than anything else.

“Puddles!” Audra called. “Come out Puddles. See, there he is. Isn’t he adorable?”

Stooping and letting the little dog lick his hand, Jarrod said, “Audra, If I were a stray, I would hope you found me.”

“I think I would agree with that comment.” Nick concurred.

“As the resident stray,” Heath laughed, removing any sting they might have felt at his words, “I know I am happy to be here.”

“I’m sure I speak for each of us Heath, when I say we wish you could have been with us sooner. Since Nick has hold of the pup, why don’t we saddle up and ride?”

“Sounds great. You got Jingo, or would you like me to saddle him for you?”

“I can manage. I don’t think I’ve gotten that soft.” Jarrod chuckled. Winking at Nick, who noticed and put puddles on the ground. Jarrod said, “Want to race, Heath? I bet I can saddle Jingo, before you finish with Gal.”

“Sound like a sure winner for me, Jarrod. You’re on.” and Heath reached for his saddle only to find that Nick had beaten him to it and was preventing him from getting his hands on it.

“Come on Jarrod,” Nick encouraged, as Audra screamed, “You used to do this to me all the time. Heath, it’s not fair. They are a team. You don’t stand a chance.”

“Oh don’t I,” he replied, easily springing to Jingo’s back as Jarrod was swinging the saddle on. “You’re on my team, Audra. Tickle Nick!.” With that he headed Jingo masterfully past Jarrod’s body and out the stall, heading for the barn door.

Nick, trapped holding the saddle in his hands, was left at Audra’s mercy, and she gleefully went along with Heath’s plan. “This is revenge for years of torment Nick,” she said, as he collapsed in a fit of laughter, dropping the saddle as she continued her relentless pursuit of his rib cage and underarms.

“No fair,” he gasped, as Jarrod looked on and laughed, refusing to go to his aid. It didn’t take long for Nick to turn the tables, and turn Audra into a limp pool of laughter.

As they struggled, and Victoria and Jarrod laughed, Heath ran in and grabbed the saddle, and led Gal quickly outside. While the family continued to laugh, he saddled Gal, and perched atop her back, led Jingo back to Jarrod saying, “Just what do I win, Jarrod?”

His calmly uttered words, on a carefully schooled poker face, stopped the laughter in its tracks, and seeing him atop Gal, Audra jumped up and said, “We win. I won. Jarrod, Nick, I love having another brother. Helps even the odds.”

“That was a sneaky trick. I’ll have to remember it. There will be payback you know,” Nick said rising, and catching his breath.

Imperiously dipping his head, as if to say, go ahead and try, Heath smiled smugly. “Jarrod, while you saddle Jingo I’ll take my partner to the house on Gal, so she can stay a little drier. Would you like a lift as well Mother?”

“I’ll walk the losers in” she said, thrilled by the family harmony. Christmas would be great if this continued.

Heath too, was thrilled as he rode with Audra to the main house. Knowing he only had five days left before his short break, as he was thinking of it, he was truly allowing himself to relax and enjoy every minute he could with the family. He didn’t analyze anything. He was just living in the moment, capturing more memories of a warm family life. He was sharing himself, which was hard, but he was learning that sharing was a necessary part of becoming a family member. Setting Audra by the door, he waited as Jarrod drew up and dropped off Victoria. Both riders laughed, when from their higher vantage point they could see Nick trudging through puddled rain water, his voice clearly audible over the storm’s fury.

“First another stray, not that it isn’t cute, then I lose a bet to my younger siblings, and now I have to dry off again. Damn this rain.”

“Nick!” Victoria said sharply, “I realize that we are all fed up with the weather. I don’t remember a storm like this in ten years, but mind your language. Now come inside and let’s get you warm and dry. How about we share a hot chocolate, and laugh at those two when we come back drenched.”

“Now there is an idea. Let’s go Mother, Sis”, and they headed and they headed inside, as Heath and Jarrod took off.

“Just where are we headed?” Jarrod called over a gust of wind.

“Place I found. Follow me.”

Jarrod stayed close by Heath’s side and allowed Heath to lead the way, over what seemed to be, unfamiliar terrain, in the darkness. It seemed like they rode for at least an hour, before Jarrod noticed Heath slow his horse to a walk. Heath motioned Jarrod to dismount, and he obeyed without talking, not wanting to break the companionable mood that seemed to descend on him as they rode. Taking Jingo’s reins in his hand, he led the horse to a few scrub pines and tied him down, as Heath was. He then followed Heath up a path, made slippery by mud. He tripped a few times, and was grateful each time for Heath’s steadying arm. It didn’t take him long to realize that this place was probably well frequented by Heath for solitude. It took about five minutes of climbing along the path in the darkness of the starless night, broken only by a few flashes of lightning, that gave him an eerie glimpse of gnarled pines and high rock ledges, before he realized Heath had stopped. His feeling of apprehension abated abruptly, as Heath helped him enter a narrow opening in the cliff. Still unable to see, it took him a minute to discern why he felt more comfortable. He wasn’t being rained on. “Heath?” he said, suddenly feeling the oppressive stillness.

“Just a minute,” came Heath’s calm response.

As he lowered himself to the ground, he heard, what he presumed was Heath, returning to his side.

“I see you made yourself comfortable, Jarrod.”

“You’re guessing,” he replied, relieved not to be left alone in the blackness, “you can’t see anything.”

“Can in a minute, I think you’ll be surprised.”

Jarrod was, as he saw a lantern flame to life and Heath’s features appear in the glow. Allowing his eyes to adjust to the light, Jarrod finally took a look around, and was amazed. Again he questioned “Heath?”, but this time he wasn’t looking for comfort but rather answers.

“It is incredible, isn’t it Jarrod? I came here quite by accident chasing a rabbit that was giving me a run for my money.”

“Heath, could you perhaps start at the beginning?”

“Do you really want to hear my story, or just see the place?”

Jarrod hated the inference that a location, even one as unique as this, would make Heath think his story wouldn’t be interesting, and he hastened to assure him. “I would rather listen to one of your stories, than see this place at all. I feel privileged that you are sharing it with me. I do have questions, but your story first please, and in detail. You don’t talk that often.”

“Well if you’re sure, Heath mumbled looking at the ground, it’s not the nicest story on earth to tell you about.”

An exasperated, “Please!” was heard in the stillness.

“Fine Jarrod, but if it gets too much, or too late, stop me. Promise.”

“I promise.”

“I had been summoned home from working a spread up north of Bloods, because my mama was dying. Within two days I arrived home, realized Hannah was in a world of her own making, Rachael looked older than I remembered as the weight of her life pressed in on her, learned that Tom Barkley was my father, and buried my mama.” Lost in thought, the words tumbled out one after another, of this story he needed to tell. “I’d sent her money every month, never needed much myself, but even that wasn’t enough to provide good food and proper medicine. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as the town doctor refused to treat her. She had so little, Jarrod, and she didn’t even have me those last weeks, that’s how long the telegram took to reach me. Found out it wasn’t sent as the money wasn’t available, until they got my next installment. By then it was almost too late.”

Shaking himself out of his trance, he hurriedly added, “I buried her. Dug the ground myself outside of town, near her favorite spot to talk. We’d talk there every birthday and holiday. It was kinda sacred, if you know what I mean. They wouldn’t take her in the cemetery. You think that she is okay outside a cemetery? I wonder sometimes. Anyway, You want to hear about this place. I was angry, but you knew that when I arrived. Don’t really know how you put up with me, or even why you let me stay, but I thank…….anyway I was on my way here, and I was hungry. Hungry like I hadn’t been in years. Not since after Carterson. See, I’d spent what little money I had left getting home, and divided up mama’s between Rachael and Hannah, as they took care of her, so I was living on what I could find.

Water wasn’t a problem, but I wasn’t about to slaughter someone’s cattle, and I hadn’t seen any edible greens in days, and I’d had no luck sighting any animals. I was just about ready to find another job, or trade labor for food, when I spotted this rabbit. I can remember actually seeing it on a spit, all ready for eating and my stomach was growling, that rabbit made me so hungry. I took my rifle, as I fully intended to blast him to pieces, and as I took careful aim and pulled the trigger, Gal moved. I missed by less than half an inch. Well that rabbit took off, and I chased him, first on Gal, then on foot, all over this area. I flushed him out of his burrow twice. Finally I chased him up this path and into this natural theater. He had no where to go, and I had fresh rabbit for dinner. I was sitting right about where you were now. After finishing I started to notice my surroundings and found this was a well hidden natural arena, used by Indians. I spent the next two days camping out in here, and trying to figure out what I was going to say to you when I told you who I was. I knew that I was on Barkley land, and that I had come as far as I needed, but I still wasn’t sure what was the proper next step. Anyway, you know the rest. I let anger take over, and was greeted by understanding and love. I come here sometimes to think. Doesn’t seem like anyone else knows its here, as I haven’t ever seen signs that others have been here. Have you been here Jarrod?”

Deeply touched, Jarrod replied, “No Heath, I don’t think any member of the family knows that this exists.”

“I know its night, but I have a few lanterns here. Would you like to take a brief look around before we head home?”

“I’d enjoy that. Just point me in the direction that we are to go, give me a lantern and let’s head off.” Seeing Heath’s grin was reward enough as Jarrod took the second lantern, lit it, and moved out after Heath. On his tour he noticed a few things he didn’t mention, such as a coffee pot, dutch oven, and other cooking utensils stored in a wooden box in a dry corner.

Heath pointed out Indian drawings and a fox burrow, as well as a beautiful rain filled pool on the north side of the arena. As they continued their circuit, Jarrod spied something that he couldn’t let pass. Reaching down, he picked up a green leather glove that lay on an opened blanket. “This yours too, Heath?” he said in his best interrogatory voice, dangling the glove just out of Heath’s reach.

More graceful, and quicker than a cat in flight, Heath whipped the glove from Jarrod’s hand and stuffed it in his pocket. Hopefully it was too dark for Jarrod to recognize it. Colleen had been looking for it for about three months.

Remembering their day alone up here, Heath blushed as Jarrod laughingly said, “Not as innocent as you would like us to believe?”

“Jarrod, I’ll make you a trade. You can remember my remarks about the stocking, if you forget you ever saw this.”

“Sure thing, brother Heath, as long as you will let me use this as a picnic spot with the fair Helen.”

“Anything Jarrod, let’s just not tell Nick it’s here, okay?” he said, valiantly trying to hide his discomfort, while thinking that Jarrod had already told the stocking secret anyway, so he had nothing to lose.

“Tell Nick! Are you crazy.” Jarrod laughed. “I can guard secrets as well as you can, brother Heath.” and I’ll just say this one time as I know it occasionally makes you uncomfortable, thank you for sharing your story, this place, and this night with me.”

“We ought to be getting back. Time to face the rain again,” Heath said.

They walked in reverent silence, back to their horses, and as he was mounting Jingo, Jarrod heard a whispered “You’re welcome Jarrod,” carried lightly on the wind.

The return trip was much quicker, and although he returned home wet and ready for a hot bath and a stiff scotch, Jarrod, reveling in the sanctity of Heath’s sharing, refused to discuss the trip with anyone.

But they all wondered. For the rest of the evening, whenever they glanced his way a small smile played on his lips, as he recalled their shared time. Some things were disturbing, some touching, and they all added up to one thing. His brother was trusting him.

Doubting that the next few days leading up to Christmas would be as wonderful as the few captured hours with his brother, Jarrod went to bed. His guess was correct.

Audra and Victoria continued making their rounds, and for a change the rain kept Nick and Heath from accompanying them. This was the only thing Nick found pleasing about the rain, as he hated polite social calls more than being wet. Jarrod did paperwork, both for his law firm and the ranch, keeping all the books up to date. He paid the bills, calculated the year’s profits, and juggled accounts so areas that liquid cash was readily available to help out during the rainy season. He knew he shouldn’t have put it off, but this year had been different than past years and he was behind. Catching up felt good. He intended to take a last trip to town on the twenty third and sign all the papers, wish his clerk happy Christmas, and do anything else Victoria needed before the holidays.

Nick and Heath continued to work with the orchard, grove, and levees. The levees were taking a great strain as the rain refused to let up. The grove would recover and it looked like timely intervention had saved at least half the orchard as well. Work was done, but it was routine. All spare time was spent on the endless equipment repairs.

Dinner and evenings didn’t differ either. They ate, then played games, while the atmosphere of anticipation lay thick in the air. Each counting down the days left until Christmas. Jarrod asked one night at dinner if anyone needed anything from town and was pleased to hear everyone but Victoria answered no, and she didn’t need him to pick anything up, but wanted him to drop off a fruit cake to the Carlsons. Puddles was thriving under their attention, and Nick thought he might even make a good hunting dog with some training. The cake was to be a thank you.

“So everyone is finished with shopping?” Jarrod questioned. “I don’t have the bills for some of you yet.”

“Nick, you never get your shopping done.” Audra scolded. “Last year you tried to give me a book and when I opened the cover it said..To Nick with love, Mother and Father Birthday 1868.”

“Well we were about the same age and the material I ordered hadn’t come in yet.”

“I remember you saying that, and I also remember Thelma Jackson saying you ordered it December twenty fourth.”

“At least I tried,” he said, hoping she would change the subject. When that didn’t happen, he said, “Heath, Jarrod, pool?”

“Not tonight, Jarrod answered. I want to get to town early so I’m heading up. I’ll probably read a few minutes then go to bed.”

“Heath?”

“Sure, Nick, want to bet?”

“Not if you have Audra as your partner,” he shot back laughing. The remark had everyone smiling as they recalled the shared time in the barn a few short nights ago.

“Rack ‘em up Nick, I’ll break.”

“Fine, I get to break next game.”

“Sure.”

They talked and played four games. “Not your night huh…..Heath?” Nick alternately teased and gloated between games.

“Guess not, you’re on a real streak tonight,” he happily bantered back. The only way anyone would have known Heath was anxious was that he lost all four games. As the games ended, everyone retired, and awoke one day closer to Christmas.

On the twenty third Jarrod awoke to a beautiful day. The rain had stopped! It was still overcast, but the rain had stopped! At breakfast, he remarked how happy he was to have waited until today to go into town.

Heath and Nick worked with the horses for a change of pace, overjoyed to do anything in the outdoors that didn’t require slickers. The ranch hands were just as relieved so the corral was a happy place that day as they cheered each other on.

Audra groomed her horse, and took care of her dogs, then visited her friends; Colleen, Gloria and Virginia.

Victoria baked the Christmas cookies Nick loved, so the family could decorate them after dinner. Nick was going to be so pleased, and she was thrilled to be able to do this small thing for her son.

As Victoria baked, Audra visited, and the men broke horses, gratefully changing the routines of the past three weeks, Jarrod took care of business. He was thrilled to be out of the house and took the fruitcake to Mr. and Mrs. Carlson’s and thanked them for their kindness and for Puddles.

“Is he growing up? I thought he might be a large dog. He had those big paws,” Mr. Carlson said.

“We think he’s a short haired pointer. Nick checked a few books and is pleased. Although Audra thinks its her dog, Nick intends to train him to hunt. Our only hold up, to hear Nick tell it, is the name Puddles!”

Thinking of Nick calling, “Come on Puddles, retrieve Puddles” had both men laughing as Jarrod took his leave. He then headed to Helen’s to wish her a Happy Christmas and give her a bottle of her favorite perfume from back east. He had ordered it specially for her, and it had come in the previous week. She was touched by his gift, and they made plans to meet for a drive shortly after Christmas. He intended to take her to the arena. He left her home anticipating a very good 1877, Helen at his side.

His last stop was his office in town, and although he knew he had paperwork to sign, he was in no hurry to get there. When he was finished there he would have to head for home and he really wanted to enjoy the day alone. Sometimes he relished Heath, his ability to claim solitude, no questions asked. Maybe on his way home he would stop by the arena and figure out where he thought a blanket would best be placed. With this idea in mind, he decided to get his work done quickly.

Patrick, his clerk, greeted Jarrod with, “Hello. I left a stack of papers on your desk for you to sign.”

“Anxious to leave for the week?” Jarrod asked.

“Yes sir!” Patrick replied.

“Here’s your salary and a bonus for the year. Have a happy Christmas, Patrick See you in 1877.”

“Happy Christmas Mr. Barkley.” he called over his shoulder, as he shut the door behind him.

Understanding his enthusiasm, Jarrod went to his desk and made quick work of checking and signing all the necessary forms. Gathering his coat and preparing to leave, he was surprised by a knock on the door. Vowing to take no new cases until after the new year, he mentally prepared himself to say he was closed, when the door opened and he saw Jim Billings, the telegraph operator standing there.

“Hello Jim. What can I do for you?”

“Nothing Jarrod. I have a telegraph for Heath and saw you were here so I’m selfishly saving myself a trip to your ranch.”

“Thanks Jim. I’ll make sure he gets it,” Jarrod said as Jim handed it to him.

“Thanks Jarrod. I’ll be getting back now. Happy Christmas to you and your family as well.”

“I’ll walk out with you,” Jarrod said grabbing his coat and locking the door behind him. As Jim headed back to the office, Jarrod thrust the telegram in his pocket and headed toward the arena. He wasn’t positive, but was pretty sure he could find it with out Heath’s help, and after much searching, was rewarded with the path they had taken a few nights before. It was really well hidden, he noted, and wasn’t surprised that nobody knew of its existence. He’d passed by it over two hundred times in his life, none the wiser. The arena was much more welcoming in the light of day and he made a complete circuit. The pool was breathtaking, the Indian paintings still vibrant and the glimpse of sky peeking through the natural closing of the rock created a dazzling effect. He easily located Heath’s camping gear, and briefly wondered if, when and why, Heath had spent the night here. Taking a second turn around the cavern/arena as Heath called it, he took in the spread but rumpled blanket and smoothed it out, thinking that Heath had done a good job picking out a perfect spot to bring a special woman. It was the spot he intended to use with Helen, as soon as he had the chance. Sitting on the blanket, he was lulled into thought and finally the calm surroundings induced sleep. He woke just before the sun went down, and feeling very relaxed, headed down to Jingo and back home.

“There you are dear. We were getting worried.” Victoria said as he entered the front door.

“Didn’t know you had that much to do in town,” Nick added.

“Actually I didn’t. I left about one and rode to a secluded spot for a rest,” he said, winking at Heath.

Realizing where Jarrod had been, Heath returned the acknowledgment with a slight nod . “Before you know it, it was time to get home for dinner. I hope I haven’t held you all up.”

“No, Jarrod, you haven’t. We’ll probably be eating in a few minutes……..Audra began as Silas announced that dinner was served.

Dinner consisted of a rich beef burgundy stew, potatoes, and bread, which all were enjoying as Victoria told Nick about the cookies.

“You’re kidding me.”

“No I’m not dear. I only made two dozen, but I think we can all decorate them after dinner. What do you think?”

“I say that’s the best thing I’ve heard all day,” Nick answered, obviously pleased.

Next Jarrod detailed his morning, omitting his visit with Helen, as his gift to her was personal. When he told about Patrick so badly wanting to leave the office, he recalled the telegram for Heath.

“Excuse me a moment. I’ll be right back.”

“Jarrod, Victoria asked, must you leave the table during dinner?”

