Summary: A visiting relative helps Heath learn more about his new family.
Category: The Big Valley
Rated: PG (Mild Warning: Language, Adult References)
Word Count: 7455
He carried his boots in his hand and went down the backstairs. He would snatch some of last night’s corn muffins to eat on the way to the branding pens. No matter how much was eaten at dinner, Silas always had leftovers in the kitchen. A few corn muffins and some campfire coffee would hold him until lunch. There had been times in his life when he would have considered them a feast. As he reached the final steps, the smell of fresh brewed coffee reached his nose. He had thought he would beat even Silas in rising, but apparently Silas was stirring unusually early too. He stepped into the softly lit kitchen and looked around for the servant who had become one of his first friends on the ranch. Heath did not see the man he expected, but the room was not empty. There stood the very person he had arisen so early to avoid.
Heath had become uneasy at Victoria Barkley’s first announcement that her cousin was coming for a visit. Heath had not met any of Victoria’s family and could not help but worry about the reaction of her family member to the illegitimate son of her husband. Over the past year since his arrival, Victoria and her children had made Heath a part of the family. Victoria considered Heath her son, and Heath had begun calling her mother, but a relative of Victoria, not Thomas Barkley, would surely take issue with that.
Cousin Vanessa had arrived yesterday, and Heath had met the woman at dinner. The only family resemblance to Victoria that Heath had managed to find was the color of Vanessa’s eyes and the elegance of her carriage. Heath had managed to seat himself as far from Cousin Vanessa as possible and say little. Of course, with Audra, Nick, and Jarrod chatting away, as well as Victoria, one less voice had hardly been noticeable. After dinner, Heath had managed to excuse himself to go to the barn and later quietly slipped up to his room.
“Have a seat, Heath,” Cousin Vanessa directed. “The coffee’s ready.”
Heath looked toward the kitchen’s large pine table, and saw that two places had been laid. “Yes, ma’am, ” he replied automatically.
“How do you like your eggs?” Cousin Vanessa stood with her hand paused holding an egg over the frying pan.
“Don’t trouble yourself, ma’am,” Heath replied. “I’ll just have some coffee and be on my way.”
“I may not be the cook Silas is, young man, but I can fry eggs.”
“I didn’t mean… I apologize, ma’am,” Heath stuttered.
Cousin Vanessa smiled, “Apology accepted only if you sit down and have breakfast. Now, how do you like your eggs?”
“Over easy,” Heath replied settling uneasily into a chair and pouring himself a cup of coffee. Cousin Vanessa broke three eggs into the pan.
“Silas is up, but he’s tending to some things outside.” Heath watched the woman at the stove turn to face him before she continued, “I shall be direct, Heath. Silas understands I wish to speak to you privately.”
“Well, here it is,” Heath thought. He sipped his coffee as he watched the woman finish frying the eggs. Then she walked over and placed a plate in front of him. Three eggs and a large slab of fried ham lay invitingly upon it, but Heath had lost his appetite. He watched Cousin Vanessa take the seat opposite him and pour herself a cup of coffee.
“Eat it before it gets cold,” Vanessa instructed.
“You’re not eating,” Heath replied.
“I won’t be putting in a full day of work branding cattle,” Vanessa smiled, “and I’ll have something with Victoria later. Now eat!”
Heath obediently took a forkful of eggs and placed them in his mouth.
Cousin Vanessa nodded approvingly and then began, “Shall we start with why you want to avoid me?”
Heath started to say that he was not trying to avoid her, but swallowed the statement with a gulp of coffee. He decided he did not want to lie to this lady, even politely. “I thought you might prefer it that way,” he said softly.
“Because you are Thomas’s illegitimate son?”
“Yes.” Heath’s eyes dropped to his plate.
“Heath,” Cousin Vanessa spoke with a distinctly warm voice, “you know that I am headmistress of a girls’ boarding school, don’t you?”
