Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 9200
It was late in the afternoon as Heath turned down the road that led to Strawberry. He had wanted to check on Hannah for months now, but with branding, round up and the trial drive he just could not get away from the ranch. Then a few days ago Jarrod had suggested that he go check on Barkley Sierra, a mining interest of the family. Ever since the trouble they had with management over a year ago Jarrod liked one of them to keep tabs on the place just to make sure nothing like that ever occurred again. Heath had been more that eager to comply with Jarrod’s request. He figured after he saw to the business at the mine he could swing by Strawberry on the way home. He would spend a few days with Hannah and make sure that any repairs to the old house were done. He wished Hannah would allow him to move her to Stockton so he could keep a better eye on her but every time he suggested it she had refused.
The last time Heath was in Strawberry was over three months ago when he had come to find out if he truly was Tom Barkley’s Son. A con man had shown up at the ranch claiming that he not Tom Barkley was Heath’s father. So the blond man told his family that he needed to go to Strawberry, but he did not tell them why. In Strawberry Hannah had told him that this man had been married to his mother, but disappeared shortly after. Everyone believed him to have drowned.
Believing that this man was his father Heath had returned to the ranch and told his family that since he was not a Barkley he could not stay. As he was leaving the ranch he found the man shot. Just before the man died he confessed that even though he was married to Heath’s mother he had left her over two years before Heath was born.
Heath remembered how furious Nick had been with him for deciding to go to Strawberry during their busiest time of year at the ranch and how concerned Victoria seemed when he told her he needed to go. He got the feeling that his family really did not like him going to Strawberry, so this time he did not tell them. He just told them he would be staying at the mine longer than he really planned to.
The sun began to set as Heath rode down the dusty streets of Strawberry. The town was even more desolate that the last time he had been here. The bar that he had stopped at over three months ago was now boarded up. This place was nothing but a ghost town. He was even more determined now to try to get Hannah to move.
Heath rode up to the little green house and dismounted. He walked up to the house and knocked on the door. When Hannah did not answer he opened the door and went in. He found her lying on the kitchen floor.
“Hannah.” He said as he walked over and knelt beside her. She did not respond to his voice. He touched her forehead and found it to be fevered. At his touch she lifted her head and looked at him.
“My Heath, you come.” She said weakly as she lifted her hand and put it against his check.
“Yes, I am here. We need to get you to a doctor.” He answered
“No! No doctor. When the Lord calls one home they must go.” She told him.
“Don’t talk like that Hannah. You are not going to die.” He said as he picked her up and carried her to the bed and laid her down on it.
Heath poured some cold water into a basin took a cloth and started to sponge the little black woman’s hot forehead. Hannah was right about the doctor. There was no doctor in Strawberry anymore and she was too weak to travel to Stockton. He could not leave her in this state to go get a doctor either. He would just have to look after her himself. As he sat on the edge of the sick woman’s bed his thoughts went back to eighteen months ago when his whole world changed.
They had just finished a three-week cattle drive and the trail boss was handing out their pay when the sheriff approached the group of tired dusty cowboy’s.
“Is anyone of you Heath Thompson?” The Sheriff asked.
A blond cowboy stepped forward. “I am Heath Thompson sheriff. What can I do for you?”
“Please come with me.” The sheriff ordered.
“Why I have done nothing wrong.” Heath asked. He could think of no reason the law would want him.
“I know son, please come with me. I need to talk to you. It is important.” The Sheriff said as he took Heath’s arm and started to lead him away from the group of men.
“Wait.” The trail boss said as he stepped in front of the sheriff and Heath. He handed Heath the money he owed him. “Look sheriff this boy is a hardest worker and most honest man I know. What ever trouble he is in I like to help.”
“I am afraid that the trouble this boy has no one can help.” The sheriff said as he pushed past the trail boss with Heath in tow.
‘Oh God! What have I done?’ Heath thought as he shoved the money into his pant’s pocket and meekly followed the sheriff to the jail.
“Please have seat.” The sheriff told Heath once they were inside the jailhouse.
“I don’t know what this is all about, but you got the wrong man. Like I said I have done nothing wrong.” Heath said as he remained standing.
“Please sit down.” The sheriff said as put a hand on Heath’s shoulder and forced him to sit in a chair. “I received a wire from the ranch you work for a couple weeks ago asking me to keep an eye out for you.”
“Look what ever they say I done. I didn’t. I swear.” Heath interrupted the sheriff as he jumped to his feet. So something happened at the ranch and they were trying to pin it on him. Well he wouldn’t go down without a fight.
“No one is accusing you of anything. Now please sit down and let me finish.” The frustrated sheriff ordered the blond man. This was hard enough as it was, but the young man was making it even harder. The sheriff could not help but wonder what could have caused the young man to be so mistrusting of people. “The ranch you work for received a wire from Strawberry a few days after you left on the drive. You are requested to go home. Your mother is very sick. The doctor gives her less than two months to live. I so am sorry.”