“Yes I think I should. It may be important.” He returned carrying a telegram saying, “Heath, this came for you today. Sorry I forgot about it earlier. I hope it wasn’t important.”

“What’s it say?” Audra questioned as Heath took it from Jarrod’s hands.

Opening it while silently blessing George for not forgetting, as he had no contingency plan, Heath read aloud:

To Heath Barkley, Stockton, Barkley ranch. Rachael is sick. Please come. Hannah. Then folded the telegram and just sat and stared at his plate.

“Oh Heath, how awful,” Audra cried, as Victoria seconded her feelings.

“I’m sorry Heath. Is there anything we can do?” Jarrod added.

“Not that I can think of Jarrod. I’m a little shocked is all. I better leave first thing in the morning. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I reckon I won’t be gone more’n a few days.”

“Heath, its Christmas,” Audra exclaimed.

“I’m sorry, but I really must go. There will be other Christmases.”

“But it won’t be the same,” Audra said quietly.

Pushing back his chair, he said, “Audra, it won’t be different, I’ll be gone. Now I better start packing. When I’m done I expect to taste one of those famous cookies I keep hearing Nick talk about.”

After Heath left the conversation died down, a definite pall cast over an otherwise enjoyable evening.

When five minutes of vocal silence had passed, with the only noise being the clatter of cutlery Nick said with forced joviality, “There’s still those cookies to decorate, and we will give Heath his gifts when he returns. We can celebrate this Christmas just like always. It gives us one last chance to have just us together for the holidays.”

“Nick, how could you say that. I want Heath here.” Audra said, angrily pushing back her chair.

“Now wait a minute Sis. I didn’t say I didn’t want him here. I just said we’ll never have another Christmas, just the four of us.”

“There’s no discussion, Victoria interjected. Heath needs to return to Strawberry, and we will have Christmas without him this year. We have no choice. Now let’s finish dinner and go decorate the cookies, shall we?”

After hearing the conversation, Heath headed upstairs to pack ,as he had said. He had been right. This was the best thing to do. He’d gotten them used to the idea of him being there for the rest of their Christmases, so they could really celebrate this one as they always had. It would be their last chance to have one alone. He would see to that as well.

Packing took virtually no time. All he needed were the essentials; pants, shirts, underwear and socks, and he’d better throw in a deck of cards to help alleviate the boredom. Really not wanting to face anyone he sat on the edge of his bed and awaited the knock he was sure would come. Trying to guess who would be sent upstairs, he chose Audra. She would probably volunteer. She had sounded like she didn’t want him gone, then again, she had been the first to accept him. He reasoned, that it wouldn’t be mother or Nick, as they had the cookies to prepare, and had both voiced their opinions, not refuting the inevitable that this year would be like old times, and that there would be other Christmases. Wasn’t this what he had hoped for, he thought. Then why does it hurt so bad, his brain screamed?

Standing and calling, “Come in,” when the knock sounded, ne was relieved to see Audra. At least his reasoning powers weren’t slipping. “I’m almost finished.”

“We were hoping you’d be down to help decorate the cookies.”

“I’ll be down in a bit.”

“Oh Heath,” she said, flinging herself against him, “Why now?”

Drawing her gently down on the bed to sit beside him, he said, “It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

“I’m not worried about us. We’ll have a fine Christmas. We always do. I just don’t want to think of you being alone.”

“I’ll be at Rachael and Hannah’s” he replied, realizing that lying wasn’t nearly as hard as it had been seven months ago. Was this a good thing? He really was going to have to think this through.

“I’d forgotten. Then you will have as nice a time as we will. You will get a last Christmas with your family, too.”

“Right,” he mumbled. “I’ll be down to help in a minute.”

A much happier, “Okay Heath,” was said as she returned to tell the family he would be down.

The clutter that greeted him, as he entered the kitchen came as no surprise. It looked like cookies were everywhere, even though Victoria had said there were only two dozen. There were bowls of colored icing everywhere, and what he assumed was the colored sugars, Nick had talked about endlessly while they stood in the rain. Everyone was happily engrossed in their task of detailing the cookies with the icing then using the sugars as a toping, for the final touches. He realized that doing the ten dozen they had spoken of would take all day, if they were this painstaking over each cookie.

Victoria looked up, and saw Heath standing in the doorway, and motioned him to join them.

“I think I’d rather watch,” he replied smiling. “This organized chaos is a sight to behold, and I figure if I don’t make any I can pick my favorite and eat it when you’re all done.”

“It is quite the process, isn’t it? I bet you’d be talented at it Heath,” Victoria said, her tone full of meaning, as she recalled Colleen’s ornament.

“Still, I think I’d rather eat, than create,” he replied.

“Suit yourself.” she replied.

“Audra I need the yellow.”

“Patience, Nick, I’m using it.”

“Well hurry up. This star can’t wait much longer.”

“Here it is , Nick,” she said, passing him the yellow icing.

“What are you going to do with your star, Nick.”

“Just wait and see.” he called back, covering his work behind an outstretched arm.

“If that’s the way your going to be, I don’t care what it looks like,” Audra quipped.

From the doorway, they heard, “I think I’ll have to sample that star first, Nick.”

“Oh, no you don’t why, I’ll………” Nick started, then stopped, as he saw Heath laughing in the doorway. “Okay, okay, so I get a little involved in these.”

“A little,” Jarrod and Audra said simultaneously, as they shook their heads, and everyone laughed at Nick’s expense.

Finally everyone finished and Victoria and Audra helped clear the mess as Jarrod and Nick laid each cookie out to dry. The cookies were amazing. Heath saw four each of; a star, a bell, a holly leaf, a Christmas tree, a santa face, and a peppermint stick. Each one was personally decorated, and each was different. It seemed to Heath, that it would be a crime to eat any of them, but he felt he needed to make good on his promise. Sauntering over to the table, he scrutinized each cookie, then picked a star done by Jarrod, and a holly leaf, decorated by Audra.

“Why those cookies, Heath? Why not one of mine?” Nick questioned.

“The star was Jarrod’s job this year and Audra had me help bring in the holly. Just seemed fitting that I eat the cookies that I know about,” he responded. “Well it’s late. I’m going to bed. I need to get an early start tomorrow. See you all at breakfast.” and happily munching a cookie, he turned and headed to his room.

“Him being gone still doesn’t seem right somehow,” Jarrod added. “I think I’ll turn in too.”

Audra and Nick agreed with Jarrod’s observation and Victoria added that after finishing in the kitchen, she was headed to bed as well.

Their heads had barely touched the pillows, before Christmas eve day was upon them. They were gathered for breakfast, talking and preparing to eat their customary food, topped off with champagne to celebrate the start of this day that would end in mass, celebrating the birth of the savior, when Heath came downstairs, bedroll in hand, and popped his head in the dining room, saying, “I’ll be off now. Have a great Christmas. See you soon.”

“Aren’t you having breakfast?” Victoria said, rising.

Not wanting to draw this out, or even say goodbye, Heath responded, “I took some raisin bread from the kitchen. Enjoy your breakfast.” Then he changed his mind and decided that he did have one more thing he needed to take with him. He moved to Victorias side and gently kissed her cheek. He did the same with Audra. Feeling like this was what he needed, he tossed out “I’ll be back. Don’t let the ranch go to ruin while I’m gone, Nick.”

‘Why you…” he responded, as Heath scooted out the door.

“Well this is it Gal. I did it, and no one is the wiser. Come on. Let’s get going. The trip is about three hours to the line shack and I want to be there before lunch, to get some chores done.”

As he headed off, the family, gathered at the breakfast table, which had been alive with gaiety moments before became more solemn, but with time, grew more boisterous again as each gave in to the joy of the day.

By noon, Jarrod had finished reading a book he had been working on for the past two weeks, Audra had finished up her handkerchief embroidery, Victoria had been and returned from two social calls, and Nick had worked with Lightning for a few hours, again marveling at what a wonderful horse he was. Putting Lightning away, he saw Gal’s empty stall, and thought how quickly Heath had become part of their lives. Rough at first, but the edges were softening and they were blending as well as a family, as he and Heath did as partners. He briefly said a prayer for the rain to hold off until after Heath reached Strawberry.

At the line shack, by noon, Heath had unpacked, stabled Gal, and was busy chopping wood so he could eat and stay warm for the next three days. He reckoned he’d leave the morning of the twenty seventh and would be back by noon. Looking around the cabin he was to call home for the next few days, he noticed just how much he missed the greenery that transformed the house into a seasonal feast for the senses. Knowing he had nothing better to do, he decided to go outside and gather what ever he could find, to help him liven up the cabin.

He brought back a few pine cones that were scattered under a poor excuse for a pine tree, and a bough that he got by climbing fifteen feet up the scrawny tree. Deciding that he had a new respect for the squirrel, he laid the pine cones atop the fire place and placed the bough over the small wash stand. Nodding at the improved look of his surroundings, he made a fire, then took out his worn deck of cards and amused himself by playing solitaire for the next few hours.

Never one to mind being alone, it came as a surprise to realize he missed Audra’s chatter and Nick’s booming voice. Somewhere along the line he had grown accustomed to the activity and noise of his family and decided that the rest of today and the next two days would count as penance for all his unkind thoughts, and bad deeds for the entire year. No one needed to tell him he was required to attend church to understand the meaning of punishment.

Bored and lonely, he took a quick walk just as dusk was falling, then returned to the cabin, and opened a can of beans for supper, since it was all he really knew how to cook. He finished off the meal with the star cookie he’d saved from the night before and decided to turn in, although he doubted he’d sleep. It was already pitch black outside and if he could sleep it would help pass the time.

As he lay there, wide awake, he wondered what his family was doing. As far as he knew, there were no other traditions to be followed, so he expected they would be playing games and talking, or perhaps reading, as they usually did. He doubted they would turn in before nine thirty, but Nick might make it to bed earlier, so great was his desire to have Christmas arrive. He couldn’t have been more wrong!

The time from noon on made the morning look like they had done nothing. Audra, Victoria, and Jarrod delivered jars of canned goods to the ranch workers and their families. Nick spent a good portion of his time readying the buggy and grooming the matched pair of bays so they would be impeccable for church. Audra also spent time reviewing her songs on the piano, making sure the tunes were committed to memory .

Next came the dinner preparations. Victoria and Silas worked, side by side, preparing the meal. Audra set the table with the sterling chargers, each holding a white china plate edged in green. Jarrod had pulled out the stem ware for the meal, putting out wine goblets, champagnes, and water goblets. While he was doing this Audra started polishing the silver. She took special pains with the meat tray, the wine coaster, the serving platters, and the silverware. When the tale was completed each piece of silver shone, from the magnificent height of the epergne to the lowly butter knife.

By six p.m. all the dinner preparations were complete and the family retired, to either take a quick nap, or just relax before dressing for dinner. By seven, they had assembled for the special Christmas eve toast of champagne, with a bottle Jarrod always had imported from France. They then moved to the table to partake of a feast honoring the imminent arrival of the savior.

Victoria and Silas had outdone themselves. Everyone agreed on this as they helped themselves to seconds and thirds of tourrenedos of beef with red wine and blue cheese sauce, roasted garlic and leeks, mushroom timbales, potato fritata, and wheat french bread, topped off with glasses of their best Cabernet Sauvignon. The entire group was thoroughly satiated by the time dessert arrived, but that didn’t stop them, as they each took a large serving of the Mexican traditional White Chocolate Castle Cake, or pastel de chocolate blanco de castillo, always used to celebrate the feast of the saviors birth.

The dinner conversation covered a wide variety of topics, but there was never a lull. Audra quizzed her family unmercifully about what her gifts were. When they refused to answer, she took to guessing, each guess becoming more wild than the last. Nick to had to admit that he was a little curious if he would receive either the saddle or dresser he asked for, but continued with a gloomy cast to his voice, saying he doubted it, since he would be able to determine if something that big were being hidden on the ranch.

Victoria laughingly agreed with, “Nick, there isn’t a place on this ranch that you don’t visit at least once a month. Keeping gifts from you is a real chore.”

“Yes, it’s fun for me too, he laughed, and hiding my gifts is the only thing that keeps Jarrod’s mind sharp enough for all those cases he tries.”

“Are you saying that without having to keep gifts from your prying eyes, I wouldn’t be able to practice law? I think that even making allowances for the wine you’ve consumed, you’re stretching things way to far, brother,” Jarrod threw back. “Now I’ve had your present for three months. Care to guess where it’s hidden, old snoop supreme?” Jarrod goaded further.

“You couldn’t have had anything for three months, I looked,” Nick said incredulously.

“Maybe glasses are in order for his next birthday, Mother. What do you think of that idea?”

“If he keeps snooping, maybe horse blinders would be better,” she quipped. “Nick, I thought you gave up snooping years ago.”

“See how good I am!” he fired back, rendering them speechless momentarily, before they broke into laughter.

“This is a wonderful dinner,” Victoria said. “I wish Heath could be here, but I am enjoying myself and by now he’s probably eating all his favorite childhood foods as well.”

“I miss him too, Audra said, but he wouldn’t have joined us at church anyway. I figure that today isn’t so bad, but I think tomorrow will seem very empty.”

With that the mood turned serious, as Jarrod said, “I never signed one receipt or paid one bill for Heath, since explaining to him how the finances worked. Then after learning he never had a stocking as a child, I wonder what he was planning on doing for gifts. I remember thinking briefly, at your birthday Mother, that Heath looked uncomfortable about his gift to you.”

“I wondered if he wasn’t going to be uncomfortable as well,” Victoria shared, until Nick said “Hell! Lightning was a perfect gift for me. Give him some credit. I think he will do just fine. Wouldn’t surprise me if he doesn’t just surprise us all.”

“I second that Nick,” Audra said, then asked “What time is it? I think I should be getting ready for church. Please tell me it’s earlier than I think.”

“The time has gone quickly. Its already ten fifteen Audra. We will need to leave in fifteen minutes.” Jarrod said.

“Meet down here in fifteen minutes” Victoria stated, as they all scattered. Victoria and Audra went to freshen up, Jarrod to change his coat, and Nick to pull the buggy around, leaving the remains of a well eaten dinner for Silas to clear up.

As they were heading out the door, Victoria remarked, “Silas, stop! I’ll get it when I return. You go on to church. We’ll miss you. Happy Christmas.”

“No Mrs. Barkley, it’s my job, and I have an hour before services. I’ll get this done then see you on the twenty sixth. Josiah and Carolyn invited me to share Christmas with them, like they have the past six years.”

“Happy Christmas Silas,” she said again, as she kissed the dear man’s cheek. “We’ll miss your presence in the home.”

“Mother, we need to leave,” Audra called.

“Happy Christmas, Mrs. Barkley,” Silas said catching her gaze, as the family piled in the buggy and left for church.

Audra was in a state all the way there, as she was playing carols for the half hour before services commenced, and she was nervous. Being potentially late wasn’t helping, and Jarrod and Victoria were trying to calm her.

It was Nick, who said, “It’s church. You’ll be forgiven for all transgressions,” that pulled her from her anxiety and once again helped lighten the atmosphere. Letting the ladies out at the front door of the church, Nick took the buggy and left it as close as possible to the church doors, in the already crowded meadow. Jarrod and he alighted, and as they approached the church, they were swept up in the festive going-ons outside. Neighbors greeted neighbors and well wishers were everywhere. Nick stopped and chatted with Clyde for a few minutes, then moved over to say hello to Virginia Wheeler.

Jarrod was deep in conversation with Helen and her Mother, while Victoria was surrounded by all the town’s leading ladies. Mary McDougal claimed her right side as though they were best friends. Victoria had decided to accept Mary temporarily, until she was assured complete acceptance of her son.

Audra had disappeared inside. At eleven thirty a richly played Silent Night filled the air, and everyone stopped their talking, mid-sentence, feeling the reverence of the night replace the revelry. Moving to pews inside, the parishioners took their seats as Audra continued to play. When the congregation had gathered, Colleen announced that as Audra played some of the favorite Christmas carols they would like to have everyone join in singing to welcome the Lord Jesus as his birth draws near. Audra started again with Silent Night, and was rewarded when everyone did join in causing the church to resound with joy. This continued for the next thirty minutes and included many of the Barkleys favorite traditional carols such as; O Holy Night, Good King Wensceslas, We Three Kings, O Tannenbaum, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and concluded with the Ave Maria.

As the notes of the piano and the voices of the congregation died down, a quiet echoed throughout the church. Audra took her place beside her family, and the priest began to deliver the joyful news of the coming of the birth of Christ. To Nick, the highlight of mass, after his sisters musical performance, was the parish children’s living nativity story that took the place of the priests homily. Anything was better than the priests homily, he thought. The living nativity refocused their thoughts on how precious that night and the next day would be. Mary and Joseph were about to be blessed with a son, and the two would become a family. The same ritual was happening throughout the world on a daily basis. As the service concluded, Audra, again moved to the piano and played, O Come All Ye Faithful, as the recessional song. This time, except for thanking the priest, there was very little milling about, as each family, blanketed in the solemnity of the night, herded their families home to bed, and the dawning of Jesus’ birthday.

The ride home was peaceful, but quiet, and in those few moments, Heath was missed very much. When they reached their home, Victoria said, “I’ll get the hot chocolate ready, while you take care of the team, Nick.”

“See you inside,” he replied.

*****

Part 5

 

“I’ll help Nick,” Jarrod added, helping him to unharness both horses. Nick, in turn, put the buggy away, while Jarrod moved on to replacing the gear, after he had led both horses to their stalls.

Nick, giving the horses a good brushing, turned to Jarrod and said, “So where did you hide the saddle and the dresser?”

“Where would you get the idea you were getting either of those things?” Jarrod replied.

“I’m not often disappointed in Christmas,” Nick responded happily.

“Then brother, this may be the year you have to be polite and say thank you, for all the handkerchiefs your getting instead. I saw Audra, late last night, still adding N’s to a few.”

“Of all the…….” Nick started, when Jarrod, grinning clasped his shoulder and said, “Lets go in. I’m ready for the hot chocolate, and bed.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Nick responded as the two dark haired brothers headed in to join Victoria and Audra in a warm cup of hot chocolate before bedtime.

“Mass was lovely, wasn’t it?” Victoria asked, after everyone had gathered.

“Yes Mother, it was. Audra, you should be proud of your piano playing as well. I know how much practice you put into it.” Jarrod said.

“Hear. Hear!” Nick called. “To Audra and Christmas carols,” he said, lifting his cup high in the air in a toast.

As Audra blushed, a chorus of hear, hears rang out, then each one wished the others a good night and went to bed.

It was about this time that sleep finally caught up with Heath as well.

Heath awoke cold, and stiffly got out of bed, to stir the fire back to life, while the Barkley household rose from warm, comfortable beds, covered by extra blankets and warm, heavy spreads.

Heath heated up his second can of beans, and drank from his warmed up pot of coffee. The Barkleys dressed and headed downstairs to a breakfast of coffee, sausage, eggs, bacon, and waffles, which Victoria had hurriedly thrown together.

Heath played solitaire.

“I can’t wait to have you open the gifts, Mother. I think you will all be happy with what I picked for you this year,” Audra said, as breakfast was ending.

“If you will quit talking, we could get to them sooner,” Nick bounced back.

“I can talk if I want to, can’t I Jarrod?”

“It would seem she does have that right, Nick,” he replied.