Heath’s head came up with the unexpectedness of her question, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, many wealthy men use boarding schools as a convenient place to discharge responsibility to illegitimate offspring. Sometimes the girls are aware of their circumstances, and sometimes they are not. The teachers generally are, and the headmistress always is.” Cousin Vanessa reached out and placed her hand over Heath’s as it lay on the table. “If ever I held the notion that a child was tainted by the parents’ choice not to be married when that child was conceived, it was dispelled long ago.” She smiled gently, “This year, one man paid tuition for two girls. His daughter and the child who thinks he is her benefactor only.” A glint came into Vanessa’s eyes,” Would you care to guess which daughter I prefer?”
For the first time since her arrival, Vanessa saw Heath truly smile; she gasped. Then, drawing in a deep breath, she said, “Have they told you you have his smile?”
“Thomas Barkley’s smile?”
“Your father’s smile.” Vanessa watched the smile leave his face as the shadows entered his eyes. “My God, no wonder Victoria had no doubt this was Tom’s son; he couldn’t be anyone else’s,” she thought. “I shall speak of your father, Heath,” she stated firmly. Then in a gentler tone, “Perhaps you’ll find that I am someone you can discuss Tom with.”
Heath considered her statement. Any discussion of his father with the members of his new family was still awkward for him, but he had begun to hunger for more knowledge of the man who had sired him. “You knew him well?”
Vanessa sipped her coffee and settled back in her chair before launching into her discourse. “Victoria’s mother and mine were sisters. Actually, they were not very close, but they were sisters and did love one another. We lived very near my aunt, and even though I was six years her younger, Victoria and I were always very close. She was eighteen when Thomas Barkley began courting her. Now, many young men would have viewed a twelve-year-old cousin as a nuisance, but Thomas Barkley was not most men. He realized the love Victoria and I held for each other and decided to make me his friend. We were friends, albeit often physically distant, until the day he died.” Vanessa found Heath’s face easier to read then most people did. There was so much of Tom Barkley there. “No, I was not a little girl with a crush on her cousin’s beau.”
Heath blushed. The woman had read his mind. “Am I really so like him? Nick didn’t see it when I first came,” he inquired softly.
“Nick didn’t really remember his father before he was the Thomas Barkley of Stockton, California. I knew Tom best when he was around your age.”
“Mother knew him when he was young.”
“Victoria was with him each day. Her memory of him merges all the ages that she knew. I saw him each time I visited, but then I went away, and, as memory does, mine always went back to the Tom I first knew. Yes, you are very like him, Heath.”
His eyes hardened. “I don’t know if that is such a good thing,” he muttered.
Vanessa gave him an appraising look. “He was a good man, Heath. Not perfect, but basically a good man.”
“Sure. That’s what everybody says.”
“Even your mama?” Heath noticed her use of his name for his own mother, Leah Thomson. “Victoria told me she thought you were able to call her mother partly because you called Leah mama.”
Heath knew that Victoria carried on an extensive correspondence with this cousin. Now he wondered how much of their recent correspondence had included him. “Yeah, even Mama said he was a good man.” Heath’s words tasted strongly of bitterness.
“Jared, Nick, Audra, and Eugene are Tom’s children, Heath, not just Victoria’s. Each of them is like Tom in some ways. You can’t love them without loving part of him.” Vanessa again sipped her coffee as Heath digested what she had said.
“Mother asked you to talk to me.”
It was a statement, not a question, but she answered anyway. “Victoria has always said that I can make people say more than they want to say. She thinks there are a great many things you need to say that you haven’t.”
“Mother and Jarrod think talking helps everything.”
“Victoria and Jarrod are talkers. Audra and Eugene chatter; Nick shouts. You, Heath, are a listener, but sometimes even listeners need to be heard. I’m a listener too, son.”
Before Heath could answer, a noise caught their attention, Silas had returned to his kitchen.
Heath looked at Cousin Vanessa. She reached out and patted his hand. “I’m here for a good while. You won’t be avoiding me anymore, will you?”
“No, ma’am, I won’t be avoiding you anymore.”
Heath leaned against the porch rail and looked at the view he had come to love in the time he had lived in this house. Once again Nick had claimed first rights in the bath, and Heath felt far too dirty to take a seat inside, so, as was often the case, he waited on the porch, enjoying the evening breeze.