Heath could not believe what he was hearing. He would have rather been told that he was going hang for something. His mother was dying. He had to get to Strawberry as soon as possible, but could he make it in time. The sheriff had said the ranch received the wire about three weeks ago and it was a good three weeks ride to Strawberry.
Heath stood up on very shaky legs. “I got to go.” He choked as he headed to the door.
The sheriff grabbed the blond man’s arm before he could exit the jailhouse. “Maybe you should wait until morning to start out. You are in no condition to be riding right now. Get a good nights sleep.”
“I got to get going now.” Heath snapped as he pulled away from the sheriff and left. He found his horse mounted up and rode out of town heading for Strawberry.
Heath rode like a man processed. He only stopped long enough to give the horse a little rest now and then. As each day past and he got closer to Strawberry his fear, that he would arrive to late to say good-by to his mother, grew. All his life she had been there for him and now when she needed him the most he might not be able to be there for her. He could not let that happen, so he pushed his horse harder.
He was about a day’s ride from Strawberry when his horse stumbled from exhaustion and threw him to the ground. He land hard on his left shoulder, but luckily did not break it. He picked himself of the ground as he realized that he had pushed his horse too hard. The gal didn’t deserve to be treated this way. Well they would camp here by the stream tonight and tomorrow he would only walk her.
It was late at night as Heath rode into Strawberry the next day. He stopped at the livery stable and took care of his horse. Then he made his way to the little green house on the edge of town. The lights were still on, so they were still up. At the door he stopped afraid of what he would find when he entered. Slowly he turned the doorknob and opened the door. Aunt Rachel sat at the kitchen table drinking some tea.
“Oh Heath we were so afraid you would not make it in time.” Aunt Rachel said as she rose from her chair and came to great him. She threw her arms around him and held him tight.
“How is she?” Heath croaked
“Not good sweetheart. She is very weak and is in constant pain. The doctor has her on morphine to try to make her as comfortable as possible. Come sit down you must be exhausted. I will make you something to eat.” Rachael said as she tried to lead him to the kitchen table.
“No, I want to see her.” He said as he headed for the door to his mother’s bedroom. He opened the door and entered the room. Hannah sat in a chair by the bed where his mother slept. He looked at the small skeleton like frame lying before him. Even in her sleep she moaned in pain and called out his name.
“I am here Mama.” He whispered as he sat down on the edge of the bed and took her small bony hand in his. At his touch she opened her eyes and looked at him.
“Heath, I knew you come. I need to tell you about your father.” She weakly said
“Its okay Mama you don’t have to. I am sorry for all the grief I gave you about over the years.” He tried to assure her.
“No, you must know. Please get my bible.” She pleaded. He slowly got up and went to her dresser to do as she requested. As he picked up the Bible his hands shook so badly that he dropped it on the floor. As he bent down to retrieve the bible from the floor he noticed a newspaper clipping had fallen from it. He picked up the piece of paper and read it. Then he turned to his mother to ask her what it meant, but she was gone.
“No! Don’t leave me.” He screamed as he rushed to her side. He picked up her frail body in his arms and cradled her as he wept. All though his life she had been his anchor through all life’s storms. No matter where he had gone or what he had done she was always here for him. He could always come home, but now she was gone and he was truly alone in this world. Now there was no one to care if anything happened to him. He was so wrapped up in his grief that he did not notice Rachael leave or when she returned with the doctor and a couple of men.
“Come on Heath. Move out of the way.” The doctor said as he placed a hand on grieving man’s broad shoulders. Heath slowly released his mother and stood up. Both Rachael and Hannah tried to comfort him, but he refused to let them. He stoically watched as the doctor and the men removed his mother’s body from the house.
“Heath why don’t you come out to the kitchen. I will make you some tea and something to eat.” Rachael suggested. She desperately wanted to get him out of this room.
“No! Please just leave me alone.” He pleaded. Both Rachael and Hannah reluctantly did as Heath requested.
After they had left Heath walked over to where he had dropped both the Bible and Newspaper clipping. He bent down and picked them up. Once again he read the article that told of Tom Barkley’s death six years ago. With her dying breath his mother had told him who his father was, but what difference did it make now. His father was dead and had been so for six years. He couldn’t even make the man pay for what he did. All these years he and his mother had struggled to make a living in this stink-hole of a town and his father was filthy rich. What kind of man could use an innocent woman and then leave her to raise his child alone?
Heath placed the newspaper clipping back in the bible. He then laid the bible on the bed, left the room and entered the kitchen. He walked over to the kitchen table and sat down.
“After the funeral tomorrow I will be leaving.” He told Rachael and Hannah
“Why don’t you stay a few days?” Hannah asked.
“There is nothing for me to stay for.” He stated flatly.