“You stay out of this Pappy! Were wasting time. There are stockings to open.” With that Nick, pushed back his chair, and moved to the parlor, where the stockings hung and the packages were piled. “Now who’s first?” he called, when he suddenly realized no one had followed him. Stepping back into the dining room, he saw that everyone looked very smug. Mother was still finishing her coffee, and Jarrod had taken another two slices of sausage. “I thought we were going to pass out the stockings.

“Patience, Nick,” Victoria said smiling. “We have all day, and ever since you were four years old, its been the same. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. This year, you can wait until I’m ready.”

“Uhn…..he responded, reseating himself and glaring at his families smiling faces.

Deliberately making Nick sit still another five minutes, while watching his temper escalate, Victoria finally said, “Now lets go to the parlor and begin Christmas.”

“It’s about time,” Nick said, as Jarrod urbanely replied, “Certainly, Mother,” as he moved to pull back her chair. “May I escort you?”

“Yes, of course, Jarrod. Shall we?”

“Audra?” he said offering her his other arm.

“Thank you Jarrod. Its nice to see some of us still have manners,” she said, ensuring Nicks anger would rise another notch.

Walking behind the group, Nick hurled himself into his usual chair and crossing his arms, said nothing.

“Not very becoming on Christmas,” Jarrod goaded, as Victoria moved to Nick’s side and whispered, “I love how caught up you get in Christmas. It reminds me of your father. Have I told you that every Christmas morning he would pull me out of bed and try to hurry me along, just like you do. It was easier then, since you children were as eager as he was, but you and he vied for the most anxious every year.”

Smiling, his mood forgotten, Nick boomed, “Well what are we waiting for? I’ll get the stockings.” Moving to the fireplace, he removed the heavily laden stockings from the pegs, beginning with Victoria’s and working his way down towards Audra’s, handing them out one at a time. When he got to Heath’s he started to say that it was a shame to just leave it hanging there, but not knowing what else to do, he remained silent, and handed Audra hers. “Okay, everyone. Go!” Nick shouted, holding his stocking upside down, and watching as everything spilled to the ground in a huge heap between his legs.

The other members of the family were systematically reaching in and removing one item, studying it, then reaching for the next one.

Nick was pawing his way through his stack, each gift being pushed aside for the next. Anyone could see that he delighted in the smaller gifts, and relished having them displayed before him, unwrapped. “Would you look at this. Father Christmas brought me some fishing hooks, spurs, and marzipan, along with more candies and nuts than I will ever be able to eat.”

“I think the bottle of perfume and my new hair barrette are my favorites,” Audra exclaimed happily, while Victoria commented, “This pin is lovely as are these lace handkerchiefs.”

“Jarrod, what did you get?” Audra questioned.

“More than I would have expected,” he answered truthfully, adding, “But my favorites are my new pen, this Whitman book, and the pocket watch.”

“Looks like once again the stockings were well filled. We will be eating candy and nuts for days, but now it’s time to move on to the presents, I think,” Victoria remarked, laying a hand on Nick’s shoulder as she moved to the other side of the room, and the piles of gifts stacked in the corner.

“Coming, Mother, as soon as I start my present pile,” Audra said, as Jarrod added “I’m almost ready as well.”

“Well I’m ready,” Nick said. “When you get here why don’t you do the honors Jarrod?”

“Fine. I see a lovely present here, and the tag says it’s for Audra from Nick,” he read, handing her the box.

“For me?” she said gleefully taking the package from his outstretched hands. As she unwrapped it, Nick bent forward expectantly, and wasn’t disappointed when she pulled out a gorgeous royal blue gown. Holding it up to her, and twirling, she exclaimed, “Oh Nick, it is the most beautiful dress I have ever owned. I have no place to wear anything this fancy.

As she was floating on cloud nine, Jarrod said, “Maybe my gift to you will remedy that situation.” and he handed her a small box.

Still giddy over the quality of the dress, she accepted Jarrod’s offering and cried upon opening it. “I feel like a princess. Jarrod, opera glasses, tickets to the San Francisco opera, and dinner with you, is more than I ever dreamed of. I never thought you’d take me. San Francisco. I’ve always wanted to spend the night in the city. Oh thank you.” she said, crushing him in a hug.

“It’s time Audra. You’re really growing up,” he said, smiling that he and Nick had made her so happy. Mother’s gift would be the crowing glory for the princess, he thought, as he said, “We might as well finish yours, before you crash back to earth, so this is Mother’s to you.”

Turning to her mother, she sat, and opened her last present. The creamy pearl necklace, bracelet and matching earring parure, would be the perfect finishing touch to her new dress, and sophisticated enough for her trip to San Francisco. Shakily removing the pearls, and holding them to her throat, she heard Victoria say, “Audra, they were my wedding pearls from your father. I want you to…….”

“Oh, Mother,” she said crying, the tears streaming down her face, “Nothing could be more wonderful, or mean more to me.”

Gathering her sobbing daughter in her arms, Victoria muttered, “Happy Christmas darling.”

Trying to get her emotions back under control, Audra turned watery eyes on each of her family members, and said, “I have never felt more loved. Thank you all, and Nick, I take back what I said about you forgetting gifts sometimes.”

“Not to worry, Sis.” he laughed. “Now who’s next, Jarrod?”

“I think I’ll open one next, Nick. Lets try this one from you.”

“Now Jarrod, you’re going to be so pleased,” Nick began as Jarrod tore into his gift. “I had these sent all the way from……”

“Cuba,” Jarrod cut in. “Cuban cigars. Nick, this is a real treat. When Alexander Whitling let me have one of his, it was the best smoke I ever had.”

“I remembered you saying that, that’s why I got them for you.”

“Well Nick, I don’t think that I will share them, but I will enjoy them,” he remarked, a full grin covering his face, as Nick sputtered, “Sharing is a good thing to do on Christmas.”

“We’ll see,” was his last comment on the matter, as he reached for the next box. “Mother, here is one to you from Audra.”

As she reached for the box, knowing nothing Audra could give her, could top her birthday gift, she was startled by a knock on the door.

“Now who would be interrupting our Christmas?” Nick flared, as Victoria laying the package aside, rose and headed to the door followed by her family. Nothing could have surprised her more than to see George and Edna standing before them, George looking like he would like to disappear, and Edna looking like she was on a mission directly from God.

“George, Edna,” Victoria began, “Won’t you come in?”

“That would be wonderful,” Edna answered. “I hope were not interrupting,” she said as they moved into the parlor and sat down. “We’ve come to see Heath. He didn’t come by yesterday to pick up his Christmas gifts to you.” she said, noting that Heath was not with the family, and getting a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“He received a telegram saying he was needed in Strawberry,” Jarrod explained patiently.

Smacking George, she said, “Didn’t I tell you, that the fool boy wouldn’t wise up?”

“Now Edna, calm down” George soothed.

“CALM DOWN! He’s missing Christmas and it was so important to him, all because he is a fool man and afraid of upsetting people.”

“Edna, maybe there is another reason……..” George continued, then seeing the families blank looks, he shut up.

Jarrod finally interrupted, as the silence ensued, “Maybe you could explain to us exactly what is amiss?”

As Edna said, “Well it’s like this,……..” Victoria sat up and took note. Edna, when given the chance to talk, rarely ever stopped, but this time she was talking about Heath. If anyone knew Heath as well as she did, it was Edna. What was that Edna had said? She couldn’t believe she was hearing, what she thought she had. Surely Edna was mistaken.

“Edna, would you mind repeating yourself?” she said, as she looked at her families faces, which all seemed to be registering different emotions.

“Victoria, I just said that George sent that telegram to Heath, at Heath’s request. I just didn’t think he would be foolish enough to go through with it.”

“Are you telling me that Heath didn’t have an emergency in Strawberry?” “Why?” “Jarrod? Nick? Audra?” No answer forthcoming, she said, “go on.”

“Anyway, we thought we should bring down his gifts to you all. He’s worked so hard on them. Spent most of the year in our barn, when he wasn’t working for us. I was just hoping that he was here, not that I expected him to be really.”

“Am I correct in understanding, there are presents from Heath, that he made, outside on the wagon, that you drove in. That’s what you have covered by the tarp?”

“Yes Ma’am” George answered. “If you’ll just tell us where to put them until he gets back from wherever he went, we’ll do that and let you get back to your Christmas.”

“I want to see those gifts.” Victoria stated firmly, recalling Colleen’s ornament.

“I think you should wait for Heath, Mrs. Barkley,” George said nervously, then added, “Edna! I told you we should have waited for Heath. He didn’t want them to know. Heck, he didn’t want you to know, cause he knew this would happen.”

“They needed to know George. We’ve been all over this,” she added, as once again they slipped back into the obviously well discussed opinions of how this issue should be handled, ignoring the fact that they were at another person’s home.

To Jarrod, it was apparent that George was adamantly against their coming, but that Edna was a force to be reckoned with when she had her mind made up. He briefly wondered why this was so often the case with women, when he refocused on the scene before him.

“I agree with George, Victoria. I say you should wait for Heath, to look at the gifts.”

Standing, a defiant look on her face, and her posture brooking no interference, Victoria replied sharply, “With or without your approval, I’m going to go look under that tarp.”

“We’ll all go, Mother,” Nick said, the anger at Heath’s leaving apparent.

“No we won’t,” she emphatically stated. “I will, and I alone.”, and with that she marched out the door and around to the side of the wagon, not visible through a window, so no one could watch what she was doing. All of a sudden, her bravado turned to trepidation, as her hands reached for the corner of the tarp. Raising a back corner, and peeking in, she saw what she instantly recognized as Nick’s gift. It was enough. Her hands shaking, and her throat closing, she dropped the cloth, and just stood there. *Why? She mentally asked herself over and over. Why would he leave? It had been hard. It had been different, but everyone, Heath included, seemed to be doing so well. The last week was positively joyful. To joyful! In a split second, she knew with a certainty that Edna was correct. Heath had relaxed. Heath knew he was leaving. Why?* Deeply shaken both by the revelations and by what she had just seen, she made an instant decision. Her family would understand, but they would all have some feelings to work through. Life until Heath returned would be hell, but she was grateful to Edna.

Reentering the house she was greeted by five faces. One sad, one angry, one confused, and two uncomfortable, now that their errand was over.

“Mother?” Audra questioned.

“In a minute. George, would you take the wagon to the back barn? Nick will guide you. You can borrow one of our wagons, until we get yours back to you.”

“I’d be glad to Mrs. Barkley.” George said, moving to the door, thankful to be out of the house and away from all the eyes.

Nick followed him, almost as if in a trance.

“Edna,” Victoria said quietly, as she hugged her, “You did the right thing, no matter how hard it was on you and George. We can now make this right. Thank you.”

Hearing the sincerity of her words, Edna quietly responded, “I was certain you would, or I wouldn’t have come. George was still against it you know,” she added, her perpetually good humor returning. “Send him over, when everything is settled, you know we love him.”

“Yes I do, and this proves it.”

As George and Nick returned, Edna said, “Let’s go George, we still have some fruit cake to eat, and as they walked to the door, Edna added, “It’s okay now George. Victoria is taking care of everything, just like I predicted.”

“We promised Heath.”

“Some promises need to be broken, when you love your children,” she responded as the door closed behind them.

Victoria couldn’t have agreed more with her sentiments.

Heath played solitaire.

As the family watched in silence, George and Edna rode away. It was then that the barrage of questions began.

“What’s gotten into that boy?” Nick fumed. “Quiet one minute, laughing the next, he really infuriates me. I never know what he’s thinking.” Striding repeatedly back and forth across the room, Nick added, “When he returns, I’ll give him a piece of my mind, and I’ll use my fists to knock it into his head.”

“Nick!” Victoria admonished, “Let’s go sit down and work this through rationally.

“Rationally! Rationally! There is nothing rational about what he did.” Nick continued ranting, as he followed his family back to the parlor.

As Nick’s voice rose, it contrasted sharply with Audra’s tight lipped silence, as she began to withdraw. Jarrod, sensing her discomfort, sat by her side and quietly held her hand, as once again, her lovely eyes held tears.

“Why? Jarrod, Mother?” she said so softly, that her question went unheard over Nick’s continued release of pent up anger. Nick was to keyed up to sit, and continued to pace briskly, but ceased his yelling as Victoria’s second, abruptly spoken, “Nick, enough!”

Glaring at her, his anger hiding his deep sense of hurt, Victoria knew that something needed to be done. “This has been a shock, she began, knowing that this was an understatement, but we all need to help each other figure out what to do from here.” Gathering her thoughts, she began to speak again, when, like a comedy of errors, there was another knock on the front door.

“Who the hell?” Nick spat, as once again everyone trooped to the door, disbelief etched on all their faces. The knock, more hesitant this time, came again.

“I’ll open it, Mother,” Audra said, as if expecting to find the two headed troll from her child hood nightmares waiting for her. She didn’t think anything could shock her again.

“Colleen, what are you doing here?” She asked, surprised. It wasn’t a troll, but she was shocked. Maybe the troll would have been easier to handle.

“Merry Christmas, everyone,” Colleen replied happily, looking for Heath. “I’ve come to see Heath.”

“Hasn’t everyone?” Nick said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Maybe this is a bad time. I just wanted to bring him his present. May I see him?”

“Colleen,” Victoria said, taking her hand and leading her, along with the rest of the family, to the parlor and indicating a chair. “It seems that Heath has gone off on his own for Christmas. He isn’t here now, but should be back, in a few days.” She had almost said home, but the news had her questioning how Heath felt. Was this home to him? “It would seem that this is news to you as well.”

“No, he can’t be gone, he was so excited about spending Christmas with all of you,” Colleen explained.

“Colleen,” Jarrod asked, “If I may, just how well do you know Heath?” He questioned, his agile mind flashing back to a lone glove on a picnic blanket.

Looking boldly at the entire family, and wishing Heath were at her side, she took the bull by the horns, and said, “We’ve been courting regularly since the August social,” then sat back and waited for the questions to begin.

Stunned silence followed her announcement as Jarrod weighed the situation, and Audra stared at her best friend in shock, wondering how she could have missed this development.

“That man you keep talking about, and teasing all of us over, the one that is so wonderful, that we don’t believe you anymore, your saying that it’s Heath?” She said incredulously.

“Yes.” Colleen blushed.

“You don’t seem surprised, Mother, Nick,” Jarrod stated in a matter of fact tone, “I know I am.”

“I’ve known for about two months,” Victoria said, as she placed a hand on Colleen’s shoulder to lend support.

Nick, smiling, said, “I’ve been sure since October that they were courting.”

“How did you know?” Colleen questioned Nick.

“Let’s skip the details and just leave it at, I am pleased.”

“Well, now that their secret is out in the open, let’s refocus on why Heath left,” Victoria again steered the conversation to the problem at hand, but not knowing where to begin, she flashed Jarrod a grateful nod, when he said “Let’s examine the facts.” As every face turned toward him expectantly, he forged ahead. “We know Heath didn’t have an emergency in Strawberry. We know that he was thinking of having Christmas with us, since it seems that he made us gifts. We know that for some reason he chose to avoid Christmas with us.”

“Avoid is wrong, I think,” Colleen cut in.

“Okay Colleen, why is avoid the wrong word, it seems fine to me?” Jarrod asked for clarification.

Firmly, she squared her shoulders, and answered, “Heath would no more want to avoid you than he would want to hurt you. Avoid implies intentionally leaving for his own purposes. I’ve never known Heath, short of coming to your ranch, of ever doing something for personal gain. If he left, it would have been to spare you or help you, but not avoid, no matter how misguided his thinking may be.”

Admiring her well thought out answer, Jarrod further prompted, “Has he said anything to you?”

As Colleen reviewed past conversations, she hesitantly said, “I would like to help, but Heath is very private. He said nothing about leaving, but I’d rather not add to that statement, if, in his way of thinking this is something that he needed to do.”

“Colleen, Please,” Victoria asked again.

As Colleen looked at Audra’s pale face, saw both Jarrod’s and Nick’s disguised hurt, and heard Victorias plea, she said, “He occasionally let drop that he feels like an intruder on your traditions.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Nick stated, as her words hit close to home. “We include him, and we want him here. He knows that! Or at least he should!”

“I hadn’t finished, Nick,” Colleen stated clearly. “Maybe I should just speak with you Mrs. Barkley.”

Jarrod patiently explained, “I know that you are trying to protect Heath, but we all need to know what he is thinking if we are going to be able to understand him, and in turn help him realize that he didn’t need to run away.”

“That’s it, Jarrod,” Colleen said, animatedly, “He’s scared, but very good at hiding it.”

“Afraid of what?” Audra spoke up.

“Afraid of losing all he needs, and of not belonging,” Jarrod answered for Colleen. “Heath said as much the other night, and I didn’t put it together. I might know where he is. Colleen, would you like to go look with me?”

I think he’s more frightened of overstepping his bounds, or causing the family some type of hurt. You may be right Jarrod, but that seems too simple for Heath.” she said, then added, “Yes, I ‘d love to go with you. He needs to be found, and I want to see him open my Christmas present.”

“I’ll check the line shack, where he trained Lightning,” Nick added.

As they prepared to go, Victoria stopped them momentarily and said, “Whether we find Heath today, or have to wait until he returns, I say we put a hold on Christmas, until he returns, then do it up proper. The entire family. Audra, while they go search, you can help me re-wrap the presents, and fill the stockings again.”

“I agree Mother,” Jarrod stated, as Audra nodded her approval.

Nick too, nodded, saying, “What’s another few days without presents anyway. It’s not like I care.” Then his face once again broke into a boyish grin. He knew he wasn’t fooling anyone. Christmas always brought out the child in him, and it was the one time of the year when he didn’t mind.

Nick left immediately, and began saddling Coco, while thinking of Heath. Just as quickly, he changed his mind and moved to saddle Lightning instead. If he found his brother, he would let him know that he cared, by riding the horse Heath had given him. Heading off at a gallop, Nick fumed and worried endlessly. If there had been an emergency in Strawberry as the telegram stated, there would be no problem, but as it was, he really didn’t know what he was supposed to feel.

He was angry at Heath leaving. Heath could have come and talked to him. He would clam up every time Nick got anywhere near a sensitive spot, and as far as he was concerned, Heath’s entire life was a sensitive spot. Like that time they were working on the levees and Heath said that he hadn’t gotten the hang of the family thing yet, then refused to talk anymore.

He was angry that Heath felt the need to leave. What had he done, if anything, to make him feel this way? Silently going over every conversation that he could remember having with his quiet brother, he could find no reason to feel guilty. Deciding that it wasn’t anything that the family had done, or Heath himself. For that matter, but rather just a difference they needed to work through and straighten out, he absolved himself from all guilt and tried to put himself in Heath’s place. He had been there since late March. Almost nine months.

It had taken them all time to get used to the idea that their father had sired a son out of wedlock, and he had to admit that he probably was the most persistent in punishing Heath for his father’s transgressions, but even from the start, he had admired Heath. Heath had stood up for himself, worked ceaselessly, was able to handle others, and never expected anyone to do anything he wouldn’t.

Over ranch work they had formed a strong bond, and with time, it grew. Now he really didn’t know what he would do without Heath in his life. Like Heath’s stocking today, it felt out of place leaving it there. Heath was as much a part of the family as his stocking was a part of the necessary mantle piece adornments.