“Heath, may I join you?”
Heath turned to see Cousin Vanessa. “Of course, ma’am.”
She gestured toward the porch rockers, and each settled comfortably into a chair.
Vanessa smiled, “I heard Nick as he came in. He’s been claiming first rights to something or other ever since he was three.”
“I don’t mind,” Heath returned the smile, “not really.” He appreciated the fact that he could end each workday with a hot bath far too much to complain about a short wait for it.
“Because you love your brother.”
It was a statement, not a question, but Heath answered her anyway. “I love all of them.” It was rarely stated but overwhelmingly true.
“Having a family to love is the best of things, but not always the easiest.” Vanessa let her eyes focus on the view as she waited quietly for his reply.
“I’m not always easy to have around either.”
Vanessa laughed softly. “Neither was your father. People avoid speaking ill of the dead, so I doubt you’ve heard about the difficult side of Tom Barkley.”
“The sainted Tom Barkley had a difficult side?” Heath’s tone was sarcastic and bitter.
“Tom was not a saint, Heath.”
“I’m proof of that, now ain’t I?” Heath sprang to his feet and walked to the far end of the long porch.
Vanessa rose and followed him. She stood next to him and listened to his breathing. When it slowed and became even once again, she spoke softly, “He was neither all saint nor all sinner. He was a man.”
Heath kept his eyes on the horizon as he spoke, “Every time someone says what a wonderful man he was I want to … to… well, I just want them to shut up.”
“If you want them to accept that he wasn’t a saint, Heath, you have to accept that he wasn’t a devil.”
“It’s easier to hate a devil.”
“You want to hate him?”
Heath stiffened, “I wanted to love him when I was little, but he wasn’t there to love. Then I realized what he had done to Mama, and I started to hate him. You can hate someone ya ain’t met a hell of a lot easier that you can love them.” Realizing he had cussed in front of a lady, Heath blushed, “Sorry, ma’am, about my language. Mama taught me better.”
“With a bar of lye soap, I imagine.”
Heath gave her a sheepish grin, “Yes, ma’am.”
Vanessa reached out and gently patted his cheek, “You’re forgiven, young man.” Vanessa saw that some of the tension had left his body, and decided to continue, “He would have loved you, Heath.” Vanessa watched the pain fill his eyes.
“Are you so sure of that?”
“Absolutely sure. Someday you’ll be sure too. Not soon but some day.” The sound of someone opening the door and coming out onto the porch prevented Heath saying anything in reply.
Jared walked over. “Nick has finished with the bath, Heath, and Silas says dinner will be ready within the hour.”
Heath turned to Vanessa and politely excused himself. After he entered the house, Jared turned to Vanessa and said, “I see you’ve won over my newest brother.”
Vanessa smiled. “Won over may be too strong a statement, but he isn’t running away from me anymore.”
“There’s been many times this past year when we feared he’d run away from us all for good,” Jared stated with a sigh.
“Well, not at first, perhaps, but, yes, feared for quite some time now.” Jared looked directly into Vanessa’s eyes. “He’s my brother as much as Nick or Eugene. We all feel the same.” Jared gave a soft laugh. “In some ways, I think Heath and Nick are closer than Nick and I have ever been.”
“They love the ranch the same way, the way your father loved it.”
“Yes, they share that. For the rest of us, the ranch is our home, but for Father, Nick, and now Heath, it’s something more, almost like a living thing to be loved and cherished. An old pain flickered in Jared’s eyes.
Vanessa placed her hand gently on his arm. “Your father might not have understood you as well as he understood Nick, but he loved you just the same, Jared, and he would be proud of the man you are. He was always proud of you,” she said softly.
Jared smiled at her, drew her arm through his, and escorted her into the house.
After dinner, the family carried their coffee and conversation to the drawing room. Not surprisingly, much of the conversation included remembrances, especially stories from Vanessa’s previous visits. Vanessa watched each of her cousin’s children as the stories flowed. Then Nick finished a tale about a prank he had played on the visiting schoolmistress when he was eleven.