“Heath you should not be alone now. Please stay.” Rachael pleaded.
“No. I can’t.” He croaked as he stood and walked outside. He sat down under the big elm tree in the back yard and that is where he fell asleep.
Rachael watched as Leah’s son walked out of the house. She worried about him. He seemed so lost. She did not know what to do to help him and it was obvious that he did not want her help or Hannah’s. Tomorrow after the funeral he would leave and they probably would never see him again. She got up and walked into Leah’s room. She saw the bible lying on the bed. She went over picked it up took it out to the kitchen and placed in Heath’s saddlebags. Maybe he would be able to find help in the good book she thought. Then both her and Hannah went to bed.
Heath awoke to the singing of birds welcoming the morning sun over his head, but he did not want to face this day. His heart burned with pain. It felt like someone had ripped it out of his chest stomped on it and then put it back. He tried to remember his mother’s face when it was so full of life, but all he could see was the image of the skeleton like face looking at him with dull brown eyes. For the rest of his life would this be the way he remembered his mother.
Heath got up off the ground and set to work crafting a rough wooden cross. It would be the last thing he could ever give his mother. He craved her name, birth date and date of death into the cross.
“That is beautiful. You always do good work with your hands.” Rachael said as she saw the cross he was working on. She had come out to check to see if he was okay.
“It’s not much, but at least it’s something to mark her time on earth.” He said without looking up from his task.
“She would love it. She always loved anything you made her. Please come into house. I have breakfast ready.” Rachael said
“I am not hungry.” He answered. He still did not look at her.
“Heath you didn’t eat anything last night. You should eat something this morning.” Rachael pleaded.
“I told you I am not hungry.” He snapped angrily at his mother’s friend as he turned to face her. When he saw her pain expression he added. “I am sorry Aunt Rachael. I shouldn’t have yelled. I just want to be left alone. Please just leave me alone.”
“Okay, but we are here if you need us.” Rachael told him and the left him alone like he asked.
The funeral was small. Only Hannah, Rachael, Heath, the minister and few men hired to be pallbearers where in attendance. Uncle Matt was also there with Aunt Martha, but Heath tried to ignore that fact. The blond man hated his Uncle and Aunt for the way they had treated his mother all these years, but he would not disrespect his mother’s memory by make a scene her funeral.
Heath helped lower his mother into her final resting-place. Then he helped shovel dirt over her. After everyone else had left the gravesite he remained. He knelt down beside the grave and placed the rough cross he had carved for her that morning at her head. As he sat by her grave the storm inside of him raged, tossing his soul around like a boat with out an anchor and threatening to smash it against the rocky shore. He was so lost in the internal turmoil that he did not notice the shadow that fell across his mother’s freshly dug grave.
“It’s your fault she is dead.” His Uncle’s callused voice broke the silence like dynamic exploding a dam. When Heath did not respond Uncle Matt cruelly continued. “She worked herself into an early grave to raise you. She was so young and beautiful. If it wasn’t for you coming along she could have married any man she wanted to. She would have had a better life with out you. She did not deserve you for a son.”
In a flash Heath was on his feet standing face to face with his Uncle. “Maybe she did not deserve me as a son, but she sure as hell didn’t deserve you as a brother.” He spat through clenched teeth. “All these years you treated her like she was less than dirt. You did nothing to help her.”
“I gave her a job at the Hotel to help her raise her misbegotten little whelp.” His uncle spat back.
“Yeah and you made her work her fingers to the bone for the few pennies you gave her. You treated your own sister like she was nothing but a slave.” Heath accused
“I treated her better than she deserved after what she did. Having a child out of wedlock. I could not hold my head high in this town after that. Not only did she ruin her reputation, but also she brought shame to my wife and me. After all I was the whore’s brother.” Uncle Matt said
“You son-of-a bitch.” Heath yelled as he smashed his uncle square in the face with his fist and knocked him to the ground. “Don’t ever talk to me about her like that again or I will kill you. I swear I’d kill you.”
Heath stood over his Uncle daring him to say something. Daring him to get up and fight him, but his Uncle just lay on the ground like the coward he was. Heath turned and walked out of the graveyard. Then he went to the little green house that once was his home.
“Heath, are you alright.” Rachael asked as he walked through the door.
“I am fine. I will be leaving Strawberry now.” Heath said as he walked over to get his saddlebags and bedroll from where he had left them.
“Heath, you can’t leave now. Your mother just died you need to stay with family.” Hannah tried to talk Heath into staying.
“I don’t have any family. My only family died last night. I can’t stay here.” Heath said as he picked up his stuff and headed for the door.
“Don’t Hannah and I mean anything to you.” Rachael yelled at him as she grabbed his arm and made him look at her. “We may not be related by blood but we both love you as if we were. You are not the only one here who is hurting here. Hannah and I loved your mother like a sister and her death hurts us too.”