Sure Christmas had been hard. Heath wouldn’t talk about what his Christmases had been like, but he was sure that the rigidity and opulence of their season contrasted sharply with Heath’s, yet Heath had seemed to handle things well. The discomfort had shown, but then he would seem to get the idea and it would fade as he eased his way slowly into new traditions. Why had he left? Colleen said he was afraid. Heath wasn’t afraid. Jarrod agreed. Something about Heath being afraid of losing what was important to him. What would that be. Heath really didn’t have any special possessions as far as he could tell. The only thing he had was the ranch and the family. This thinking was getting him nowhere. He’d leave it up to Heath to explain himself, then he would spend time fixing whatever Heath felt the problem was. He could fix problems!

Coming back out of his mental wanderings, he noticed how clear and cold the air was. No rain in three days. The ground was drying out. He was nearing the line shack, but he already knew that Heath wasn’t there. He couldn’t smell a fire and he saw no hoof prints. Arriving, he briefly dismounted and quickly checked, even though he had been correct. There would have been signs of activity. No one had been here in at least a month.

Hoping Jarrod had better luck than he did, he headed home as quickly as possible. He didn’t want to miss Christmas if Heath returned with Jarrod. If not he would just pretend that Christmas was not today. One way or another, what ever day Heath arrived home, the ranch work could be hanged. They would celebrate, after he talked some sense into Heath.

Heath played solitaire.

Jarrod and Colleen were ready to head out immediately after Nick. Jarrod saddled the horses they would use, and Colleen extracted a promise from Victoria not to let her mother fret, if she showed up wondering where she was.

Many thoughts crosses Jarrod’s mind as he saddled Jingo and Silver. Knowing he would be spending time with Colleen soon, he gave some thought to the girl Heath had won, and Audra cherished as a good friend . She wasn’t Helen, he smiled, but she had good breeding and manners, a quick mind, and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in. As Audra’s friend, Jarrod knew her to be kind and helpful as well. He often heard the two laughing. But in social situations she seemed, as the men said, cold as ice. He had to agree. He danced with her once, at Audra’s request, and decided that she felt herself to be above everyone at the social. How had Heath broken through her icy exterior to the warm woman Audra knew? Colleen had found something in Heath, that she found lacking in the rest of the male population of Stockton. He knew this was a correct statement, as everyone else who had tried to court her had been turned away, and rumor had it that it wasn’t her mother’s wish that the men left, but rather Colleen’s herself. Maybe she would explain and he could solve this mystery as well.

She was waiting outside, as he brought the horses around, and after he helped her mount, they were off. Clearing the Barkley gate, she asked, “Exactly where are we going?”

A place Heath calls the arena, perhaps you’ve been before?”

“You knew I’d been there when you asked me to come, didn’t you? Heath must think a lot of you. I wasn’t sure he’d tell anybody about it, and before you asked, I was ready to ride there myself. It would be my first guess of a place he would be.”

“Seeing it once, and knowing Heath, I’d have to agree with you.”

After five minutes of continued riding, he was sure she was not going to answer, and once again he thought, this is how she always acts. Wanting to talk with her, he asked directly, “What do you see in Heath?”

“He treats me as an equal and as a woman. He also makes me laugh, and listens to my opinions even though he doesn’t always agree. I guess Jarrod, he is something of a mystery to me. He keeps me guessing”

“No one else has?”

She reigned Silver in and stopped. As Jarrod wheeled to face her, she said, “Very rarely Jarrod. I’m seen as spoiled, beautiful, rich, shallow, and cold. I know what everyone says. Nick is a good example. He compares my beauty to the heavens, and says that he will give me everything they hold. Heath wants us to go together. When we first met he was dodging Virginia Wheeler, and while it was obvious he found me attractive, he noticed my personality more. You of all people must know what it is like!”

“I don’t understand.”

“Jarrod,” she said angrily, “you’re not obtuse. Every mama in Stockton has their hopes pinned on having one of their daughters marry you. Don’t you wonder if they are interested in you, or rather in everything Barkley?”

“No. I’ll choose who I want as a wife.”

“You’re fortunate then. I need to question the outrageous flattery. I’ve been asked to marry numerous times, and not one of them knew who I was.”

“I think I understand now,” Jarrod said softly, “and Heath?”

“Understands me,” she replied, and in that second, as she smiled openly, he felt lucky for Heath. All the impishness, happiness, maturity, and love one person could hold shown in her eyes and in that smile. It was how he hoped Helen felt about him.

The rest of the trip passed in companionable silence, and continued all the way into the arena itself. It took Jarrod only a second to realize Heath wasn’t there, and even less time to find Colleen’s face buried in his lapel.

“I was so sure,” she sobbed.

Instinctively caressing her head and shoulders in an attempt to sooth her, as he did with Audra when she was upset, Jarrod nodded in agreement with her statement. As he gently led her back to Silver he felt her draw a deep breath, and watched as her hand made a quick swipe at her eyes.

“Jarrod?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know. Sometimes I’m still so confused. I have laughed more, cried more, shouted more, and felt more since meeting Heath than in my entire life, but, I don’t understand him at all.”

Laughing, he tipped her head up so their eyes would meet, and placing a finger across her lips to still the outburst, he saw forthcoming, he said, “That is one thing the entire family will agree with you on. I’m not sure anyone understands him. Let’s go see if Nick had any luck?”

Her anger turning to laughter, as she realized he wasn’t laughing at her admission, she responded, “Nick won’t have had any luck. Heath is too stubborn to be anywhere predictable,” and with that she tossed her hair and rode at a gallop, Jarrod beside her, all the way back to the Barkleys.

Entering the house, and spying Mary McDougal but not Heath, Jarrod assumed Nick’s venture wasn’t fruitful, and laughed at Colleen’s assessment once more, but couldn’t resist confirming with, “Well?”

“Not there. You?” Nick shot back.

“No.” Jarrod said flatly, his hopes that Nick had found Heath dashed.

“Well Colleen,” Mary said, laying aside her tea, “It’s time we get home, young lady. Dashing about looking for men just isn’t done,” she added, ushering Colleen out the door.

Audra sighed, and Jarrod whispered, ‘goodbye’ as she passed to get her wrap. Mary opened the door and just before Colleen pulled it shut, she turned quickly and smiled at Jarrod, then left.

That smile was very different from the open one she had given him while discussing Heath, and he felt sorry for Mary. The smile said volumes, and her mother would likely learn of her irritation as soon as they were out of earshot.

The minute the door closed, Nick said, “Well what do we do now?”

“Waiting, seems to be our only option,” Victoria supplied. “He is returning, were just not sure when.”

“It’s almost three o’clock . Scotch, Jarrod?”

“Yes Nick, I think I will.” he said, as he moved into the parlor and saw the re-wrapped packages and the stockings, once again hanging over the fireplace, laden with gifts.

As the day crawled slowly toward the dinner hour, the family drank, played cards, talked, reminisced, and at times cursed what ever the problem was that kept them from having a family Christmas that day. One thing was certain. Christmas without Heath just wasn’t Christmas.

Heath ate beans.

When Victoria announced dinner, it was obvious to everyone that they were going through the motions. Jarrod offered her his arm. Nick escorted Audra in. They made small talk and picked at their food. Finally Nick broke some of the tension by saying “I thought that only Heath could push food around on his plate for an hour without eating. Seems like it may be a family trait after all. I don’t think anyone here has eaten more than a few bites.”

Looking at their plates, and seeing uneaten piles of cold food, they all laughed. Heath was known for not eating, but tonight they were all doing a credible job of mimicking him.

“If no one is going to eat, we may as well stop the pretense and clear this mess up. The longer food sits, the harder the plates are to clean,” Victoria said, as Audra rose with her to clear the table. “Why don’t we meet you back in the game room when were done.”

“Sounds fine Mother. Pool, Nick?”

“Sure, since I’m not going to find out what is in my gifts, I may as well beat you at pool.”

“When it comes to Christmas, you have a one track mind.” Jarrod said laughingly.

“You would think that maybe we could have saved Audra’s gifts and done mine first,” Nick pretended to pout, feeling a great need to lighten the mood.

“Well at least you don’t know what your not getting,” Jarrod shot back, smiling. “I know I am not having an after dinner Cuban Cigar.”

‘Point taken, big brother.” Nick grinned in return.

“How long do you think we will have to wait til I can wring his neck?” Nick finally questioned, voicing what everyone wanted to know but hadn’t asked.

“I would say he won’t be back before the 27th,” Victoria said, entering. “Heath isn’t stupid, so he would figure out riding time, Christmas, goodbyes, then time to return, and not come home before that, just so it looks like he really went. What makes me mad is that he almost got away with it, and we are still not sure why.”

“I think we have a good idea why he left, don’t you Mother?” Audra asked.

“If you do Audra, could you share it with me,” Nick replied.

“I thought we decided he left because he didn’t want to upset our traditions, or because he was overwhelmed by our traditions. I know it has to do with our traditions. Doesn’t it?”

“It’s as clear as mud to you too, I see,” Nick replied as he fought to get the words out between clenched teeth again. “Every time I try to figure this out, my head hurts.” He snapped.

“I’ve given it a lot of thought today, and while we will have to wait for Heath to confirm anything, I think he left, as Colleen said, because he thought he was doing us a favor, and because he was afraid that we might be happier without him. He needs to make the decision to allow himself to be accepted, as much as we need to let him know that he is fully accepted.” Victoria stated firmly.

As the family gave her words consideration, Audra reached down and picked up a glittering golden gift, from the floor by her chair. “I wonder what Colleen got Heath? I was surprised to hear they were courting. I never understood Colleen and her aversion to men. I’m surprised her Mother would even allow her to be with Heath.”

Thinking back to their conversation, Jarrod smiled as he said, “I think Colleen does as she wants, no matter how controlling her Mother seems.”

As Audra thought that over, Jarrod noticed his Mother’s agreeing nod to what he had said and nodded back, as he picked up his pool cue and was again beaten by Nick. “It seems like you win a lot more these days, Nick.”

“I think it has to do with playing Heath so often,” Nick replied. “The more I watch him play the better I seem to get.”

“A true statement, Nick. A true statement. When one plays with a better opponent, one improves. Maybe I should spend more time playing Heath. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t. This way I can honestly lose to all those influential political leaders as I plead my case, and they can take pity on my poor pool skills.”

“Now that sounds as calculated as Heath asking if you want to play a little game of poker.” Nick laughed.

Heath played solitaire.

Another game?”

“Sure, Nick,” Jarrod agreed, as he prepared to lose.

Heath played solitaire.

“That makes three losses in a row, Jarrod. Ready to call it quits and try your luck at cards?”

“I think I’m going to play Audra a game, before bed, if she is agreeable,” Jarrod asked.

“I would love to. I was tired of trying to get these stitches out,” she replied, laying aside her handwork. “What shall we play. Heath and I love whist. I miss him.”

“I do to Audra. Let’s play.”

Heath played solitaire.

“Looks like playing Heath has helped you to,” Jarrod said as Audra beat him two out of the three games. “There was a time when you didn’t stand a chance against me.”

“That was when I was twelve,” she shot back happily.

“Perhaps we can all play a game,” Victoria called. “I really don’t feel like reading anymore, and I’m not ready to turn in.”

“Great,” Nick said gathering the cards and putting them away. “Let’s play Chinese Checkers”

“Sounds fun, it’s been a long time since we played that as a family,” Audra enthused.

Nick pulled the game out of the cupboard, and everyone set up their own sections delighted with having something different to do.

“What a wonderful idea, Nick,” Victoria said merrily, as she prepared to go first. “I think it’s been over a year since we played. Last time I won a few games, much to your chagrin.”

As Jarrod took his turn, he said, “I wonder what Heath is doing?”

“He’s not beating you at this game,” Nick bantered good naturedly.

Heath played solitaire.

Audra took her turn by jumping the marble on the left into the center of the ring.

As Victoria started her second move, Jarrod said “You will never win this time Mother.”

Heath threw the cards across the room! They’d had enough Christmas. He’d had it with being alone. He was going home. Refusing to pick up the cards, he hastily he threw his belongings into his bedroll, doused the fire, left the line shack, mounted Gal, and rode for home. He would be back before they expected, and before he had intended, but he was done. Done lying! Done pretending! Done being alone! He didn’t care what it took, but he would be home on Christmas itself. Probably not until eleven thirty, but he would be home. The consequences be hanged.

As they continued to play Chinese checkers well into the evening, Heath rode at a breakneck pace. Now that his mind was made up, he refused to be deterred by caution. Slow riding wasn’t in the cards, but then again neither was the short cut he thought about taking. Just remembering Nick’s shortcut story made him decide he would rather arrive home tonight, then end up lost. He had a deadline to meet. Home for Christmas. It echoed in his brain with every mile covered. Memories came as well. Audra reaching for him, and his comforting her, but refusing to allow her words to console. Victoria’s silence over Colleen. Jarrod’s turmoil over how to right the imagined wrong over the money. Nick’s voice and companionship. Nicks quiet acceptance of Lightning, without trying to repay him for the gift. Jarrods patience while listening to his story. Audra’s sisterly teasing. Victoria’s making him a stocking. Colleen defying her mother for him. Faster and faster the clips came as he flew toward home. He was wrong. He needed them. This he had silently accepted long ago, but it seemed in some way that they might need him too. Trusting people was hard. The closer they became, the greater the hurt, especially when you had only experienced rebuke, refusal, anger, and denial. It was simple really. Black and white. Day and night. Hot and cold. But now there were also, shades of grey, dusk and dawn, and warm and cold. Maybe he could allow them into his life fully, and live with the pain that would come with it. Maybe it could be talked through, as Jarrod liked to say. Maybe the joy was worth it. No. Not maybe. It was worth the gamble. He’d start with an apology, then show them with his gifts.

With resolve came panic.

Cursing as the thoughts assailed him, he stopped and sat as his brain churned. *And if the presents weren’t good enough.. If he wasn’t good enough. If he was only being tolerated, not accepted.* The sweating began. If they laughed. He had no idea how a family worked. He’d never had siblings. What did he know? If he left again, who would care? The images flowed. *Victoria talking to Jarrod about the manger. Not knowing what went in a stocking. Audra almost spitting out that it was so wonderful, almost like last year. The year he hadn’t been there. Mary McDougal, glaring at him. Deep breath, he recalled. That was what he was taught. Deep breath. In and out. Instantly the panic was consumed in cleansing laughter. He’d just realized that there were shades, but when it came to breathing, you either did it or you didn’t. In and out. There was no, midway breathing! He’d beat these attacks before, he’d done it again.

Spurring Gal into a gallop again, knowing he was pushing her, he kept repeating, I’m going home.”

“Another game?” Victoria questioned, eyes alight with having won five of the seven games played.

“I think not, Mother, yet like you, I don’t think I could sleep.” Jarrod responded.

“I never mentioned sleeping.”

“No, but if the rest of you feel as I do, bed is the last thing possible right now, even though its already ten.”

“Ten,” Audra exclaimed. “I had no idea it was that late, but you’re right, if I went to bed now I would just lay there. Perhaps another game of whist, or perhaps piquet?” she suggested hopefully.

“No more games, I think I’ll just have another whiskey and then try to get to bed,” Nick said ending Audra’s chance at playing another partnered game.

“I think I’ll look over some work I was going to do after the holidays,” Jarrod said, heading to his office.

“Fine.” Nick responded. “I’ll join you and look over the accounts. I was going to do them with Heath, but at least I can get started.”

“Audra, I think we should pull out the alter cloths and continue finishing them, or if you would rather we could work on the baby dress for Dorothy and Sam’s new daughter,” Victoria said groping for the sewing basket, nestled by her chair.

Very uncharitably, Audra said, “It’s better than doing nothing. I’ll get the material,” she called as she headed upstairs.

“Don’t forget the pink trim,” she heard as she ascended the stairs. Would this night never end.

Waiting for Audra to return, Victoria tried to figure out which person in the household was the most upset, and decided it was her. Heath reminded her of Tom. All of her children did, but Heath’s mannerisms were new. It was like rediscovering Tom in different ways. She loved to open his door at night and watch him sleep. He sprawled across a bed like Tom did, and it brought back memories of shared snuggles. He was definitely Tom’s son, and she would have to tell him so. Make her understand that her anger was at Tom’s death, and the life they should still be having together, not at Heath himself. She knew she was distancing herself from Heath more at the holidays than any other time since coming to know him, but this was Tom’s favorite time of the year. She loved Heath, but she missed Tom, and it hurt.

Victoria stopped wallowing in her feelings, when Audra returned with the pink ribbons and the material, and she began helping her daughter.

Nick on the other hand couldn’t sit still.

“Nick, any more pacing and I’ll toss you out,” Jarrod roared, temper flaring in the tense surroundings.

“Just because you can sit there, not a care in the world…..” Nick chided, hoping an argument would help him focus, and knowing that Jarrod would rise to the bait.

“I’d be careful,” Jarrod sneered. “You can’t begin to understand how I feel.”

“Oh can’t I, Mr. Lawyer. You are concerned with doing the right thing and staying calm, keeping your image up. You irritate me. Our brother is out there, God knows where, doing God knows what, because you took the Kyle’s case.”

Jarrod staggered from the verbal onslaught. That was past and forgotten, or so he had assumed. Now Nick was shoving it in his face again. “It’s over Nick.” he said, his voice menacingly quiet. “I was wrong. Heath understands. He said his Mama would have agreed with what I did. More comments like those and I wont stop with words next time.”

“Like you could win,” Nick taunted.

There was something there, something more than anger and Jarrod heard it. He’d heard it before in prisons when someone needed to spill their guts. Usually when they were guilty. Instantly anger turned to caring, as he moved over and said as quietly as possible, “Nick?”, and placed a hand on his shoulder, and applied pressure toward the chair.

“Sorry Jarrod,” Nick responded, all at once feeling drained, now that Jarrod had stopped taking the bait.

“What is bothering you?”

“How do you always know?”

“Twenty eight years of being the brother to the loudest mouth in Stockton. The only times you’ve ever turned your mouth on your family is when you feel that you are to blame, or when you are hurt.”

After minutes, that seemed to drag like hours, Nick said, “He talks to you.”

Trying to lighten the hurt he heard in the four spoken words, Jarrod said “Maybe it’s because I listen.” He was instantly sorry, as Nick began to rise, hackles up. “That was badly done on my part, Nick. Heath does talk to you.”

“No he doesn’t,” Nick replied, slumping back into the chair.

“You knew about Colleen.”

“I saw them. He never said a word.”

Eyes downcast, Jarrod had no answer. Finally, trying another tack, he said, “Heath rarely talks.”

“Right, and the few times he does, it isn’t to me.”

“He’s told you about his love of horses, and he asked about your birthday. I butt in Nick, trying to help. You give him time and space. I’ve been jealous actually.” Jarrod admitted. “He respects and admires you. You have things in common. You seem to know what he needs.”

Looking up, Nick smiled at his brother and said, “I was thinking the exact things about you. Once again I was jealous of my big brother.”

“Maybe Heath has brought up a topic we need to address. He is a member of the family, not a prize to be won.”

“I know Jarrod,” Nick said as the two brothers began what was a heartfelt and very needed talk, that easily predated Heath’s arrival. Issues of rivalry, dominance, and favoritism were discussed. When they exited the room, over an hour later, to check on Audra and Victoria, they were closer than ever.