“Father was livid,” Jared observed, “but then Cousin Vanessa saved your hide, didn’t she, Nick?”
Nick smiled ruefully. “My hide was the only thing she spared.”
Victoria noticed the puzzled expression on Heath’s face and explained, “As the injured party, Vanessa demanded the right to administer punishment. By time he finished the tasks she set him, Nick was exhausted and his muscles so sore, he felt it every time he moved.”
“And to think I thanked her for saving me from Father’s wrath,” Nick said soulfully, shaking his head and then grinning at his cousin.
“You deserved to suffer, Nicholas. At least you could sit a saddle the next day,” Vanessa chided gently.
“So I could. So I could.” Nick walked over to Cousin Vanessa and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek in the same manner he used for his mother.
Vanessa smiled at him and then noticed Heath slipping from the room.
“Nicholas,” Cousin Vanessa inquired, “you can spare Heath tomorrow, can’t you, my boy?”
“If I say no?” Nick looked down at the woman speculatively.
“You won’t,” Vanessa Belmount stated with assurance.
Nick gave her a cheeky grin. “Heath might.”
“I’ll deal with your brother, Nickie. Don’t worry about that.” Vanessa smiled back. Mummers of assent rose from every Barkley in the room.
“Where to, ma’am,” Heath inquired holding the reins lightly in his hand. Nick had informed him that he was at Cousin Vanessa’s disposal today. His first instinct had been to refuse, but then he had just grinned and said, “Whatever ya say, boss man!” in his best shuck-and-jive tone. Now he sat beside the woman in the buggy she had requested.
“You know the old cabin?”
Heath had seen the cabin that had been the Barkley home when his father had first brought his family to the valley. He had never been inside. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’d like to go there, Heath.”
“Of course. Your wish is my command.” Heath started the buggy and then added with a cheeky grin. “Nick told me I’d answer to him if it wasn’t.”
“That’s my Nick,” Vanessa retorted imperviously.
The two talked pleasantly but aimlessly on the way to the cabin. When Heath pulled the buggy to a stop in front the door, he hopped down and went around to assist Vanessa. Vanessa stopped and studied the house.
“A house should be lived in, not just kept up,” Vanessa observed after a few minutes.
“Instead of being a shrine?”
Cousin Vanessa looked at Heath and raised an eyebrow.
“First home of the great Thomas Barkley preserved for all time,” Heath intoned with a sharp edge to his voice.
“The first place I ever visited Victoria and Tom after they left us,” Vanessa stated softly.
“Was it a happy home?” Heath’s question was barely a whisper.
“Happier than many” was the reply. “There were just Jarrod and Nick then, of course.”
“Of course.” The edge in Heath’s voice held both anger and sadness. He took a few steps toward the cabin and studied it. Vanessa studied his profile.
“It wasn’t quite a castle with two happy little princes, Heath,” Vanessa commented softly.
“You’re going to tell me about the hard times, I suppose.” His teeth gritted on the words hard times.
“No,” she answered even more softly, “I’ve no intention of telling you about hard times. I’m sure you could win that match hands down, Heath Thomson…Barkley.”
Heath jerked at the use of his former name. Cousin Vanessa walked up and put her hand on his shoulder. His attempt to shrug it off was futile.
“Was it all bad then?”
“No.” His answer was barely a whisper. “My mama loved me. She made good times. Hannah and Rachel loved me too. No, it wasn’t all bad.”
She patted his shoulder and then dropped her hand. “Let’s go inside.”
“It’s locked.” He had stopped once before and tried the door.
“I have the key,” she replied simply and led the way inside.
Heath paused after he stepped across the threshold. This might have been his home if things had been different. If Thomas Barkley had come for him when he was first born and taken him home to raise, he would have played on this floor, warmed himself before that fireplace, and filled his belly at the large pine table.
Of course, that would have meant not having his mama. Heath’s recoiled from the thought and suddenly strode across the room to stand staring into the empty fireplace.
“Tom built most of this cabin with his own hands. Nick and even Jarrod were too young to be of much help. It wasn’t this big, of course, not at first, but he was so proud of it.”