“I am sorry. I did not mean to hurt you and Hannah. You both mean a lot to me and I will always be grateful for what you did for my mother and me, but I can’t stay. Please try to understand.” Heath apologized to the two women that had helped raise him.
“We understand.” Rachael didn’t really understand, but she respected his need to leave. She wished she could help him, but this young man only ever really trusted Leah. At an early age he learned how cruel people could be and to protect himself from the pain the world threw at him he built a wall around his heart, which he only let Leah enter. Now Leah was gone and her son could not accept anyone else’s love or help.
“Could you at least stay long enough to eat something. It would make us feel better to know you aren’t travelling on a empty stomach.” Rachael pleaded.
“Okay, as long as its Hannah’s grits.” Heath said as he smiled weakly at the little black woman begging her to forgive him for snapping at her.
“Land sakes child of course I will cook you some grits.” Hannah said as she walked over and threw her arms around Leah’s son. Then she set to work cooking him his favorite supper. She took her time preparing the dinner, because she knew that once he had eaten he would leave. She feared that this could be the last time Rachael and her would ever see the boy. With Leah gone he had nothing to return here for and it broke her heart.
After he finished eating the food Hannah had prepared for him, he gave each woman a hug and then left. He went to livery stable and saddled his horse. He mounted his horse and rode out of Strawberry as the sun began to set. He did not know where he was going to go and he did not care. All he knew was he had to leave Strawberry.
For two weeks after his mother’s death he just rode. Stopping only to camp at night and rest his horse. He stayed away from any town he came across. He did not want to be around people. He just wanted to be alone. Finally when the supplies that Rachael had packed in his saddlebag ran out he realized he needed to find work.
He found work at a near by farm fixing the roof of the barn. The work only lasted a couple days then he moved on. He drifted around finding work where he could. Some of the work he found would last only a day some a week, but he did not care he did not want to stay in any place too long.
In Corning he hired on at a ranch for round up and branding. This job lasted three weeks. During his time there he kept to himself. When the other hands went into town on a Friday night, he stayed at the ranch. When the job came to an end he collected his pay gathered his stuff and moved on.
Heath stopped to camp by a little creek a few miles out of Corning. As he was setting up camp he wondered where and what he should do next. He was going though his saddlebags looking for a can of beans when he found his mother’s bible. He removed the bible from his bags and held it in his trembling hands. Oh how he missed her. He was about to place the bible back into his saddlebags when an owl hooted from a nearby tree and startled him. He dropped the bible to the ground. When he went to retrieve it from the ground he noticed that it had fallen open to the page that contained the newspaper article of his father’s death. Then he noticed that the bible was open to the story of the Prodigal son.
As a little boy the story of the prodigal son was Heath favorite story. When his mother read him this story he would imagine he was the son returning home to a father who welcomed him with open arms. As he grew older the dream shattered. Unlike the boy in the story Heath did not chose to leave his father and squander his fortune. It was his father that left him in a dirty little town to help his mama scratch out a living.
All Heath’s life he wanted to find his father. To make him pay for the way he treated his Mama, but more than that he wanted to know why his father did not want him. Now he knew who his father was, but the man had been dead and buried for six years. Along with him where buried the answers to all Heath’s questions.
Heath read the article of his father’s death. It told of how the whole valley came out to mourn the loss of a great man. “Yeah a great man who would leave a women in a mining town with his child to raise.” Heath thought as he continued to read the article. The article told of Tom’s surviving family, three sons, a daughter and his wife. So he had brothers and a sister. He wondered what they where like and felt a longing to know. Don’t be fool he scolded himself they wouldn’t want anything to do with you. You are just their father’s bastard son. You would only be dirt under their feet.
As Heath sat staring at the picture of he great Tom Barkley, his father, the angry he got. All these years while he and his mother struggled to survive his father was rich. If his father were still alive he would go to Stockton and demand that he acknowledge him. He would demand his birthright. He would tell the people of Stockton just what kind of man his father was. But now it was too late. Without realizing what he was doing he folded the paper and placed it in his shirt pocket. Then he lay down and went to sleep.
He dreamt he was kneeling by his mother’s grave when a shadow fell across the rough wooden cross. He looked up expecting to find his Uncle Matt, but instead his father stood there. “What the hell do you want. To come and see her buried.” He spat
“You are my son, you belong with your family. Fight for your place.” Tom said as a gun rang out. Heath watched horrified as he bullet tore into his father’s chest.
“No!” Heath screamed as he tried to get to his feet to reach his father, but he felt like he was in quick sand.
“Go home.” His father gasped as he died. Heath awoke in a cold sweat. The dream had seemed so real that he had to convince himself that it was not.
“Well that will teach you for reading some ones obituary before going to sleep.” He told himself as he tried to go back to sleep. He could not sleep so he broke camp and left.