“Mother, Audra, looks like you’ve made progress,” Jarrod said, as Nick smiled. Jarrod would always be the peacemaker. It was nice feeling that he could allow Jarrod this role with out having to try to compete. His mind quiet, he heard what no one else did.

No! His mind screamed, you’re wishing, but he couldn’t stop his feet from striding as quickly as possible to the door. Throwing it open, he yelled “Jarrod, Mother, Audra” before his brain could fully explain what he saw. He tore to the barn. There was no mistaking that boy on a horse. He carried himself so easily, became one with the horse, and the flying dismount he had just watched, all before he yelled, added up to only one thing. Heath was back!

Startled, the three in the house rushed to the door, only to see Nick’s hurriedly retreating form as he ran across the space leading to an open barn door.

It only took a minute for Jarrod to put the scene together and come up with “Robbers!” He called. Picking his holster up from the table he prepared to follow Nick. “Audra, Mother, stay inside,” he commanded. Christmas robberies were not uncommon, and at the speed Nick was approaching the barn the robbers would be sure to hear him. He decided to move cautiously toward the barn, appraise the situation, then take action, when he heard Nick shout “Heath!”

Breaking into a run, he raced as quickly as Nick, and opening the door, was greeted by the sight of his youngest brother, looking disheveled, dirty, and a site for sore eyes. However as he appraised the situation, he retreated from view. Nick and Heath’s voices were rising, and he didn’t want to intrude. Nick had been so upset earlier, and Heath was unaware of the families knowledge of his lie. He would let Nick get a few things out of his system, while he went in and told Mother and Audra that Heath had returned.

As he headed back, Nick’s voice escalated, and he heard, “Now that you’re home, you have some explaining to do,” before he was out of earshot.

“What explaining?” Heath asked hesitantly. He intended to apologize and explain, but they shouldn’t know anything was up, until he told them. Nick could be upset about anything.

“Explain why you lied to us! Where have you been? We searched everywhere.” Nick yelled.

“Simmer down, Nick. I’ll explain. How did ya find out?”

“Not that I need to tell you anything, but George and Edna brought your presents by and spilled everything. Start talking.”

“I’ll explain to everyone at once.”

“No. I want an explanation now. Why did you leave? Did I…..” he started, then stopped abruptly, clenching his fists and glaring at Heath.

Picking up on his tense stance, and his unspoken question, Heath sighed and began, tailoring his talk to Nick. “It’s not you Nick. Reckon there is something wrong with me. Thought it might be better if I wasn’t here. Took about 20 minutes to realize I wanted to be home, and another 36 hours to get my stubborn backside on my horse. Here I am.”

“Then I didn’t…”

“No.”

Relieved, and thrilled to have his brother home, Nick grabbed Heath’s wrist and pulled him into a quick embrace, which to his surprise was returned with great force. “Let’s go in and see the family.”

“Uh..Nick”

“Yeah,” he said as they walked side by side to the house.

“If I uh….need advice uh…”

“Sure, Heath. Sure.” Catching Heath’s smile, Nick smiled in return and opened the door to the house, surprised to find Jarrod, Audra, and Victoria, standing around it looking like they were ready to pounce. It reminded Nick of the prodigal sons return, and he realized, at least as far as he was concerned, Heath deserved the welcome.

Heath, flushing bright red, was overwhelmed by the force of the greeting as everyone talked at once, hurling questions at him, one after another. The reoccurring one seemed to be, was he okay? This is what had been missing for the past few days. Noise, and concern.

“Heath, sit down. You look tired. Can I get you something to drink?” Victoria asked.

Taking his customary seat on the divan, Heath said, “No, I’m fine. I got something to say, if you’ll let me.”

Glancing at her family with a look that said, if you talk I’ll personally see to it that you are never able to utter another word again, Victoria said, “Go ahead Heath, we’re listening,” as she seated herself beside him .

Staying red, and dreading the next few minutes, as well as being the focus of four pair of eyes, Heath cleared his throat, and started in. “Nick told me that you already know I didn’t need to go to Strawberry. I was staying at the line shack over by Rustlers Gulch. I expect you’ll want to know why I left. I just thought you would want to have one more Christmas alone as a family. After being gone, I realized I wanted to be here, no matter what you wanted, so I selfishly came back.”

There it was over. He’d gotten it out, and they hadn’t hanged him yet. Actually, they hadn’t said anything. Maybe he should have stayed gone. Refusing to pick his head up and meet anyone’s eyes, he nervously twisted his button, round and round. As he stared at the floor, he noticed something shiny drop near his boot. What in the world. Reaching out to touch it, he watched as it spread, and when his fingers did reach it, they came away wet. What was going on. Looking up from where the spot was, he saw Audra, shoulders shaking and tears running down her face.

Taking her hands, he said, “I’m sorry. I guess I should have waited another day or two.” only to find his cheek sore, as she smacked him as hard as possible across his face. “What the…….”

“Heath Barkley, I am so furious! How could you assume you weren’t wanted here?” she spat as she turned and started toward the stairs. Two steps later she was throwing herself against his bemused form, while her family chuckled, the tension broken.

Gathering her into his arms, he whispered, “Sorry Sis. I just didn’t think.” It was the best he could offer, and it worked with Colleen, so maybe he would get lucky and it would work with her.

“Men often don’t,” she responded, in the same exacerbated tone Colleen had used on these same occasions, but she seemed to forgive him. “Now can we have Christmas?”

“Have Christmas?” Heath questioned. “I thought you would have done that earlier today. Don’t tell me it’s a nighttime tradition in your family?”

“Laughing at his shocked expression, Jarrod said, “No Heath, when we realized you didn’t have to be gone, we held Christmas for you. Its about fifteen minutes until midnight. I bet we can get those stockings open before tomorrow officially dawns.”

“Right, Jarrod,” Nick said rushing to the fireplace and beginning the distribution all over again.

While Nick was handing out the stockings, Victoria leaned over to Heath and quietly said, “We need to talk before you turn in. I need to tell you a few things.”

“Alright” he responded, not sure if he should be frightened or relieved that his comeuppance wouldn’t be in front of everyone. Resolving to put the conversation from his mind until he needed to deal with it, he prepared to enjoy the Christmas he never had.

Holding the stocking Nick handed him, Heath felt awed. It was his. He figured that the family would get a laugh out of watching him fumble through this, as he had through their entire Christmas proceedings, but he was going to ask, in case he didn’t understand anything. This was his first step to fully allowing them into his life, and hopefully it would get easier as time went on.

“Everyone ready?” Nick called, from his place on the floor beside the fireplace.

“Ready,” Audra called back.

“Now.” he responded, and Heath watched as he dumped the entire contents on the floor. Audra was taking items out one at a time, as were Jarrod and Victoria. Seems like I can do this however I want. Truly hesitant, not so much from making a mistake, but rather from having a stocking at all, he picked his up and moved near Nick. Deciding that he really wanted to know what his stocking held, he tipped his, as Nick had, and began to reverently pick each item up, one at a time, marveling over how perfect each one was for him. He had a pair of brown suede work gloves, the quality of which he had never seen. He had fishing hooks, like Nick was shouting about. There was a book, a new currying brush, and at the bottom, a child’s toy boat. He also had a huge pile of sweets and nuts. Staring hard at all his items, he turned to Nick, and quietly asked, “Now what do I do?”

Thrilled to have Heath ask him, and remembering the conversation of earlier, he answered truthfully, “Now we open the gifts to each other. Jarrod usually plays Santa. Stack your stocking items together, and start a pile just for your stuff, then head to the other side of the room, and get ready to watch Audra cry.”

“Audra is going to cry?”

“She did earlier, when she opened her gifts.”

“If you’ve already done this, why are you doing it again?” Heath asked, clearly puzzled.

“When we realized you were not missing Christmas for any real reason, we decided to wait until you came back. We wanted to have Christmas with you.”

“Me?”

“Who else was missing from the family Christmas? Of course you. You almost caused me to wait and not get my gifts. I may never forgive you for that,” Nick joked.

“I’ll believe you, but I really don’t understand.”

Lowering his voice even more, Nick leaned closer, and whispered, “You still don’t get it, do you? We wanted to have Christmas with you.”

Blushing Heath said, “So I make a pile then go over there by Jarrod?”

“Fine. Avoid the issue. See you over there,” Nick said hurriedly piling his items up, and moving to get a good spot by Jarrod, as he hadn’t opened even one of his gifts yet.

Smiling, Heath piled his stocking stuffers together, then joined the rest over by the front window, where the packages were piled.

“Let’s see,” Jarrod said. “I think we’ll let Audra go first, as he once again passed out Audra’s presents, and the family watched as she reopened them, and once again began crying, as Nick had predicted, when Victoria, for Heath’s benefit, relayed the tale of the pearls and their significance.

Next Jarrod opened his present from Nick, then told Heath that from here on nobody had seen anything.

“When do you fit my presents to all of you in?” Heath questioned. “And, where are they?”

“Oh Heath, they’re in the barn. We’ll wait for you to get them. Nick can help if you need it,” Victoria answered.

“If you don’t mind waiting, I’d love to be able to hand out mine. I didn’t know how you did it. I really can’t let Jarrod hand them out this year, as they aren’t wrapped. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Let me help you bring the wagon around. It’s pretty big. I’ve been dying to have a look, but Mother forbade it, and no one goes against her wishes.”

“Boy Howdy, don’t I know it,” Heath responded, as he and Nick headed once again into the night, and the rest of the family chuckled at his emphatic response.

It took them a few minutes to get to the barn, open the door, and maneuver the wagon to the front of the house. Heath also had to keep an eye on Nick, who was continually trying to peek under the tarp. When they reached the front of the house, Heath told Nick to go inside, and that he would be right in with Audra’s gift.

“Fine Heath, I’ll tell Audra not to look, then you can hand it to her,” he responded, trying to take one last quick peek before entering the house.

When Heath came in, gift behind his back, everyone strained to see it, but he refused, until he placed it in Audra’s hands. His tension was palpable, and Audra knew he was nervous about her reaction, but she had no need to put on an act, as she gazed at the most intricately carved and marquetry inlaid jewelry box she had ever seen. Tears threatening to spill over again, she traced her fingers over the design work on the top. The scene was of a young woman dancing with a handsome gentleman at a social. She could see her family depicted in the background. Jarrod stood by a potted plant, that was elegantly done in light pine. Nick and Heath were in the background, and her Mother was sitting in a chair by the dance floor. Each persons eyes were on the woman dancing, and seemed to be shining with pride. She could picture them twirling to the strains of a fine waltz, while the family offered her their protection, in the form of love. Opening the box, she saw that the inside was beautifully covered in a deep blue satin, and divided into partitions, to make separating the jewels easier. “Mother, you should see this,” she said handing the jewelry box over and rushing to hug and kiss Heath, like he had never been kissed before. The kiss was from a sister that was so touched, the love poured forth.

“Heath, it’s perfect,” she sighed, as her mother echoing her sentiments passed it to Jarrod and Nick. “My new pearls now have the perfect home. “I know you made this, but it really doesn’t seem possible,” she said, as she sat and once again traced the fine inlay on the top. “Heath…..”

“What Audra is trying to say,” Jarrod interrupted, “is that we are all amazed at your ability.”

“It’s nothing really. Just takes some time,” Heath said, flustered at the attention. He had wanted them to be like his gifts, but was finding the praise uncomfortable. “Maybe we can move on?” he said hopefully, his gaze wandering to his pile of stocking stuffers.

“I think we will finish doing the gifts person by person this year,” Jarrod finally decided. “That means I am still next,” he said, grinning at Nick. “Looks like I can make you wait forever brother,” he taunted good-naturedly.

“Not fair,” Nick shot back, but was smiling to take the sting out of his words. At this point Audra leaned over, still holding the jewelry box, and told Heath, “Nick can never wait.”

“I noticed that trying to bring the wagon around,” he told her, as the family all laughed at Nick’s boyish love of Christmas.

“Let me see, why don’t I open this one from Audra next,” Jarrod said, grabbing a box that was wrapped in white paper and held together by red string. Taking care to unwrap the present as slowly as possible, just to see Nick squirm, he removed the lid and smiled, as he pulled out six beautifully hand worked handkerchiefs, each carrying his monogram. “Audra these are beautiful. I really don’t know why you never enter the fair with your embroidery,” and to demonstrate he examined each one then leaned over to kiss her cheek.

“Now Mother, I guess it will have to be yours, unless you would like to give me mine next, Heath?” Jarrod asked hopefully.

“No you can wait until the end for yours from Heath,” Nick said. “It may be the only payback I get all night.”

“Alright, Mother’s it is,” Jarrod said picking up the long rectangular shaped package. Removing it’s wrapping, even slower, if that was possible, Jarrod had everyone fuming by the time he was ready to open the box.

“Boy Howdy, if that ain’t the slowest unwrapping I’ve ever seen, and I thought Mother would be impossible to beat. Never saw anyone take so long as she did at her birthday,” Heath added.

Laughing, Jarrod removed the lid and pulled out a brand new .44 caliber Colt lightning repeating rifle. The lock plate of the breach was engraved with the Barkley brand on one side and his name on the other. The stock was inlaid with gold. It was a magnificent weapon, and his had been lost earlier that year in a wager, between himself and another lawyer. He had won the case, but lost the rifle, as it had taken him two days longer than he expected to win. “Mother, this beats my old rifle hands down, and to have it personally engraved will assure that I do not wager it in any bets,” he grinned, as she smiled at his happiness.

“Now Heath, I think I get to see what you made me,” he said eagerly. He had been excited since George and Edna arrived, but after seeing Audra’s gift, he was beside himself with anticipation. What could Heath have done for him, that could in any way compare to the beauty and perfection of Audra’s handmade gift.

“Uh……..Nick, I’ll need your help getting his in here,” Heath said as he started to rise. “Just remember that I will get it off the buggy with out you looking in to see yours, then you can help me maneuver it inside.”

“Mine must be a big one,” Jarrod said, as the two left the house once again.

Making Nick stand facing the house, Heath struggled to remove Jarrod’s gift, then hurriedly recovered Nick’s present, before he told him it was okay to turn around. Whirling quickly, hoping to get a glimpse, Nick was not surprised to find the wagon once again shrouded, but was amazed by what he was to help cart in the house. “Just how do you want me to help? I can take a side, or the top or the bottom. Your call Heath.”

“Why don’t we just each take a side. It’s not that heavy, just unwieldily.”

Both brothers, hefting in unison, set Jarrod’s gift down just inside the front door. “Jarrod,” Nick called “I think you should come see yours over here. I really don’t feel like bringing it all the way in.”

“Nope, just turn around Jarrod,” Heath called, “Were coming in, no matter what Nick wants.” and the two carried in his gift and placed it behind his turned back, while Victoria and Audra let their mouths gape open. “Okay, turn around, Jarrod,” Heath said, sounding like the little boy Victoria remembered while decorating the tree.

Turning, anticipation heightening his senses, Jarrod was thrilled to see the most gorgeous bookcase he’d ever laid eyes on. It was obvious that Heath had spent untold hours on his gift. It would be perfect in his office, holding all his legal books. It never crossed his mind to keep it at home. It was too beautiful to keep hidden in his room, and anyway it was a lawyers bookcase. His hand trembling slightly, he caressed the highly polished redwood, that glowed with a satin sheen all its own. He traced his fingers along the mitered edges. He allowed his fingers to trace the lines of the carvings that were on the top and sides. It showcased all he stood for. The entire bookcase stood five feet high, had four shelves, and two sliding glass panels that opened and closed to allow him to keep the books dust free. The top was etched and blackened with a delineation of the San Francisco skyline. The right side had a picture of the scales of justice, and the left a depiction of lady liberty. He knew that not only time went into the piece, but knowledge as well. Knowledge of him as a person and knowledge of his priorities. He was as stunned as Audra had been. For once words failed him, and he sounded like Heath, stuttering his thanks. Finally as his hand continued to trace the San Francisco skyline that he loved, he got out “you know that I am taking this to the office.”

“I reckoned you would. It is for all those law books.” Heath grinned. He had done it. Jarrod was pleased. He had been worried about Jarrod’s gift. Such an urbane person deserved a fine piece of work, and he wasn’t sure that this was right, but by the look in Jarrod’s eyes, he could tell he was mistaken. He was pretty confident about the rest of the gifts. This was fun. “Who’s next,” he said, eager to continue, now that they were started.

“How about Nick,” Jarrod answered smiling. After his wonderful gifts, Nick didn’t need to suffer any more anticipation. It was getting the better of him already, and he couldn’t seem to stop pacing.

“Finally!” Nick said taking a seat by Jarrod, and reaching for the gift in his hand. “Who is this from?”

“If you would wait, I would tell you,” Jarrod chided softly. “It happens to be from Mother.”

Knowing that it wouldn’t take long for Nick to get through the unwrapping stage of his presents, it came as no surprise to discover that before they even knew what was happening he had ripped the paper to pieces and was already lifting the lid, to get to the present hidden inside. Picking up the cylindrical tube inside the box, Nick held it to his eye, and sighed in pleasure at the patterns made by the kaleidoscope. It was very nautical in design and the patterns were all blues, greens, and whites, almost like the rolling waves on the ocean he so loved. “Where did this one come from, Mother? It is very unusual, and will be a great addition to my collection.”

“I picked it up in San Francisco. It was made by a sailor, and seemed to be the perfect gift for you dear.”

“It is. Next Jarrod.”

“This is from Audra, Nick,” he said , passing over another box.

Tearing through her packages wrappings as quickly as possible, he was thrilled to pull out six handkerchiefs daintily embroidered with his monogram. The embroidery was done in a deep blue, and the stitching was perfect. Jarrod hadn’t been kidding when he said that this is what they were getting. Leaning over to give her a quick kiss, Nick said, “Thank you Audra. I really needed a few new ones. My others are about worn out, from drying the tears of all those ladies that don’t get to dance with me at the socials,” he joked.

“Let’s see, that would leave yours and Heath’s. I suspect yours is next Jarrod. Come on, pass it over,” he said eagerly.

“Yes, please hand it to Nick, Jarrod. I can hardly wait either.” Heath added.

Seeing the happy faces of his family he handed Nick his gift and then caught his mother’s eye and winked, when Nick once again tore into a present, allowing no time to even see the wrapping.

“Jarrod, This weighs a ton. I wonder what it is,” he said lifting the lid. Picking up a saddle, ornately done in black leather, with silver studs on it, and hand tooled with an intricate design, he said, “It’s lovely Jarrod, but I just bought a new saddle. Is there a reason for this one/”

“Yes Nick, there is. I thought Lightning needed his own saddle, and since you can’t buy a gift for a horse, I had to give it to you.”

“Well that makes sense. Its perfect for Lightning. Wait til the ladies get a look at me atop that horse and this fancy saddle. My social life will be booked through next year.” he replied jauntily.

“That leaves you Heath.”

“Reckon it does,” he replied as once again nerves assailed him. Thought Jarrod’s had cured me, but I guess I’ll just need to take it a gift at a time. That makes only one gut wrenching left to go, after this gift. “Jarrod, this time I’ll need your help.”

“Coming Heath,” Jarrod replied as he followed him out to the buggy. “I take it his is the other large item.”