“Well, nobody ever said Tom Barkley lacked pride.” The note of derision in Heath’s voice made Vanessa sigh.
“He was a prideful man, your father, as are all his sons.” The emphasis on all made Heath turn his eyes from the fireplace to Cousin Vanessa. She returned his gaze and then said, “I came that first time because Tom asked me to come for Victoria’s sake. She’d had a miscarriage. He thought having another woman near for a time would help. There wasn’t another woman living within twenty miles then. I was young and unmarried. I didn’t know how I could help, but I came. I spent more time traveling than I did visiting, but I was right to come.”
“You made her talk, and you listened.” It was a statement, not a question.
Vanessa nodded. “Her life here was very different than the life she would have had back home. Did you know she turned down a man who became a senator to marry Tom Barkley?”
Heath’s mouth quirked into a slight smile. “It wouldn’t surprise me to hear Mother was courted by presidents and kings.”
Vanessa chuckled gently. “Oh, Victoria never lacked for beaus. Her first was at the age of eight, or so her mother told me.”
“But she chose Tom Barkley?”
“She loved him in a way she never loved anyone before or since. My cousin is an astute judge of character, Heath. You must realize that any man she could love that much had to be basically a good man.”
“She forgave him.”
“She forgave him many things, my boy, and he forgave her a few.”
“Was he a forgiving man?” Heath watched Vanessa bite her lip before she answered his question.
“Not particularly. About some things, he could be quite unforgiving. He would have said uncompromising.”
Heath was surprised by her answer.
“Of course,” Vanessa shrugged, “that could be said of most of us.”
Heath ventured another question, “Was he… as a father… was he a stern father?”
Cousin Vanessa cocked her head, “To Jarrod and Nick, yes, very stern. To Audra and Eugene not as much.” Heath gave her an inquiring look. “We all change some as we grow older, circumstances change, and Audra was his baby girl.”
“He spoiled Audra?”
“As do all his sons.”
Heath’s lips quirked this time as she emphasized the all. Then he suddenly looked down intently at the woman before him. “It took a great deal of courage for you to travel alone out here to the middle of no where. Back then…”
Vanessa shook her head and shrugged. “It took a great deal more courage to stay here in the middle of nowhere and build a somewhere.”
Heath’s eyes cooled, and he turned to stare again into the cold fireplace. “Never said I thought he was a coward.”
“Do you, Heath? Do you think that Thomas Barkley was a moral coward?”
Heath turned on his heel and spat the words at her feet, “You tell me!”
“No.” The single word answer was spoken simply and with confidence. Then Vanessa turned away.
“I am an only child, Heath. Perhaps that is part of the reason that Victoria and I became more like sisters than cousins. I used to imagine other siblings, though. My particular favorite was an older brother.”
Heath shook his head gently. Sometimes following this woman’s conversation was like tracking a wily, old cat. “I could have grown up with two older brothers.”
“Did you ever imagine an older brother?” she asked insistently.
“Yeah,” he admitted reluctantly.
She continued to face away from him, but her voice was clear. “Do Jarrod and Nick measure up?”
He remained silent. She waited. Eventually he spoke in an angry whisper. “I want what I missed. Every time they remember or tell a story or just look at each other so ya know they’ve always had each other, I want what I missed.”
She turned toward him then and reached out to touch his cheek.
He held still and said in the barest of whispers, “I want it so bad it hurts.”
“He didn’t know, Heath.”
“So they told me.” His tone was expressionless. “He never came back. Never.”
“And you think you know why.” It was a statement, not a question.
“He had to know it could have happened. He just didn’t want to have to bring home any whelp from the wrong side of the sheets to his wife. He would have thought he’d have to if what all of you say about him is true. He couldn’t risk coming back and finding….me.” Heath spoke the final word so softly it might have been only an exhalation of the breath he had been holding.
“What would your mama have done if Tom had come back? One mention by anyone in Strawberry of Leah Thomson’s illegitimate child, and he would have known he had another son.” Vanessa watched as Heath merely shrugged.
“She knew who he was, Heath. She had ways to contact him. She never did. Why do you think she didn’t? When her baby boy went down into the mines or went to bed hungry again, why didn’t she send to your father for help?”