As he rode he could not shake the image of the dream. He kept thinking of the words his father had said to him in his dream telling him to fight for his place. Finally he decided that he would go to Stockton and claim his rightful place as Tom Barkleys’ son.
He rode from the site of his father’s grave where he had just met his blonde half sister. “Boy Howdy! What a little spit fire she was he thought. He wondered if his brothers would be just as hot-tempered. She was angry with him for trampling the flowers that she had planted on their father’s grave so she whipped him with her ridding crop. He had to grab her and pull her of the horse to make her drop it. After he apologized and explained that he was looking for the Barkley ranch so he could get a job, she gave him directions and told him to ask for Nick.
He rode up to the steps of the big white mansion as three dark haired men walked out. Heath recognized the tall lanky man as the loud mouth he had met on the bridge earlier that day. The dark haired man had refused to back his horse of the bridge and Heath wasn’t about to either. Finally the bridge collapsed plunging the two stubborn men and their mounts into the icy waters below. ‘Well this was just great.’ Heath thought.
“I am looking for a Mr. Barkley.” Heath stated.
“Well take your pick.” The older dark haired man said. So these three men where his brothers Heath thought wondering what they would do if they knew who he was and why he was here, but he wasn’t ready to play that card just yet.
“I was told that Nick does the hiring.” Heath said.
Nick asked him his name, what he could do and where he worked last. As Heath answered his brother’s questions, he could tell the older man was suspicious of him.
“I am sorry but we are full.” Nick told Heath
“Hire him Nick. He did me a favor today.” The older man said. This confused Heath. He looked at the older man more closely. He had never seen this man before a few minutes ago, so how could he have done a favor for him.
“I was on the train.” Jarrod said when he noticed Heath’s confused look.
Now Heath understood. Earlier that day as the blond cowboy rode toward the Barley ranch he saw the big iron horse of the railroad that killed his father. As the train slithered down the tracks he got an uncontrollable urge to take it on and beat it or die trying. Luckily he beat it. His older brother had been on that train. The dark-haired man must have made a bet with someone that the crazy cowboy would beat the train.
Reluctantly Nick hired him and told him to go store his things in the bunkhouse.
That night in the bunkhouse after everyone else was asleep Heath lay awake. Now he was here at his father’s ranch he was beginning to have second thoughts. How could he be foolish enough to allow a dream to convince him to come here? Maybe he should just be content with working here as a ranch hand; after all he really did not have any proof of his claim. All he had was his mother’s word and newspaper article. They would never believe him. But could he be content just working here knowing the truth? Maybe he should just leave. A rough hand clamping down on his mouth rudely interrupted his internal debate.
Heath looked into the menacing dark eyes of his older brother. Nick placed a finger to his lips indicating to Heath to be quiet as he removed his hand from the younger man’s mouth.
“Get dressed.” Nick whispered as he threw Heath’s his clothes.
The blond cowboy got up and did as he was requested. As he followed Nick out of the bunkhouse and to the barn he wondered if Nick somehow knew who he was and why he was here. But that could not be possible. There had to be another reason the dark haired man wanted to talk to him. Probably had something to do with the bridge incident and by how agitated the older man was Heath knew this was not going to be a peaceful talk.
Nick made the blond cowboy enter the barn first. “Okay boy who sent you?”
“No body sends me anywhere.” Heath angrily answered. He was confused by the question.
Nick accused him of being a spy for the railroad then proceeded to try to beat a confession out of Heath. The two men fought in the barn. Finally a punch from the dark haired man sent the blond up against a wall of tack. Heath grabbed a harnessed and threw it at Nick. Nick caught it and threw it aside.
“Who are you boy?” Nick demanded as he approached the younger man.
Fine Heath thought you want to know I will tell you.
“I am your father’s bastard son.” He spat. Well there went any chance of staying on as a ranch hand. He had told this man who he was and there was no going back now.
“You lying Son-of-a-bitch.” Nick screamed as he launched himself at the blond man and furiously pounded the younger man with his fists.
Heath tried desperately to fend off the furious attack, but his enraged brother would not let up. A blow to Heaths rib’s knocked the wind out of him and fell to his knees gasping for breath. Nick grabbed his arm, roughly yanked him to his feet, and dragged him from the barn up to the big white mansion. Nick dragged him through the house to the study. The dark haired man stood in the entrance of the study blocking Heath’s escape as he yelled for Jarrod and Eugene.
Heath felt like a trapped animal. Soon there were going to be three against one, not very good odds. He needed something to protect himself with. Then he noticed the bar by he door and walked over to it and poured himself a drink. As his other two brothers entered the room he grabbed a whiskey bottle from the bar and broke it against the counter. Using the broken bottle as a weapon for protection he turned to face them. This was not the way he had planned to make his claim, but then he really did not have a plan.
He told them of their father’s affair with his mother. He told them how on her deathbed she told him that Tom Barkley was his father. When he was finished his oldest brother told him it was touching story even though it was not believable, but for those it would hurt he offered Heath some money.