“Yep. I think we can do it the same way we did yours. Lets get it in the door, then make him turn around, and move it behind him.”

“Heath, while we have a few minutes alone, I want to say thank you. Your gift to me was perfect. I also wanted to say how much having you here tonight has meant to all of us. It wasn’t Christmas without you. Everything seemed flat, and the waiting interminable. Happy Christmas Heath.”

“Happy Christmas, Jarrod, and thank you. Now let’s get this gift inside.” he said, and Jarrod could see his blush even in the darkness.

Once again, a member of the family was instructed to turn around, but this time they asked the wrong person. Nick refused, and he decided to go them one better. He hid behind the one remaining large vase that stood by the door. When Jarrod and Heath entered, he jumped out and startled the two, who were concentrating on maneuvering the large item over the front step, causing Jarrod to drop his end, which in turn, caused Heath to stumble and release his side, thus falling over the edge of the present, knocking the wind from him.

“Damn it Nick, what in the hell do you think you are doing?” Heath cursed, but discovered that he would not be answered.

“Mother, Audra! Come and look at this. Mine is the best gift of all. I finally got that dresser I was wanting. Heath, I can’t believe you made this. Why look at the dovetailing, and this scene, its of the hills North of our ranch, isn’t it?” Heath had carved California into his dresser. It was not just any California, it was his California, and a scene of the land he loved. The wood was highly polished natural redwood burl, that was satiny to the touch, and as California as woods came. It was far better than the dresser he had thought he had wanted. It was as perfect for him as Audra and Jarrod’s had been for them.

“Well, don’t just stand there, let’s get this inside where it belongs,” Nick said, hefting one side and looking at his brothers with mirth etched into every line on his face.

He couldn’t tell anyone the real reason for being by the door, but he had needed to do something that would alleviate, what he was sure would be, his extreme pleasure over Heath’s gift. All the others had been incredible, and he didn’t want to sit there trying to think of something to say. All in all, playing the fool, was better than being tongue tied.

“Sure,” Heath said, lifting his side and following Nick into the parlor. “Lets just put it down here. It weighs a ton.”

“That it does, then again redwood is very heavy, and this is very massive and masculine.” Nick responded.

“Heath,” Jarrod said, breaking into Nick banter,” how about you go next?” He decided to ask, because it was obvious that Heath was not as comfortable as the rest of them, and he didn’t want to put him on the spot.

“I reckon I can do that,” Heath said, glancing first at his stocking stuffers then looking to Nick for confirmation that this was the correct answer.

Victoria, noting the look, took Heath’s hand and said, “You should be next, Heath. I am almost always last,” then smiled, to reassure him she was telling the truth.

“Then Jarrod, which one do I get?” he asked, his voice rising with anticipation, as everyone watched in excitement, to see how he liked their gifts.

“First Heath, I think you should open Audra’s. Here’s the box.”

“UH thanks” he said, then realized he should open the gift first. Coloring and staring at the top of the box, his hands visibly shaking, he ripped off the white paper, and to everyone’s delight lifted the lid, and exclaimed, “Aren’t these just the finest handkerchiefs anyone ever had. I reckon I’m supposed to use them for those socials you keep trying to drag me to, Right?”

“Right Heath,” Audra said, beaming at his delight. Why, he was still fingering them, and didn’t look inclined to put them down anytime soon. It had been that way with his stocking stuffers as well. He kept glancing at them, as if they would disappear any minute.

As his hands traced the embroidered letters, he said so softly that his words were almost missed entirely, “They have an H and a B on them. Never thought to really have a last name.” Then raising clear blue eyes, he stood and kissed Audra, as he had seen Jarrod and Nick do.

Not knowing what to say in response and concerned that this night might prove to be to overwhelming for Heath, Jarrod plowed ahead, by picking up his gift and handing it to Heath. “I hope you like it.”

“I know I will. Boy howdy is it ever a pretty package.” he said ripping into the paper happily. Nestled in a satinwood box was an 1873 Colt single action revolver. It had an eagle, in gold, emblazoned on the stock and the letters HB. Taking the pistol from the box, Heath held it in his right hand, and allowed the gun to rest. “Its perfectly balanced Jarrod. I have never felt a pistol this fine. I figure it fits in my holster right nicely, and has a smooth draw. You just made me go from good to lethal. You might find yourself defending me counselor.” he teased.

“Now Heath, that isn’t funny. I never hope to see you behind bars.” Jarrod shot back, laughing.

As she watched the entire night of gift exchanges, Victoria grew happier and angrier by the minute. Happy that Heath was there, and that the gifts were being so well received, and angry that Edna was right. How dare that woman know more about Heath than she did. Tonight all that would change. She was going to tell Heath everything. Edna said he reverted to old speech patterns when flustered, and tonight he sounded like he did the first night he stormed into their home. He must be a wreck. He was that first night, and for the few days after, so today must be very hard for him. It was obvious that he was concerned about others liking his gifts, and he seemed to think that he really didn’t deserve the gifts he was getting, but he did. Tonight, he would know, she thought as Jarrod interrupted with, “This one is from Mother, I don’t see Nick’s here.”

At Heath’s crestfallen face, Nick jumped up and said, “that’s because mine is last,” before Heath had a chance to believe that he had been forgotten.

Looking at Nick, as if he really wasn’t sure what to believe, he accepted Victoria’s gift from Jarrod’s hands. Deftly unwrapping her present, he was shocked to find an item that made his heart lurch. A double frame, held a picture of him with the entire family, and on the other side, was the only picture he had of his mama. Not knowing what to say, he looked up and found everyone looking at him. “Thank you, Mother.” was all he uttered, and those words were more eloquent and meaningful than any amount of effusive gushing could ever have been. Without knowing it, he had just made everyone’s night.

Silence loomed, and for moment Nick wished he had gone first, but there was no going back, and anyway, he really was sure Heath would be pleased with his gift, so preempting Jarrod, he spoke up, shattering the silence. “It’s time for my gift, Heath, but everyone is going outside. Mother would not want me to bring my present inside.”

Audra placed a hand on Heath’s shoulder as he rose, but he refused to look up. “Let’s go see what Nick got you.”

Pulling away from her touch, he turned to Victoria, and with unbelieving eyes, silently begged her to allow the gift she gave him to be real. Drawn to the pain only a mother could see, she wrapped her arms around him and said “I love you, Heath Thompson Barkley.”

His jaw quivering, he looked back down at the framed photos, and still carrying them he turned abruptly and left the house, choking out that he was headed to the barn.

“Perfect,” Nick called, “We’ll be right there. That’s where your gift from me is.” Seeing his nod, the family decided to give him a few needed moments alone, then headed after Heath.

Jarrod maneuvered to Victoria’s side and briefly said, “I think that it was a perfect gift Mother. No wonder you wouldn’t tell anybody. He seemed pleased, but I have it on good authority Colleen’s exactly, never to expect the expected from Heath.”

“You’re right Jarrod. I do think he’s pleased, but he will need time and my talk tonight to even begin to trust what he feels.”

“Well, are you ready,” Nick said, as the family followed him into the barn. Heath was busy feeding a carrot to Charger, and didn’t look up at the sound of his voice. “Now you listen to me, Heath, I keep trying to give yo my gift and here you go leaving again. Soon I’ll be able to set my watch by your comings and goings, they’re getting so frequent.”

“Well now, Nick, I’ve done looked everywhere in this barn, and I ain’t seen nothing that resembles a gift.” His head still down, he missed Victoria’s flinch at his rough language. Tonight, one way or another, she thought, I must settle this.

“You don’t say. Well it seems………”

“I don’t see anything either, Nick,” Audra said.

“If you’ll let me finish, I was trying to …….”

“I was not interrupting, I was just saying that I see no present here. Maybe you hid it somewhere else.” she cut in again, this time to be rewarded by a shy half smile from Heath.

“Heath, I’m trying……”

“Nick,” she again interrupted, “you’re not saying anything that anyone can understand. Get to the point.”

“WILL YOU SHUT UP!” Nick exploded.

“Why I never…..” she added, teasing on purpose. Heath was laughing and it was what she wanted. His pulling away had been hard, and she needed to feel that she could give him support in some way.

“Thanks, Sis.” Heath said, letting her know that he was grateful, but that enough was enough.

Keeping quiet this time, she had to smile because every time Nick started to open his mouth he would look at her, then stop. When she didn’t respond he would start again, and the scenario repeated itself two more times before Nick said, “You really don’t see a gift in here, Heath?”

Shaking his head no, Heath stood still, along with the rest of his confused family, until he heard Nick say, “That’s funny, you’ve been feeding your gift carrots the entire time we’ve been in here.”

“CHARGER!” Heath whooped, any sadness forgotten as his fondest wish was granted. “Charger’s mine?” “Really?”

“Didn’t I say so?”

“Boy Howdy, Charger, what do you think of that? You and me, were going to be the best team in the valley.” While Heath continued to talk to the horse, Charger nuzzled Heath’s chest, as if to impart that it was the only way things could ever be. They belonged together, and everybody knew it. If there was ever any doubt, it was now squelched.

“Nick, Thank you. I can’t believe it. You know how long I wanted Charger? Since I first came in this barn, on the very first day. Even Lightning doesn’t compare, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Well how do you like that, Lightning? Sounds like a challenge has just been issued,” Nick said, happily extolling the virtues of Lightning over Charger. “We will just have to show this boy how wrong he is.”

“Anytime Nick, anytime.” Heath tossed back, petting Charger hard on the flank. See you soon boy. We’ll go for a ride tomorrow, but right now I think it’s Mother’s turn to open some gifts.”

“Right you are. Mother, shall we,” Jarrod said taking his Mother’s arm and leading the way back to the house. “I had no idea Nick would give up Charger.”

“When I realized what he was doing, I expected nothing less. Nick cares so deeply for Heath, and that horse has caused more than a few arguments between them. Charger and Heath belong together. I am proud of Nick for admitting it, and making it so.”

“Tonight has been a night of revelation, I would say. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes Jarrod, I would.” Victoria added, still thinking of one more disclosure to come. Tonight was going to be a long one for her.

“Here you are Mother,” Jarrod said, after he seated himself by the few remaining presents. “ It looks like I picked the one from Nick first.”

Taking the very small box, she thought, it’s jewelry again, then daintily opened the paper and slowly set it aside. Removing the lid she was rewarded with a jewelers box from the renowned Burlington House of San Francisco. Opening the jewelers box, she saw a delicate pink cameo, surrounded in gold filigree. The head of a woman with her hair held back, similar in style to her own, was facing left. It was delicate and would be lovely with so many of her outfits. “Thank you very much Nick. You put a lot of thought into this gift. It matches so many of my outfits perfectly, and a cameo is timeless.”

“You’re welcome Mother.”

“Next, we have a gift from Audra,” Jarrod said holding out yet another smallish box.

Once again taking her time with the wrappings, Victoria glanced up purposefully to see if she was driving Nick to distraction, and was rewarded with him trying hard to keep still in his chair. Heath too, seemed to be having a hard time sitting still. Maybe this was another trait he shared with Tom.

When her fingers touched the contents she was thrilled to see a intricately stitched shawl, obviously hand done by Audra. Opening it to its full length, she admired the paisley motif, embroidered along the edges. The stitches were perfect. Diminutive and precise. The colors were vibrant. It was stunning. “Audra, I agree with Jarrod, you need to start entering the stitching contests at the fairs, and stop with the pickles,” she remarked leaning over to kiss her daughters cheek. “This is also perfect. What a Christmas I am having.”

“Well then Mother, it’s time to give you a little more,” Jarrod announced, passing her a large parcel. “Careful, this one is heavy,” he cautioned.

“My, it sure is. What could be inside, Jarrod?” Victoria grinned, as she teased Nick once again, by taking the wrappings off at a snails pace. As they fell away, and she got a glimpse of the top, she ripped the rest of the paper off, and sat back, shock registering on her face. “Jarrod, where did you have this done?”

“Let me see, Mother,” Nick and Audra asked at once, while Heath echoed their statement with a nod.

Turning the picture around they were confronted with a stunning likeness of Victoria herself, framed identically, to the one of Tom, that hung in the library.

“How lovely,” Audra enthused. “It will look perfect hanging by Father’s.”

“I agree. Jarrod, another brilliant idea,” Nick said. “Every year and at each occasion,” he said turning to Heath, “Jarrod manages to outdo everyone.”

“I wouldn’t say that, Nick,” Jarrod said, exalting in his words. It was what he strived for, and each year he had a hard time, never knowing what the others might come up with. It was a contest of sorts. He wasn’t sure when it started, but it had, and so far he was the unqualified winner. Only occasionally did another sibling best him.

“Jarrod, I never thought to add a picture of me, to the one of your father. Thank you dear.” Victoria said, tears in her eyes, as she kissed him as well.

“I am glad you like it, Mother,” Jarrod said, then added, “The last gift of the night will be Heath’s to you. Heath, do you need any help bringing this one in?”

“No. I can get it myself. You just wait right there, and keep your eyes closed.”

“I will, Heath, don’t worry. I like surprises, unlike some members of the family,” she teased.

While the family sat in silence, each studying the portrait Jarrod had commissioned, Heath left and walked for the final time to the buggy. *Damn Jarrod, he thought, as he picked up his gift. Nick was right, there was no way to compete. He had wanted, no needed hers to be special. He needed to show her the depth of his feelings, and Jarrod had him beat hands down.* Picking up his gift, he returned inside, knowing he had no choice. Running sounded good, but by coming back, he had made a promise to himself never to do so again. Well I’ll just get this over with, at least its better than stationary, he thought as he put the gift he spent so many hours on, in her hand.

“Here you go.”

Without opening her eyes, she felt the weight. It was light yet firm. Having no idea what it could be, but feeling everyone’s eyes riveted on her, she thought she had better look. Her eyes were drawn to an intricately carved silhouette of her husband Tom. It was done on redwood burl as her son’s other gifts had been, but the wood had been curved, creating an arc, that would allow light to shine through from behind when a candle was placed in the candle holder. It was a bedside reading silhouette of Tom. It had to have taken hours to get the likeness so recognizable, and Tom’s commanding presence shown in the work. It must have taken a huge toll on Heath to have carved a likeness of his father, whom he still hadn’t totally forgiven. She didn’t know what to say. She would have Tom beside her every night, and having it carved by Heath meant more than she could express.

Raising her eyes to his face, she saw him staring at the carpet, as if it held a great fascination, or perhaps had the secrets of the universe woven into its fabric. “Heath, I love it,” she said, her tone emphasizing her sincerity. “Never before has a single gift meant so much to me.”

For the second time that night he looked her in the eyes, as if trying to gauge some discernable truth, and said, “honest Ma’am?” with a big question mark attached.

Practically throwing herself at his feet, she said, “Honestly, Heath, and if you ever call me Ma’am again, I’ll have to get my broom, and scold you like you were ten.”

For the fifth time that night his smile reached his eyes, but this time his smile was open, and unguarded. “I love you, for everything, Mother.”

Crying, she held him, as her other children left the room, giving them some privacy.

“Why did we have to go, Jarrod?” Audra questioned, sounding petulant.

“Mother told me she needed to talk with Heath tonight, and this seemed like the perfect time. Let’s play pool, Nick.”

“Fine, leave me out. It’s only Christmas.” Audra pouted.

Smilingly Nick said, “She’s right Jarrod. It is Christmas. We shouldn’t just leave her out. You can play too, Audra.”

“Oh you!”

“Come on, let’s play whist until they are done,” Nick said, still smiling over her reaction to his suggestion. “I just got you back for teasing me in the barn.”

“Cards it is,” Jarrod piped up, before the joking could start up again. Taking out a deck of cards he started to shuffle as they took their places around the table. It might be a long night, but no one was going to sleep before Heath turned in, safe and home.

Heath didn’t feel safe. He didn’t want to be alone with Victoria. This was the moment he had been dreading, more than all the others since he entered the house tonight. It was even worse than the present giving. It was time for his lecture. “Reckon I’m in a heap of trouble. Let me apologize again, then we can just forgo the lecture?” he said plaintively.

“Trouble, Heath?” she asked, perplexed. She had been so caught up in her own concerns, and her need to speak with him, she never gave a second thought to how her comment had been taken, and now she needed to not only talk but alleviate his feelings that he was going to be blamed again. Heath seemed to feel that things were his fault, or at least would be better for people if he weren’t around. Still hugging him, she pulled away, and looked into his eyes. He was apprehensive.

“Heath, I don’t want to scold you. I never did. Since you explained yourself, I felt that there were some things that needed to be said on my part, to help you understand. Your Christmas gift to me shows me that no matter how hard this may be for me, us, it needs to be said now, not later. Shall we sit down.”

Thoroughly confused, Heath sat, and she took a place on the couch beside him. Looking at his face, that reminded her so much of Tom, she tried to begin, but didn’t know where to start. For a few minutes silence reigned, the atmosphere taught with unspoken emotions on both sides.

How to start this, she pondered, then decided to take the plunge and just come on out with it. They could sort through parts as they came up.

“Heath, I need to tell you some things about you and your father and me.” Well that got his attention. No doubt about it. Continuing, his silence, making it just that much harder, she said, “I haven’t told you this. I didn’t know how to bring it up, and since you never asked, I put it off, in some ways even hoped it didn’t matter, but it does. Since you came here Heath, angry and alone, oh so alone,” she echoed, taking his hand and holding on tight, “I have loved you. Loved you because you were my husband’s son, my children’s brother, and an exceptional human being. But that isn’t all. I haven’t been honest with myself or with you. I need to. Can you understand?”

Refusing to meet her eyes, he rubbed his free hand back and forth across his knee, sometimes slowly, sometimes with great force, but he never stopped its motion.

“Well if you won’t talk, I’ll just have to go on. What I am clumsily trying to say is that I have been distant with you. I know I have. There are reasons, and I fear that you are blaming yourself for them. You……….”

“If I hadn’t have come, you would all be doing what you want, rather than having to make a place for me. You wouldn’t be facing snide remarks from the town. I’ve lived with them, could have continued, if I wasn’t so selfish. You didn’t deserve this, you’ve been nothing but kindness.”

“Perhaps kindness to you, Heath, but I’m sure you have felt that I haven’t been as close to you as I could be. God I am putting this badly. What I mean is, have you felt that I am distant to you, compared to say Audra?”

“I’m not your son.”

“Have you felt the distance?”

“Not really Ma’am.”

“Heath, you are trying my patience, by trying to spare my feelings. Now be completely honest. I’ll try not to ask you another question.”

“You have been wonderful,” he said forcefully. “ I don’t deserve your kindness.” As soon as the words were out, he knew they were wrong. She had been wonderful, and was as important to him as anyone in his entire life, but in an instant his gut wrenched and the constricting band returned to begin squeezing his chest, the tightness continuing, while he waited for her too speak, after he added, a “But yes. I have felt some distance, and it’s getting worse. That’s one reason I left.”

“Oh Heath, no! I was afraid of that. You don’t understand. Heath,” she said cupping his chin and forcing his head up, even thought his eyes still refused to meet hers, “you remind me so much of your father, that sometimes it hurts. I miss him Heath. Miss him more than anyone can comprehend, and I hope none of my children, and that includes you, young man, ever lose a spouse. Nothing can take the place of that emptiness, shared dreams, visions, and plans. You are so like him. Oh not so much in looks, but in temperament, and posture, and attitude. In a thousand imperceptible ways. I see them all. When I see you, I see him. Can you understand that?”