“If he had come, she would have let me go. She loved me enough that she would have let me go if he was standing there.” The words came out slowly as if being pulled from deep within him.
“So to keep you, she never told him. So she kept you from this as much as Tom did.” Vanessa said it gently, but Heath turned to her with eyes flaming.
“SHE LOVED ME!” He stormed past Vanessa and out of the cabin.
Vanessa did not follow; she waited. It was over an hour before he returned. She was sitting in an oak rocking chair, humming to herself. He came to her and sat cross-legged on the floor facing her.
“She loved me.” The words were soft and sure, not a question but still questioning.
“And he loved her,” Vanessa said softly and with more assurance than Heath could accept.
“How can you be sure?”
“Because he never went back.” Vanessa’s words hung in the air waiting for Heath to draw them in, to swallow them, and to understand.
Heath dropped his eyes from the woman’s face and studied the wood planking.
“If he had come back to Strawberry and found he had a child, well, for Tom there would have been no choice; he could never have just left you there. In the end, he would have taken you from Leah. He loved her enough not to risk that, Heath. I knew him well enough to know that is the only explanation that can be true.”
“You could be wrong about him.” Heath threw the challenge at her feet.
“Anything is possible, but it is far more likely that I, who knew Thomas Barkley, am right in my belief than that a man who never even meet Tom is, even if that man is his son. Heath, you can go on believing the worst possible motivations for your father’s actions, or you can choose to believe that you were born from love.”
“So I should just believe it because I want to believe it?” His words snapped like a whip.
“Is that worse than refusing to believe because you’re afraid it might not be true?”
He sprang to his feet and turned his back to her.
“Are you so determined to not be deceived because you think he deceived your mother too easily?” Vanessa’s voice had become insistent.
“My mama was no fool!”
“You’re the one that’s making her out to be a silly, little fool who had her head turned by a slick womanizer.”
Vanessa’s words burned like alcohol in an open wound. Heath’s hands clenched into fists, and his body turned to stone.
Vanessa rose and walked toward Heath. “Victoria and your mother both loved the man. Do you really believe that he could have totally fooled them both?” She walked past him and started to climb into the buggy. Her foot slipped, and she felt hands at her waist. Heath lifted her onto the seat and silently took his place beside her. Not a word passed between them has Heath drove them back to the house.
Nick saw the buggy approaching and stopped to wait on the porch. As Heath pulled the horses to a stop, Nick called out a welcome and went to swing his cousin from the buggy.
“Have a good morning?” Nick asked amiably.
Vanessa glanced over her shoulder to watch Heath move the buggy toward the barn. She turned back to Nick. “Productive, I think, but not pleasant.”
“That boy holds things in too long.” Nick’s tone was concerned, not gruff.
“Some things hurt to bring out, Nicholas; some hurt a great deal. You, my boy, are not well acquainted with that fact.”
Nick looked down at one of the few people that could safely refer to him as boy. “For which I am very grateful. I take it Mother has charged you with digging some of it out.”
Vanessa bit her lip and nodded.
“Mother always has been good at assigning the right person to a job.”
Vanessa smiled and patted Nick’s cheek. “One day, Nickie, you may achieve the coveted spot as my favorite. Yes, indeed you may.”
Nick’s laughter rolled out of his lungs as he took Vanessa’s arm and escorted her into the house.
Heath did not join the family for lunch. He still had not returned to the house when Silas called the family to dinner.
Audra looked at Heath’s empty place and then at her mother.
“Heath needed sometime to himself,” Victoria intoned squelching any more inquiries.
Dinner conversation remained impersonal and no one mentioned Heath or asked about Vanessa’s morning.
After dinner, the ladies brought out a book of dress patterns to peruse. Jared and Nick tried to distract themselves with billiards.
When the clock chimed ten, Nick threw his cue down on the felt top. “I’m going to bed!’ he announced loudly. “If that little brother of mine thinks I’m going to stand here fretting about where he’s gone off to, he’s wrong.”
Jared set his cue down more gently. “Good idea, Nick.”