The dejected blond took the money and placed it in a glass of whiskey as he glared at his older half-brother. How dare they try to buy him off he thought as he stormed from the room? He stopped briefly at the door to glance back at them. “Well you didn’t expect them to welcome you with open arms did you?” He asked himself. A half smile formed on his lips as he realized he had hoped they would. He gave a slight wave of his hand and left.
Latter that night he had to save is half sister from the men in Stockton when she rode into town looking for him. They both had to be escorted from town by the sheriff. As they rode toward the Barkley ranch they noticed smoke in the distant and went to investigate. They discovered that the railroad’s men had made a hit against a neighbor’s ranch.
As Heath sat on his horse watching the neighbors ranch house and barn burn, he heard one of the ranchers demand that they make a stand against the railroad the next day at his place just like Tom Barkley did six years ago. Then the sheriff told the man that they would only die like Tom did. When the rancher said that all Tom Barkley left them was an empty legacy Heath turned and rode away.
When Heath decided to come to Stockton he told himself that he wanted his father’s name because every one respected it, but now he realized that respect was earned by what one did and as easily lost by what one did not do, a name did not matter. With that illusion shattered he realized he wanted something from these people that they would never give him, a family and a place to belong. He had chased an illusive dream to find that there was nothing here for him. Since he used up all his money coming to Stockton and he did not know when he would be able to find work, he decided that he would go get the money his older brother offered him. Then he would leave.
As he exited the big white mansion he was confused by what his father’s wife had told him. It was almost like she believed him. No, he had to be imagining that. She also told him that his brother’s would be making a stand against the railroad the next morning. Heath believed what the railroad was doing was wrong and they had to be stopped. To do that the rancher’s would need all the help they could get. He decided that he would find out where that battle would take place and he would show up to help the ranchers take on the railroad. Then he would leave Stockton that is if he survived.
After the battle with the railroad was over Jarrod requested that Heath accompany him and his other two brothers back to the ranch to talk. Heath hesitantly agreed after all he started this he may as well see it to the end. Then he would leave.
That night Heath could not believe it when Jarrod called him Heath Barkley and accepted him as his brother. Heath was even more shocked when Victoria accepted him and insisted that he stay with his father’s family. Audra also welcomed him with open arms. Eugene accepted him because Jarrod and his mother did. Nick took the longest to accept him, but now they were as close as two brothers that grew up together was.
It was after he was at the ranch a few weeks when his curiosity got the best of him and he approached Jarrod.
“Jarrod, can we talk. In private.” Heath asked his older brother as they got up from the dinner table one night.
“Certainly my boy. Come with me to the study.” Jarrod said
Heath followed Jarrod into the study. He felt as nervous as he did that first night, a few weeks ago. Maybe he should just leave it alone, but he needed to know why they accepted him.
“So what can I do for you?” Jarrod asked concerned by how nervous his younger brother seemed. He was afraid his blond brother was in some kind of trouble.
Heath turned slowly to face Jarrod. “Why did believe me? What made you accept my story when I did not have any proof?”
Jarrod looked at his younger brother and smiled as he just discovered another character trait this blond man share with their father. The need to know the truth, no matter what it cost. “You had all the proof you needed all we had to do is open our eyes to see it.”
“Mrs. Barkley said that to Nick that night. What did she mean and what do mean?” Heath asked.
“I not sure you would really like to know this.” Jarrod knew that his new brother held a lot of anger and resentment toward their father. He wasn’t sure how the young man would feel knowing that he reminded them of their father.
“What do you think I would not want to know. Did you only accept my story because you felt sorry for me? Look I have never taken charity and I won’t start now. If that’s the reason you all asked me to stay, then I can’t, I won’t.” Heath snapped in frustration. Why would this man give him a straight answer?
“We did not ask you to stay because we felt sorry for you. We asked you to stay because you are our brother and we want to get to know you.” Jarrod answered hoping that this would assure his young brother of his place with the family.
“But what made you believe that I was your brother?” Heath was getting angry with Jarrod for avoiding his question.
Jarrod saw the flash of anger in Heath’s eyes. He realized that this determined man would not leave this alone until he got his answer.
“All right if it is that important for you to know. You have a strong resemblance to our father both in looks and mannerisms.”
“So you accepted my story because I reminded you of our father.” Heath turned and walked over to the bar. It troubled him to find out he shared character traits with his father.
“But I am not my father, I wouldn’t do what he did.” He yelled as he turned back to face Jarrod. “Don’t say I am like him.”
Jarrod walked over and placed a hand on Heath’s shoulder. “I know what father did to you and your mother hurt you a lot, but you are his son just like Nick, Eugene and I are. We all have some features and mannerisms that remind each other of father. Just because we share some character traits and looks with father doesn’t mean we are just like him. We are each our own person and we each make our own mistakes just like father did. I hope someday you will be able to forgive father for all the hurt he has caused you.”