“I’ve caused you more pain than I knew. No wonder you didn’t want me here”

“Didn’t want you. I don’t understand. I’ve always wanted you.”

Jerking free from her grasp, he spat, “Don’t lie to me now. I heard you talking with Jarrod. It was late, but the words were clear. I wish I had another Christmas without Heath.”

“Heath, you didn’t hear it all. I can remember every word of that conversation. You heard the words, not the feelings behind them. That’s what I am trying to explain now. Christmas was Tom’s favorite holiday. Seeing you react as Tom did, even to things you knew nothing about was almost too much to take. My children have been with us always, so things they do that reflect Tom are commonplace. But you, you do other things he did that they don’t. They are still so fresh in my mind. They bring back images so vividly. I love you for giving me more of Tom, yet I am having a hard time. I had buried most of the hurt and anger of his death. Now it’s like the wound has reopened. Raw, yet soothing.”

“No one ever talks of Father to me.”

“Well they should, and I will, if you like. You should speak of your Mother as well.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.” he said tenderly.

“We feel the same way. Sounds like a good New Year’s resolution to me. Being more open.”

Smiling slightly, he said, “I think that will be hard for me, but I can try.”

“Let me tell you something now,” she said, knowing that she was about to embarrass him, but that he needed a small thing to hold on to, until they could incorporate all their feelings, and find the closeness that they both needed and deserved. “I check on all my children at night, to make sure you are all sleeping soundly. Often when I reach your room, I stand in the doorway, and just watch you sleep. You are my only child that sleeps like Tom did. You sprawl out, taking up the entire bed, looking like it is yours. It’s when you are the most peaceful. It was the only time I could count on Tom being at peace as well. His mind worked continuously, weighing odds, solving problems, as does yours and Jarrod’s. Jarrod looks peaceful at night, but isn’t that free. Tom was free in bed. You look that way too.”

“Then I guess I’ll have to make sure the covers stay pulled way up,” he said blushing, and making a mental note to be sure he was always in clothing from now on. “ My mother used to tease me that I would sleep all over the place, half in, half out of the covers. Never thought that would be a problem until now,” he added happily, feeling that he could, for the first time since coming, really mention his Mother. Their gifts and her talk helped, and he wasn’t in trouble. Coming home had been a smart move.

“Before you go Heath, There is one more thing. Colleen came by today and while she was here, dropped a gift off for you. I should also let you know that she told everyone that the two of you were courting, when she found out you were gone. Since her mother took her home, she asked that I insist you open it if you came home before she saw you, and that you were not to wait for her. I can give you privacy if you want, but I’d really like to stay and see what she got you.” Victoria finished by handing him Colleen’s gift. “Here”

Taking the box and holding it close he said, “It would be fine if you want to stay. I have no idea what she could have given me. I didn’t expect anything.”

“Well then, open it.”

“Reckon I should.” he remarked, as he unwrapped his last Christmas gift. As the paper fell away, he found a stocking and looking inside started shouting, “Come here, everyone. I got marbles. Real marbles.” As everyone came running at his shout he added, holding each marble up for everyone’s perusal. “ I got the Chinese kind like Robert John had, and this is a shooter like Caleb showed off. Can you believe it, Jarrod, I got marbles. Remember I said I never had a stocking, well I always wanted marbles. Colleen remembered. I’ll thank her real good for this,” he added his eyes dancing at his envisioned thank you. Colleen would well remember it, and so would he. She would be back soon. He would wait, and in the meantime, he would play marbles. “Do you play, Nick? Jarrod? Audra?”

“I did when I was younger,” Nick spoke up. “I bet I could whoop you.”

“You’re on.” Heath challenged.

“Not tonight you two. Must everything be a contest? Its two a.m. And we all need our rest. Tomorrow we still have to have Christmas dinner.”

Hearing Heath’s groan, they all laughed, when they realized Heath had one last tradition to undergo.

“Night all, I think I need my sleep to face dinner tomorrow,” Heath said taking his marbles upstairs with him.

“Me to,” Nick called closely following Heath’s retreating form.

Reaching the top of the landing the two conferred briefly, before separating and going into their own rooms. Jarrod and Audra after taking a few moments to comment on how nice Christmas turned out followed in their wake, leaving Victoria to a few precious minutes alone.

Jarrod and Audra are right, it has been a nice Christmas, she thought, as she finished a cup of tea then prepared to go upstairs to bed. Picking up Heath’s gift, to place by her bedside, she decided that tomorrow would come soon enough. She would be able to wake up seeing Tom’s face. It was a lovely thought. It didn’t take her long to extinguish the lights then climb the curving staircase that led to the bedrooms. Passing Heath’s door she shook her head laughing. From inside she could hear muffled curses and the plinging of marbles. Her boy were at it, and having a very good time from the sound of things. They would suffer tomorrow from the lack of sleep, but she refrained from opening the door and putting a halt to the game, which she feared might last all night.

As the watered sun peeked through her curtained window, Victoria realized she was right. She didn’t want to get up, but would rather luxuriate in the warmth of her bed, surrounded by the pleasant feelings she retained from last night. Turning on her side she stared at Heath’s glorious silhouette of Tom. He had captured Tom’s likeness perfectly. It had to have taken hours upon hours of staring at Tom’s portrait to produce this accurately detailed carving. It was a true gift of love. Stretching she felt the resistance of the covers as they brushed her body. A few more minutes of sleep wouldn’t hurt anybody, and she closed her eyes and drifted back to her dreams.

Jarrod and Audra too, awoke but didn’t relish the prospect of getting out of bed. If it weren’t for the need of coffee, Jarrod figured he could stay abed all day.

Heath and Nick had officially made it to bed about four a.m., sixteen games of marbles under their belts, and Nick ahead sixteen to zero. Nick had to admit that Heath was improving, and soon, he would be a real challenge. Now how was he going to explain to the ranch hands his new hunting dog was named Puddles, and he had to quit work early as he had a championship title in the game of marbles to defend. Sometimes it was a blessing to not blush and to be naturally loud. While others might snicker, they would not do so for long.

Smiling at the thought, Nick quickly dressed and knocked on Heath’s door. Receiving no answer, he decided to just go on in. He wanted to play again. He had been having a very good time with his brother. Opening the door, he called, “Heath,” and while it didn’t rouse his deeply sleeping brother, it did bring Jarrod and Audra to their doors.

Peering around the doorframe, Jarrod said, “Stop the noise, Nick, some of us are still not ready to face the day.”

“I know. Look at Heath here, sleeping like a baby,” he said loudly, hoping to jolt his younger brother awake. “He’s always the first one up, and the time I need him, there he lays.”

“Let him sleep,” a hastily dressed Audra said, interrupting her brothers conversation, if you could call it a conversation, she thought. “He’s tired.”

“We all are. If we can get up, so can he.”

“You can be so insensitive,” Audra hurled loudly at Nick. “Yesterday may have been long for us, but think of all the emotional upheaval Heath went through. He needs his sleep.”

“And I wasn’t emotionally upheld…umn..concerned. Oh! All right, enough.” Nick said over Jarrod and Audra’s laughter.

Abruptly Jarrod stopped laughing as something assailed his senses. “Is that Silas’s cooking? I think I smell coffee.”

“Right you are,” Nick said. “I can taste the bacon already. Let’s go.”

“I’m ready,” Audra said, taking Nick’s arm, “But Jarrod still needs to dress.”

Closing his door, Jarrod replied that he would meet them downstairs momentarily.

“Have you seen Mother yet?” Audra questioned Nick.

“She must be sleeping in today”

“Then we had better get down and tell Silas of the Christmas dinner change of plans. He won’t realize we are having it today.” Audra said, very naturally, as she assumed the female head of the household role in the absence of her mother.

Silas had made the coffee, and started breakfast, but while Nick seated himself at the table and Audra wen tin to inform him of the change in plans, she found Silas sitting at the kitchen table, his hands clutching an object so tightly, that she couldn’t make it out. He seemed deeply lost in thought, and didn’t move when she cleared her throat. Moving up beside him, she lay a hand on his shoulder, startling him.

“Oh, Miss Audra, I didn’t see you there. Breakfast is on it’s way.”

“I wanted to let you know that Heath came home late last night. We will be having Christmas dinner with him today. Mother and I will be helping with the preparations as soon as she arises this morning.”

“I was wondering why the table was still set so elegantly. I prepared a side table for breakfast in the solarium, just in case Miss Audra.”

“That was quick thinking. Now what are you holding, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Nothing Miss. Nothing at all. I’d better go get breakfast finished,” he responded.

Knowing that he would not share his secret with her, she added, “And I’d better go get Nick out of the dining room, before he makes a mess and we need to decorate all over again.”

“Yes, Miss.” Silas said, moving back to the oven.

As soon as she left Silas made his way back to the kitchen table and sat down. Breakfast could wait. He had a gift from Heath. A perfect gift from Heath.

His frail hands shaking, he fought for control as he fondled Heath’s remembrance. A miniature paddle steamer. As his mind worked, he recalled his one conversation with Heath about the only book, other than the Bible he had ever heard. An old slave had read Huck Finn to a group of them, and later given his copy to Silas for his journey westward. He didn’t even realize Heath had been listening. He had briefly mentioned the one time he had seen a ship like this. The feeling of freedom came rushing back as his shoulders started to shake.

The paddle steamer stood for so much. Faded memories, long banned, were being resurrected forever, by this one simple carving, elegantly detailed. Never noting Audra watching from behind the door, he decided breakfast would have to wait. Sobs overtook him as he went to his room, closing the door and taking out his only real possession. The copy of Huck Finn. He would never be able to read it, but he now had a visual reminder.

*I’ll just finish breakfast. Nick is hungry and Jarrod should be on his way down.* Audra decided as she watched Silas’s door shut.

Taking the coffee pot to Nick, she said, “Good morning, Jarrod,” and poured him a cup as he took a seat.

“This is rather nice,” Jarrod remarked. “Was it your idea to eat back here?”

“No. Silas figured that this would save work, since he found the dining room table still set up.”

“It is different,” Nick added. “Now, how about breakfast. Where is Silas with it?”

“I’ll be getting breakfast,” Audra told him as Heath entered.

“Am I to late?” Heath questioned, as he took a place at the table.

“Not if you fancy Audra’s cooking,” Nick said, smiling, as she swatted him on her way back to finish the eggs.

“Figured she was cooking breakfast, as I couldn’t find Silas,” Heath agreed “Guess I can eat her cooking once a year.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know what he was holding, or why he isn’t cooking would you?” Audra questioned, tossing a look back at Heath.

“Could be anything, I guess,” he said, as she watched his eyes shift back to his plate and a half smile dart across his lips.

“Just in case your wondering,” she said, looking directly at Heath, “Whatever it was pleased him very much, although he wouldn’t share it with me.”

“You don’t say.” Came his smiling reply. Silas was happy. He had survived his first round of gift giving.

“You need help, Sis?” Nick called loudly in hopes of getting his food sooner.

“No, I have it under control.” she replied as Victoria, making an appearance said, “Could you please keep your voice down Nick.”

“Of course Mother.”

“This is nice. Maybe we should have breakfast here after Christmas every year.” she added, as Jarrod rose and pulled out a chair for her.

Laughingly, Heath said, “Would that be a new tradition?”

“It would at that. What a great way to celebrate. A new tradition for a new family member.” Jarrod said, touching Heath’s shoulder on his way back to his seat.

“Here are the eggs and bacon, I’ll be back with the biscuits and gravy in a minute.” Audra said as she placed the two heaping platters in the middle of the table and darted back to the kitchen. The minute her back turned, Nick reached out to help himself , and by the time she returned over half the eggs and bacon had been eaten.

“I’d like a little,” she said, laughingly and helped herself to some of the remaining eggs. “You might have waited for me.”

“I, we would have but…..”

“Yes!”

“Well, we were hungry,” Jarrod finished for Nick.

“Does anyone have plans for today? Dinner will be at five.” Victoria asked.

“Lets see. After I beat Heath at marbles, I think I’ll go for a ride on Lightning. He’s getting much better at obeying commands.”

“I was hoping to play a few games of cards with Heath, then finish the alter cloth,” Audra put in.

“Here I thought I’d take a nap,” Heath said, flushing under the attention.

Turning purposefully back to his food, he finished up just as Nick said “Ready for a game Heath?”

“You bet,” he replied. “I’ll go get the marbles.”

“Race you.” Nick said taking off as Heath threw back his chair and hurried after him, their feet pounding up the stairs.

As the three remaining family members stared at each other in amusement, they heard Nick shout, “I got the marbles first. I go first.” then a few pause, and Nick again, saying loudly, “It is too fair. Come on.”

At least Heath was quiet. Victoria thanked the Lord, then herself hollered, “BOYS!” as they ran past.

Drawing up short, they both answered “Yes Mother?”

“Just a reminder, and it goes for everyone. Dinner is at five sharp. Be prompt, clean, and in a good frame of mind. Now have fun. I have a lot of work to do before dinner. Audra, I’d like your help.”

“Certainly, Mother.” she answered as they rose and began clearing up, while Jarrod took the opportunity to go to his study.

Jarrod was having a rough time. He was having trouble concentrating. He could hear noise from the kitchen and muffled sounds from outside, but if he was honest with himself, he just wanted to be anywhere other than in this study. Almost anything sounded better then being cooped up with paper. Seeing Helen would make him happy. Spending time with Heath was also something he wanted to do. He still had a hard time not looking at his present from Heath. As he paced he realized that the time and effort that went into the gift astounded him. The quality was outstanding. But more importantly was the thought. He hadn’t been touched so deeply in years. He never would have expected this newest member of his family to be able to cause such complex emotion in everyone he came in contact with.

Still pacing, he realized that just like his sister and brother, what he really wanted to do was spend time with Heath today. However his talk with Nick had been so revealing, that he felt Nick needed Heath more. He would respect that need, but he didn’t enjoy being noble all the time.

Trying to return his attention to the piles of paperwork he heard a shout of, “I won one!” in Heath’s voice, followed by, “Now that I’ve mastered this game, I’ll never play again.”

Jarrod had to smile. Somewhere Heath had picked up Nick’s measure exactly. Nothing he could have done or said was more perfectly designed to drive Nick berserk. Heath’s sense of humor brought a smile to his face. It didn’t occur often enough, but hopefully that would change with time.

He briefly wondered what his brothers would do next, as he returned to the stack of paperwork that never seemed to decrease, no matter how much he stared at it. Smiling at that thought, he concentrated and cleared a good quarter of the stack before taking a break.

Opening the patio doors to allow some cool air in the stuffy room he spied Nick working with Lightning, while Heath curried Charger. As he continued to observe his brothers, he saw them occasionally exchange words that he couldn’t hear. Drawn by the scene, he watched his rough brother accept help from his quiet brother and partner. The ranch was their bond, respect gave them friendship, and blood made them inseparable. He was as jealous of Nick, as Nick had been of him. He watched as Heath gently led Lightning through a difficult routine, making it look effortless, saw Nick nod, and Heath relinquish control back to Nick. His way with horses was uncanny.

Returning to his desk, he noted that more time had elapsed than he thought. It was only an hour until dinner. Straightening his desk, he walked through the French doors and headed to his brothers.

“Nick, Heath! It’s one hour until dinner. You might want to start cleaning up. I think Mother is taking this very seriously.”

“That late already?” Nick queried.

“Here, I’ll take Lightning in with Charger. It takes you longer to pretty up than it takes me,” Heath quipped.

“Fine,” Nick replied, adding, “You refused to play another game of marbles, the least you can do is put my horse away.”

As Heath led the horses to the barn, Jarrod walked in with Nick, asking, “Nice afternoon?”

“Yes it was Jarrod. Yes it was.”

As the brief exchange gave way to companionable silence, both realized that no matter how hard the past nine months had been, and the last four days in particular, they, the family, was each richer for the events as they unfolded. To have changed any one of them would have changed their current relationships.

When Heath reached the upper landing he heard noises coming from each bedroom. Deciding he didn’t want to miss a minute of Christmas dinner he hurriedly discarded the idea of using the bathroom, in favor of using the water pitcher and basin on his side table. He washed his face and hands, shaved, donned what he considered suitably fancy clothes with out going as far as wearing a suit, splashed some cologne on to mask and lingering horse odor and rushed downstairs.

He was the first one there. Figures, he thought as he headed to the tantalus and poured himself a whiskey and downed it all at once. He was excited and terrified. Pouring a second whiskey he looked up to see Audra descending the stairs, dressed elegantly in a red gown of satin. God! He was learning about women’s fabrics. Satin felt real nice when he held Colleen. Colleen would be thrilled but truly he was appalled at the thought of understanding, or even noticing a fabric. What a different year. Did Nick know anything about fabrics? How would he find out? Probably a topic better left alone he decided.

“Howdy Audra, don’t you look nice?” he said, whistling appreciatively only to hear it echoed by Nick as he followed his sister into the parlor.

“I’ll take what your having Heath.”

Pouring Nick a whiskey he asked, “You want one too, Jarrod?” as he saw Jarrod enter, Victoria on his arm.

“Don’t mind if I do. Sherry, Mother? Audra?”

“Yes please,” Audra answered prettily as Heath poured and passed drinks all around.

“Thank you” Victoria said, accepting her glass, then added with a twinkle in her eye, “Don’t you all look nice and you’re on time, too.”

“I gathered we’d better be. That carving set is mighty sharp.” Nick said grinning.

“Good thing to. Wait until you see dinner. I think it’s the best one ever.”

“How can you say that Audra? It’s the same every year for as long as I can remember,” Nick asked.

“I don’t know Nick. It just seems special somehow.”

“In that case, why don’t we go on in,” Jarrod prompted, offering his arm to his mother.

Taking his arm, she rose and they led the way as Audra diplomatically inserted herself between Nick and Heath, claiming, “What luck, having the two most handsome escorts in the room.”

Hearing their responding chuckles and Jarrod’s “Hey.” the family each took their rightful places at the elegantly set dining table.

Having passed the room on the way to and from breakfast, Heath knew it was set perfectly, but now that he was concentrating on it, he noticed how really lavish it was. Deciding not to hide his feelings any longer, but not really sure how to express his awe at the opulence, which was greater than any other night so far, He joked, “Now I know why you own all those silver mines. Probably used one all up just setting this table.”

As Nick laughed, Victoria carefully eyed each piece and said, “It does look that way, doesn’t it? Yet every piece on this table has a history. If you’d like I’ll explain it all to you soon, for its history you should know as well, just like I’d enjoying hearing more about your background.”

“I’d like that Ma’a….Mother,” he answered, as she snickered, catching his slip.

As the light conversation continued, Silas entered bearing two trays.

Noticing that it was time for the first course Victoria announced, “Jarrod as the eldest, will you say grace?”

“Certainly. Dear God, We take this opportunity to thank you for the many gifts you have bestowed on us, and we recognize that it is through your goodness and divine blessing that we are wholly united as a family as we gather to celebrate this meal honoring the birth of your son, our Lord Jesus.”