Nick started to stride out of the room, and then suddenly stopped. “You going to wait up for him, Pappy?” Nick’s use of his nickname for him gave Jared the intended message.
“Unless Mother decides to do so,” Jared replied.
“Fine.” Nick took himself out of the room and up the stairs.
Heath Barkley stopped and turned toward the library door. He had hoped everyone would be in bed, but apparently his eldest brother was not. He stiffened and walked over to the backlit figure. “It’s late, Jarrod.”
“That’s what I could be saying to you, little brother.”
Sometimes that appellation still made Heath smile. He raised his eyebrow. “That and what else, Pappy?”
“Are you ready to listen?” Jarrod’s tone was totally serious.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Only as to time and place.”
Heath shrugged and walked passed Jarrod into the light of the library. He turned to face his brother. “I’m too old to get dressed down for staying out too late.”
“I’d have left a dressing down to Mother.” Jarrod stepped back into the room. “Do you want a drink?”
Heath shook his head and turned to stare at the book-lined shelves. “Was our father a reader?” he asked unexpectedly.
Jarrod stopped short and then went to stand next to his brother. “Not the way Mother and I are. He read more papers and periodicals than books, but he had his favorites.”
“Rather like Nick?”
“Nick’s like Father in many ways. More ways than Gene or I.”
Heath heard the barest trace of bitterness in Jarrod’s voice and turned his head to study his brother’s profile. “Everyone says how close they were.” For the first time, he thought, “Though I’ve never actually heard them say that about you and him.”He opened his mouth to ask how close Jarrod had been to their father, but said instead, “More than me?”
Jarrod did not answer immediately or glibly, “The easy answer would be no, but it wouldn’t be the exactly the truth.”
“That’s a lawyer’s answer.” Heath’s voice had grown cold.
Jarrod shrugged. “I’m a lawyer.” Then he turned to look Heath full in the eyes. “But it’s your brother you need to talk to now, isn’t it?”
Heath turned away from his gaze but answered softly, “When I was little, I just knew what my father must be like. Sometimes it was so real, it was like a memory. Then, well, I started to grow up. By the time I joined the army, well, I thought I knew what he must be like, only it wasn’t the same pretty picture. When I came here, I…” Heath’s voice faded away.
“You can say it, little brother. You can tell, Pappy.”
“I hated him.”
If Nick had been standing there or Eugene, Jarrod would have reached out and placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder, but he was afraid touching Heath would be pushing closed a door. “You had reason.”
Heath spun around and stared at Jarrod.
Jarrod swallowed and then offered something more than a squeeze of a shoulder. “There were times when I was mad enough or hurt enough to hate him too.”
Heath eyes widened. “B…but…”
“There were many more times when I loved him, but I stopped believing that Father was perfect by the time I was seven.”
“No, not completely, not until…”
“Not until I came through the door.”
“Heath, some men see heroes more easily than others and hold to them longer. Nick and Father had their rows, but Father was Nick’s hero, and when he died that, hero became…”
“A plaster saint.” The bitterness filled Heath’s words again.
“Do you still hate him, Heath?”
Heath turned and started for the door. Then he stopped. “When other boys had things I knew I couldn’t, I started telling myself I wouldn’t like them anyway.”
“If you can’t reach the grapes, you make yourself believe they’re sour. You told yourself all the reasons you had to hate the father that wasn’t there?”
“It was easier than wanting him.” The statement was delivered tonelessly, and then Heath darted out of the room and up the stairs.
He stopped when he saw that someone was already there, despite the fact that pink from the sunrise still streaked the sky. Then he recognized that it was Vanessa and decided what could not be avoided might as well be faced.
Heath walked over to his father’s grave and sat down beside Vanessa on the grass. “I should have known you knew how to ride.”
“Your father taught me.”
“He didn’t teach me!” The bitterness and the hate were all there in those ordinary words.