“Heath.” Hannah’s weak voice brought him back to the present. Heath took the little black woman’s hand in his to assure her of his presence.
“I am here Hannah.” He whispered
“Promise me you will bury me by your mother.” Hannah weakly pleaded.
“Stop talking like that Hannah you are not going to die. You are just sick. Once you are better I will buy you a nice home near Stockton so I can look after you better. You can’t stay in this town any longer. I won’t let you.”
“The good Lord is calling me home, Heath. Promise me you will bury me by your mother.” Hannah insisted.
“Okay, I promise when your time comes I will bring you to Strawberry and bury by my mother. But that won’t happen for a long time yet. You will get better.” Heath didn’t know if he was trying to convince her or himself. He knew Hannah was really sick. He wished he could get her to a doctor. At Heath’s promise the little black lady closed her eyes and went to sleep.
Heath stayed by her side for five days trying desperately to nurse her back to health. Finally it looked like he was going win, but then her fever started to rise fast. He fought frantically to bring down her fever. It was early morning when he lost the battle.
“Oh Heath, I can hear the angel’s a singing. They have come to lead me home to the father’s arms.” Hannah said as she smiled closed her eyes and peacefully past away.
As Heath looked down at Hannah’s still form lying on the bed he realized how wrong he was when he had told Jarrod the day of the battle with the rail road that he had no one to care weather he lived or died. Both Rachael and Hannah cared about him and he had turned his back on them the day his mother had died. He should have stayed with them that day like they asked. He should have let them share his grief and he should have shared theirs. His mother, Rachael and Hannah were all dead now. He buried his face in his hands and wept.
Later that morning Heath did as Hannah requested and buried her by Leah and Rachael. Then he left Strawberry and headed home.
He arrived home just after super. His brothers would probably be playing pool like they did almost every night and his stepmother and sister would probably be watching. He hoped he could just slip in unnoticed and get to his room. He really did not feel like seeing anyone. He just wanted to be alone.
Heath was almost to the stairs that led to his room when Nick’s loud booming voice stopped him in his tracks. “Its about time you showed up. Where the hell were you.”
So much for being alone Heath thought. “I had some business to look after in Strawberry.” He said as he tried to continue up the stairs. He really did not want to go into this tonight.
“Strawberry! What kind of business would you need to take care of there.” Nick hated it when Heath went to Strawberry. It always caused his younger brother pain.
“I just had to take care of something.” Heath spat back. He wished Nick would just leave him alone.
“Well you could have told us. We wired the mine and found out you left there a week ago. You had everyone worried. If you did not show up tonight Jarrod and I were going to ride out to the mine tomorrow to see if we could find you.” Nick told him.
“You needn’t have worried. I have been looking after myself longer than I have been living here. I am sure I can still look after myself.” Heath snapped as he started up the stairs.
“You are not going anywhere until I get some straight answers from you boy.” Nick grabbed Heath’s shoulder and spun him around to face him. He was going to teach this ungrateful man a lesson on manners, but the look on the younger man’s face stopped him.
“My God Heath what happened.” Nick asked. Heath tried to pull out of Nick’s strong grip. He needed to get away to be alone.
Nick grabbed the grief stricken man by shoulders and shook him. “Dam it Heath don’t do this. Don’t shut me out. What ever it is let me help. What happened in Strawberry?”
“Just let me go.” Heath pleaded as he tried to free himself from Nick’s powerful grip.
Victoria who had been watching the exchange between the two brothers walked over and placed a hand on Heath’s shoulder. “Nick’s right don’t shut us out. You must learn to trust us with things that cause you pain. Please tell us what is wrong.”
Heath pulled away from Nick and Victoria. He walked over to the fireplace. How he wished that they would just leave him alone, but he knew that they wouldn’t until he told them. As Heath stared into the fireplace he remembered Rachael and Hannah pleading with him the night his mother died, to let them help him. He remembered how he turned his back on their help and he realized he was doing the same thing to his family. They only cared about him. They only wanted to help. Wasn’t that what he fought so hard for when he came here?
“I went to Strawberry to check up on Hannah. I found her on the kitchen floor. She was so sick. I tried to make her well, but she died last night and I buried her this morning.” Heath choked out the words.
“Oh Heath, I am so sorry. You should not have had to face that alone.” Victoria said as she walked over and placed her arms around his quaking shoulders.
I failed her just like I failed my mother and Aunt Rachael. They deserved better.” Heath cried
“Oh Heath you didn’t fail them. The only thing in this life we can hope for is to die surrounded by those we love. You were there for both your mother and Hannah when they needed you the most. You did not let them die alone.” Victoria tried to comfort him.
“I wasn’t there for Aunt Rachael. It’s because of me she is dead.” Heath said as he pulled out of Victoria’s embrace.