Now that the prayer was finished, Silas continued his progress to the table noting each person reflecting on Jarrod’s carefully chosen words. That man had a silver tongue. There was no way anyone could refute that statement.

He set down the first plate containing small cheese tarts by Victoria and the second was placed by Jarrod, holding what Heath recognized to be six raw oysters.

“There is no way, no matter how much you all mean to me, that I am eating raw oysters.” The words slipped out before he even registered that they had been said. It was a first for Heath. Seeing his families surprised faces and mixed grins, he added “Ummmn…I guess I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s fine,” Jarrod said, trying to get the words out past he biggest smile he remembered wearing in years. Never had the Christmas table been so lively. What a welcome change. “The oysters are for me. Father took me to San Francisco when I was seven and I ate one and loved it. Mother has seen to it that I have them every Christmas since,” he finished, smiling fondly at his mother.

“Just as long as you don’t expect me to eat one.” Heath said, still eying the oysters with disgust.

“I won’t eat them either,” Audra whispered conspiratorially. “It makes me sick to look at them. I just consider it training for all the fancy parties I will be giving some day.”

“If I get invited to any of them, warn me ahead of time.”

“I can’t say I have ever seen you squeamish before, Heath,” Nick spoke up. “You look gray. I’ve seen you handle lots. I mean you’ve held men’s insides after they fell on a …….”

:”That will be enough Nick. The table is not the place for horror tales…..” Victoria scolded, abruptly ending Nick’s train of thought, then added, “But I am curious how the sight of an oyster can make you look….well….grey as Nick said.”

“Well Ma’am.”

“HEATH!”

Smiling this time, he once again amended, “Mother, it’s a rather ridiculous story. I doubt anyone really will want to hear it.”

“Is it like the Christmas tree story?” Nick chimed in again.

“About that silly, I guess.”

“Then by all means boy, talk.”

“Yes Heath, you have me curious as well,” Jarrod added, as he exaggeratedly reached for a raw oyster, and with all the class of a skid row bum, slurped it down as loudly as possible, smacking his lips together in enjoyment as he watched Heath squirm and look like he needed to leave the table.

Quietly fighting back the bile that rose with Jarrod’s display. Heath purposefully turned his chair toward Victoria and started to speak softly, then stopped as she raised a finger asking Silas to hold the main course ten minutes.

“Yes Mrs. Barkley, I’ll do that ,” He said, smiling but remaining in the room to hear Heath’s tale.

“Now Heath,” Victoria prompted.

“Well I was in San Francisco crabbing in November, I think it was November, and we were up the coast near about Bodega Bay, when the winds shifted and we got dashed pretty good against the rocks. They tore a hole in the boat and we all waded to shore. No one was hurt, but the boat and cargo sank. It was too wet for a fire, and Bodega really only has oysters in abundance. We couldn’t cook them, but these men said that they were often eaten raw, and that the fancy people did it all the time in those nice restaurants.”

Victoria noted that a soft drawl had returned to his voice as he slipped deeper into his memories, then happily refocused on his story.

“Some of us were sent to collect oysters, others were shucking them. When I got back, Salvatore showed me how to open them. I watched as he expertly opened it with his pocket knife then tipped the raw oyster into his mouth. I remember thinking, I can do this easily. So I got my knife, took an oyster, and opened it. I only made one mistake. The mistake of looking at it. It was looking back at me. Did you know they have blue eyes? I barely made it out of eyesight before I couldn’t hold breakfast. It was a cold, hungry two days for me, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t eat one.”

Shaking his head he repeated, “They have big blue eyes.”

As Heath once again fought the rising bile, Jarrod said, “Silas, you may remove these. Thank you.”

“Of course Mr. Barkley, but don’t you want to finish them?”

“No I do not. Thanks to Heath I doubt I will ever eat one again,” Jarrod remarked as his family laughed.

“Boy Jarrod, you look as green as Heath does grey.” Nick commented, getting more amusement out of Jarrod’s discomfort then Heath’s story, while Audra and Victoria politely tried not to laugh out loud.

“Are you sure?” Audra questioned.

“Yep,” the noticing Jarrod’s pallor, he grinned and elaborated, “I tell you Sis, they have these little grey eye stalks about half an inch long with bright blue eyes on the end, that they wave around trying……..”

“That will be enough,” Victoria asserted ,as Jarrod grew greener and Heath openly chuckled.

“Boy Howdy Jarrod, didn’t think anything ever ruffled your feathers.”

“That will be all Heath. Thank you.” Victoria chuckled. “Silas, perhaps now would be a good time for the main course.”

“Yes Mrs. Barkley.”

While everyone sat, thoroughly amused, Victoria decided that things changed. They wouldn’t have oysters at Christmas again, but they would have Heath. Recognizing she would give up Christmas altogether to keep Heath, she also realized that traditions would need to change as well. Next year she would add a dish for Heath, and if she wasn’t mistaken, perhaps for a few daughters-in-law as well.

She looked at her family happily, as Silas rolled out the serving cart, holding both the roast turkey and the standing rib roast. Jarrod would begin carving soon.

In a moment Jarrod stood, and picking up the ivory handled carving set, said, “Heath, is there something I should know about turkey or beef before I carve?”

“No. I guess you probably know as much about land animals as I do,” Heath chuckled.

With that Jarrod expertly carved while Silas ferried in the remainder of the main course and placed the dishes all around the table. It didn’t take anybody any time to figure out that Victoria had gone to great lengths to make the dinner special.

“Did you include every dish we ever had on Christmas?” Nick asked, as he watched the food mount.

They were going to have carrots, potatoes, parsnips, brussel sprouts with roast chestnuts, wild rice and soda bread. There was also the best Cabernet the ranch had ever produced.

Nick did the honors with the wine and everyone loaded their plates with a large variety of the assorted foods.

“Wonderful,” Jarrod murmured, passing the tray of perfectly browned, tender roast beef and helping himself to a second portion of vegetables.

“Agreed” Nick and Heath said in unison, the words forming around the food filling their mouths.

The eating continued, basically uninterrupted, except for Audra’s comment reminding everyone to save room for dessert as she helped herself to more parsnips.

“Dessert? What do you have for dessert?” Heath asked, unable to imagine even more food on top of what was already being eaten.

“Oh Heath, you helped make it. It’s the Christmas pudding. Remember?” Audra said.

“No, I don’t think I do.”

Seeing his blank look, Jarrod filled him in, by saying, “Remember the grey mixture that we all stirred while we were stringing berries and making the pomander balls? That is dessert.”

“That, is dessert. Why don’t you just force the oysters down me,” Heath choked looking ill again. “I guess it’s just simple food for me, and grey isn’t a color I want to eat.”

Laughing, Victoria said, “ I can almost promise you that you will enjoy it. Secondly, it is no longer grey, and while we will light it on fire, I promise you will survive. Then Heath, you must have a piece anyway because it is a tradition and it will tell your destiny for the coming year.”

“Now I’m intrigued. You sure it isn’t grey?”

“No Sir-re Mr. Heath,” Silas said entering to clear the table of the remains of the main course. “It’s a lovely deep rich mahogany color.”

“Well I can try it, I reckon,” he said, as he laid down his fork to let Silas have his plate.

“I’ll have it ready in a minute Mrs. Barkley.”

“No hurry, Silas, we can just sit and digest what we’ve already eaten, so we can do justice to dessert.”

“That’s right,” Nick chimed in. “I want to have lots of room for dessert.”

“You always do,” Audra teased.

“Yeah, but it’s Jarrod over there that just sits. Too much dessert and you can see it in a minute. I’ll help you out Jarrod and have your portion this year.”

“You’re too kind but I’ll manage.” Jarrod added sarcastically.

“The offer still stands, if you change your mind.”

Trying to break up what could continue until the dessert was served, Audra said, “What do you want to get for your fortune? I’m hoping to get the marriage charm.”

“Seems you’ve said that for years, Sis,” Nick said, turning his attention to her.

“Not wanting to get him started again, she turned and looked down at the table, then asked “Mother, perhaps I could get the dessert plates ready for Silas.”

“That would be nice, dear. I’m sure he would appreciate the help.”

Rising, Audra made her way to the sideboard and picked up the set of Haviland plates, delicately edged in gold, and decorated with small pink flowers. “Mother, are you going to do the honors, or are we passing it around this year?”

“Does anyone have a way they want it done?” Victoria questioned. “Majority rules.”

“Pass it around.” Nick stated.

“You cut it Mother.” Jarrod announced.

“I think we should each cut our own slice,” Audra added.

“Heath, that makes the vote yours. Side with Audra and I and we won’t need a tie breaker.”

These were the times he hated. Having to make decisions on things he didn’t understand. Normally he would say, whatever, or I reckon you all can decide, but this was not normal. He was a part of this family and he would be heard. “I guess you will just have to explain to me what you are talking about, before I can make a decision. Remember I’ve never done this before.”

Sheepishly, Nick said, “Sorry Heath, you’re right. It always seems like I grew up with you, so I forget sometimes that you’ve only been here a year.”

“I think I’ll take that as a compliment,” Heath smiled, “But someone still needs to explain. What are we eating? Why are we cutting it? What fortune?”

“I’ll field these,” Jarrod cut in. “The dessert is called Christmas pudding, although I must say it doesn’t resemble a pudding at all. It’s kind of like a heavy fruitcake that has been soaked in brandy for weeks. Silas will bring it out, decorated with a sprig of holly. I don’t know why. It’s just always been done that way. Why is there holly on it Mother?”

“The holly is just for looks Jarrod,” Victoria answered. “Please continue.”

“Silas will douse it in Brandy at the table. Nick likes him to use a lot. Then he will light it on fire. Then either Mother will cut pieces or it will be passed around and we will each cut our own. The theory is that everyone who is going to partake of the dessert must stir it. As the people stir, the charms placed in the pudding get distributed throughout, and determine our yearly fortune. When you receive your piece the charm, or charms you receive will tell you what the future is supposed to hold for you. It’s always fun digging through the pudding trying to find a charm, and then sharing them with everyone. Now the reason I wanted to be the one to explain this to you, is so I would have the floor so to speak. We need Mother to cut it. Supposedly the charm you get was determined when you stirred it. The only reason Nick wants to cut it, is so he can take a huge piece. You make the call, Heath.”

“Hey, that’s not fair. It’s called leading the witness.” Nick shot out.

“Well, brother Nick, the early bird, so to speak gets to prompt. Also Heath knows I’m telling the truth. Oh, and I forgot to add that you put brandy butter icing on top, before you eat it, to sweeten it up.”

“Seeing as how you explained it so well, Jarrod, I think I’ll join you in voting to have Mother cut the pudding.”

“Well now, it’s still a tie,” Nick gloated. “Mother?”

“Wait a minute. I forgot that Jarrod. He did take half the dessert last year didn’t he? I’m changing my vote. Mother you cut it.” Audra decided.

“I think you’ve just been outvoted brother Nick,” Jarrod gloated, as Silas entered carrying the delicious looking dessert and a bottle of brandy.

Placing the dessert in the center of the table, Silas opened the bottle of warmed brandy while the entire family quieted. As he glanced around, he could tell how much this tradition meant to them. No matter what they had been through, this was always pleasurable and could temporarily lift their spirits. He’d seen it in years past, but this year it would just be for fun. They were in excellent spirits, and he was crediting it to the return of his Heath. If anyone’s eyes could get any bigger, he doubted he would ever notice. Heath looked like a child awaiting fireworks. He would provide them soon.

Opening the bottle, he looked at Mr. Nick and saw the nod. Taking that to mean, be liberal, he coated the Christmas pudding in brandy, allowing a small puddle to form in the bottom of the platter. Once again looking for Nick’s nod and receiving it, he stopped and produced a match. Quickly lighting the match he tossed it into the lake, and stepped back, watching with as much awe as Heath, as the brandy, in a loud whoosh, went up in flames. As it burned, the hot blue flames produced by the alcohol, danced around the plate, lending a magical glow to the darkened room. Finally, the brandy was consumed, and the dessert would be warm when served.

Taking the platter to Mrs. Barkley, Silas handed her the dessert knife set and returned to the kitchen for the bowls of brandy butter. By the time he returned, since he was timing it that way, the family should have their slices and be discovering what charms they got. He said a special prayer that Heath would get a charm. Often someone would get none and others two. He needed to get one on his first Christmas. Yes he could hear the talk begin. Time to bring in the icing.

He returned just in time. Victoria was handing Jarrod his piece and taking the last one for herself.

Standing near the table, Silas waited.

“Well, who’s going first?” Nick asked.

“I’m looking,” Audra said, while she dug through her dessert.

“Can’t we all just look?” Heath questioned. The anticipation was killing him and he didn’t want to wait.

“That’s a great idea,” Victoria remarked. “Makes me feel a little silly that we’ve never done it before,” she continued, eagerly starting to look through her piece as well.

Seeing the women looking, everyone dug in but Nick, and soon the room rang with laughter.

“No!” Audra wailed. “Not again. I got spiritual grace. Maybe I am destined to join a convent” she whined, holding aloft the small silver cross.

“You? Never!” Nick shot back, while everyone joined in the laughter.

“Doesn’t this make four years in a row? I don’t see you getting more religious, so I doubt you’re convent bound.” Jarrod snickered.

“Thanks so much, my old brother, and just what are you hiding under your fork?”

“What do you mean?” Jarrod asked innocently.

“I just saw you set your fork down over something shiny. What was it?”

“I…..well……”

“Speechless, Jarrod?” Nick said. “That could only mean you got the marriage rings, so I guess I can start looking for mine now. Wanted to be sure I was safe first,” he added, tearing into his piece with great ferocity, for such an innocent dessert.

“Marriage. How exciting Jarrod. Must be Helen.” Audra teased, not realizing how close she was coming to hitting the mark. She really couldn’t imagine any of her brothers married yet.

“Well what do you think about this?. I have two.” Nick said. “The coin and the apple. Health and prosperity both. This should be a great year. Mother, Heath, hurry up.”

“I’m sure they both have theirs, but neither are talking,” Jarrod surmised.

“That’s correct,” Victoria confirmed. “I have a charm, and I am waiting for Heath before I reveal mine.”

“Well I’d tell you what mine was if I knew myself.”

“Show us then,” Nick said.

“Here.” Heath said, thrusting it at Audra.

“Heath, how perfect,” she said, feeling completely overwhelmed as images of the past year assailed her.

“Are you okay?” Heath asked.

“Something wrong?” Nick questioned.

“Audra?” Jarrod added, when she didn’t respond.

Seeing their sister upset was something all three brothers hated.

“No. I’m fine. I was just thinking. Guess what ? Heath got the circle of hands.”

Seeing everyone’s smile, Heath said, “Can you let me in on the secret?”

“You got…..”

“No, Nick. I’m telling him. He handed it to me,” Audra cut in as she threw her arms around Heath and hugged him for all she was worth. “You got the charm that stands for family unity.”

As Silas choked back a sob, he noticed that he was not the only one. Nothing could have been more perfect. God had answered his prayers.

Heath too, was observing his family. His family. They were his family. Smiling peacefully, he said, “It took some time, but it feels right, doesn’t it?”

“Yes it does, Heath. Yes it does,” Victoria confirmed. “I should have gone first. You had the perfect ending to a wonderful year. I thought I did, which was why I waited.”

“Mother?” Jarrod said.

“I got the four leaf clover, for good fortune. This past year and week in particular, has made me realize so much. Being together, all together,” she said, looking pointedly at Heath with a transfiguring smile on her face, “Is the best fortune we could have as a family. I can’t wait for next year, when we can spend the whole time together.”

A chorus of “Agreed, right, and hear, hear” greeted her ears, but Heath’s smile and the contented faces of her children warmed her heart.

After a lengthy pause, that left each member examining their own feelings, Nick said, “Now pass the brandy butter,” breaking the solemnity of the moment. “I’m hungry.”

“Reckon I’d like to try this as well,” Heath said, helping himself to a spoonful of the icing and spooning it on top of the pudding, like Nick had.”

“Brandy butter, Audra?” Jarrod asked, a twinkle in his eye.

“You know I don’t like it, Jarrod,” she replied.

“Too much brandy perhaps? Maybe you do belong in a convent.”

“That isn’t funny,” she replied, while everyone laughed at her expense. “Next year the wedding rings are mine.”

“What ever you say, Sis” Nick said, placing his last fork full of the pudding in his mouth. “Anyone full who didn’t finish?”

Smiling at their light banter, Victoria happily allowed the meal to finish. “Shall we all light the tree one more time. It’s only seven, and we haven’t lit it that much this year.”

“I know I’d like that,” Heath answered quickly. Some day I’ll tell you about the nicest tree I ever saw, until this one.

Realizing that he was offering, but would refuse more information tonight, “Victoria said, “Perhaps when I explain all the pieces on the table?”

“Yep, that might work,” he responded, flashing her a tight grin. It may be a little to soon, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it. For now he intended to enjoy the night’s end.

“Well,” Nick said, rising, “If I’m not getting any more dessert, we may as well get that tree lit. I sure can’t wait to see it.”

“See you there,” Jarrod called, as he darted for the door, already ahead by a good margin.

“Doesn’t that just beat all.” Nick stated as he followed his brother.

The remainder of the tables occupants rose and followed at a more sedate pace, Victoria on Heath’s arm.

Lighting the tree took very little effort this time, since they already knew that the candles had been placed correctly, ensuring no danger of fire. Just as they were about to finish a light knock came at the door.

“I’ll get it, I’m right here,” Heath said, pulling the handle open. “Colleen! What brings you here? Is everything okay? Boy am I glad to see you. Come on in. No, on second thought wait right there for me, Okay?”

Perplexed, she responded, “Fine, Heath” as he shut the door on her.

“Heath, wasn’t that Colleen?” Audra questioned.

“Yep,” he replied, blushing.

“Well you can’t just leave her out there.”

“She’ll be in shortly I reckon. Let’s get this tree lit.”

“Done,” Jarrod pronounced.

Extinguishing the lights, everyone stared in awe at the glistening tree one final time, shining in all its glory. They were only briefly aware of the light breeze that entered when Heath snuck outside.

Pulling Colleen along with him, he walked to the front window and placed his arms around her waist, drawing her close. As she leaned against him, he whispered, “Have you ever seen so lovely a tree, or had so magical a night?”

Knowing that this moment had more to do with him than them, but proud that he chose to share it with her, Colleen answered softly, “Never, Heath,” and meant it.

“Thank you for the marbles. I finally beat Nick. Let’s go inside. I hear the Barkley’s serve the finest egg nog in the valley after Christmas dinner.”

Hearing the happiness in his voice she decided explanations of where he had been could wait. “Heath I’m going home now. I just needed to make sure you were alright. See you tomorrow?”

“I think I can get away,” he responded playfully.

“Go inside to your family.”

Using his lips to show her how much she meant to him, he whispered, “Thank you for understanding,” then turned and watched as she mounted her horse. As she rode away, and Victoria released the draperies edge, he returned to the warmth of his family. It was going to be a great year. Opening the door, he entered the parlor and sat down to play a game of cards with Audra.

Thinking back to the years start, he clearly remembered a ride on Gal, where he decided the only things he needed to be truly happy were a family and peace. It had been a long journey, but he finally had them and he wasn’t letting go.

***The End***

Return to Jana’s Home Page

 

2 thoughts on “The Gift (by Jana)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.