This was the first time since that day in Strawberry when they learnt about Rachael’s death that Heath talked about the tragedy. Victoria had gone to Strawberry in search of answers to some nagging questions her husband’s affair caused in her mind. While there she discovered that Heath’s Uncle Matt and his wife killed Rachael because she refused to help them extort money from the Barkley’s. Because there was no proof of what they did they got away with it. Victoria knew that Rachael’s death had hurt Heath deeply, but she did not realize that he had blamed himself all these months for it.
“Heath you can’t blame yourself for what your Uncle Matt did.” Victoria tried to convince her blond son that Rachael’s death wasn’t his fault.
“But it is my fault she is dead. If I did not come here and claim my birthright they would have left her alone. She would still be alive and she would have taken care of Hannah. ” The guilt ridden man explained.
Like Nick and Jarrod, Audra stood silently observing what was going on. Her brother’s words troubled her. It sounded like he regretted that he ever came to live with his family.
“Heath, are you saying that you wish you never came here.” Audra cried.
“No. Yes, I don’t know.” Heath snapped in frustration as he slammed his fist against the fireplace mantle.
Heath turned to face his family. They didn’t move or say anything. They just looked at him with shocked pain expressions. Pain that he had caused them. Why did he always end up hurting those he loved? He had to try to explain. He owed them that much.
“When I first found out about who my father was I did not even consider to come here. Even when I decided to come here I wasn’t really sure I wanted to see it through. That first night in the bunkhouse I was debating whether to stay on as a ranch hand or leave. I almost decided to leave, if Nick had not forced me to reveal who I was that night I probably would have.”
“Well then I am glad I beat some sense into you that night and if I have to I will do so again.” Nick threatened interrupting Heath. He was afraid this brother that had come to mean so much to him in the short time he was here was trying to tell them he wanted to leave. Nick wasn’t about to let that happen.
A half smile formed on Heath’s lips as he continued. “I could not believe it that night when you accepted me into the family. I felt like prospector who just found the riches vein of gold on earth. You all mean so much to me and I am not sorry I found you. It’s just that sometimes it is all so overwhelming and I feel as if it would have been better if I had not come here.”
“After the battle with the railroad, I told Jarrod that I had no one to care whether I lived or died. I was so wrong. Hannah and Rachael both loved and cared about me, but I could not accept it. I hurt them by leaving Strawberry the day my mother died. Now they are both dead and I.” The word caught in Heath’s throat as he fought for control over his emotions.
Heath turned back to the fireplace. He didn’t know how to make them understand all the conflicting emotions that he fought with everyday. He did not even understand them.
Victoria placed a hand on her emotionally tortured son’s shoulder as she tried to comfort him. “I know you are hurting right now, but you are not alone. Nick, Audra, Jarrod and I are here to help you through this. That is what families do they share each other’s pain and sorrow.”
“They were my family, but I didn’t share their pain. They want me to, but I turned my back on them.” Heath choked. “I don’t deserve any one to care about me.”
Heath pulled away from Victoria and headed for the stairs. He wanted to be alone, but Jarrod stepped in front of him. “It’s too late Heath, we all care about you and we won’t let you turn your back on us.”
“I know you care about me and I am sorry for hurting all of you. It seems all I do is hurt those who love me.” Heath apologized to his family.
“When father died I turned my back on my family.” Audra said as she walked over to stand by Heath. “Maybe I didn’t leave home like you did, but shut them out of my heart. I know now I hurt them a great deal, but at the time I was so full of grief that I could not accept their help. It took almost a year before I could turn to them, but they never gave up on me. They understood my need to grieve in my own way. I believe that Rachael and Hannah understood your need to leave Strawberry.
“Maybe they understood, but I hurt them.” Heath said as he turned and walked back to the fireplace.
“I hurt them, just like I hurt Mama when I left Strawberry and her. She understood my need to leave. But she didn’t understand why I didn’t come home to visit her more often. I always used the excuse I needed to work, but the truth was I just couldn’t stand that town. The times I did return the memories were too painful and I had to escape. I guess there was apart of me that blame her for that pain. Then as soon as she died I go find myself a new family.”
“Oh Heath. Your mother used her dying breath to tell you who your father was, so you could find you way home to us. She would never want you too feel guilty that you have a family. She loved you more than anything and she would want you to be happy.” Victoria said as she took Heath’s face in her hands and made him look at her.
“Sweetheart, just because you have a new family that you love doesn’t mean that you love your mother any less. She will always be a big part of your heart.” Victoria assured Leah’s son as she put her arms around him and pulled him into an embrace.
Later that night after everyone had gone to bed Victoria lay awake thinking about her blond son. Tonight was the first time Heath had trusted his new family enough to open up and share some of his pain. She felt that there was still a lot he had not shared, but in time she knew he would.