She made no direct answer but started speaking softly. “Nick hadn’t turned sixteen when he’d finished with his schooling, at least that was what he thought. Tom suddenly announced that Nick would be going to prep school to prepare for college.” Vanessa paused a moment. Knowing the she had caught Heath’s attention, she continued, “For Victoria to have said that Nicholas should follow Jared into higher education would have been one thing, but for Tom to say it — not as an offer but as an order — was quite the surprise. No one was more surprised than Nick. He did not take it well.”
Heath looked at her for the first time and simply arched his eyebrow.
“That is an understatement. Nick and your father had the worst argument they ever had. It ended with Tom tanning Nick for quote ‘disrespect, defiance, and disobedience’.”
“I told you Tom was quite stern with Jarrod and Nick. After Victoria and I spoke with Tom, he relented.”
An amused smile flickered across Heath’s lips. “So even he couldn’t stand against Mother and this one.”
“Nickie, however, remained angry.”
The smile flickered again. “I’ve never heard anyone else call him Nickie.”
“No one else does, but that is a story for another time.” A smile flickered on Vanessa’s face.
“Nick’s not one to stay in a temper. Get in one, sure, but he blows up and then it’s over. He never sulks long.”
“A week later, he was still speaking to your father only when spoken to.”
“Because of the licking?”
“No, Nick knew what he had done to deserve that, or so he told me when I asked.”
“How come it doesn’t surprise me that you asked?” Heath shifted so that he was facing Vanessa and gave her a teasing grin.
“Because you already know me well.” Vanessa patted his cheek.
“Why was Nick angry then?”
“He felt your father had betrayed him.”
At Vanessa’s announcement Heath simply looked puzzled.
“Nick knew that their father often failed to understand Jarrod, but he thought that could never happen between Tom and himself. Nick had thought that if Victoria or Jarrod pressed for him to go away to school, Tom would fight on his side. It took Nick some time to understand the reasons behind Tom’s decision and to forgive his father.” When Heath opened his mouth to speak, Vanessa put her finger against them. “If you want to know about that, you will have to talk to your brother.”
“Nick forgave our father, so I should too. Is that the point? It’s hardly the same thing.” Heath’s anger was again in his voice.
“The only other time Nick was as angry with Tom was when he died. For Nick, that was another betrayal.”
Heath sprang to his feet and glared down at Vanessa. “Am I angry because he up and died on me? Am I? Yes! Damnation! I’m so mad I could kill him for it!” What started as a dry, mirthless chuckle ended as a sob. Heath quickly turned away.
Vanessa scrambled to her feet and held him in place with a hand on his arm. “Heath, he’s not here to take that anger from you, so you’re going to have to find a way to just let it go.”
“Damn him, damn him! Why did he have to die?” Heath’s arms encircled his stomach as if he were in physical pain. He crumpled to his knees, and a low wail issued from his mouth.
Vanessa knelt beside him and drew his head into her lap. “Let it out, child. Let it out.” Tears rolled down Vanessa’s cheeks as she listened to the low keening coming from the young man in her arms as his body shuddered and trembled.
After a time, he grew quiet, and Vanessa slipped away, knowing the depth of his Barkley pride.
“Boss.” The ranch hand saw Nick Barkley look his way and pointed toward the approaching rider.
Nick turned and saw his cousin ride up. He walked over to her horse.
Vanessa leaned down. “Nickie, you need to go back to the house and wait for Heath.”
“I told you clearly. You are to go back to the house and wait for Heath. He needs you to talk to him.” Vanessa’s tone was its most schoolmarmish.
Nick drew himself up and spoke a little too sharply, “I’m working, Cousin Vanessa. If Heath needs to speak to me, he can come here, or we can speak after dinner.”
“Nicholas,” Vanessa snapped, “I was not asking. You will go, you will wait, and when Heath arrives, you will speak with him privately before all else.”
There was only one woman beside his mother who could speak to Nick Barkley in that tone and actually be obeyed. Nick sputtered, shouted orders to the hands, mounted Coco, and rode off. Vanessa followed.
Nick dismounted and turned to help Vanessa from her horse. “Just what am I suppose to talk to Heath about?” he asked petulantly.
Nick’s mouth dropped open, and his eyes became puzzled. “I thought Mother assigned that job to you,” he muttered.
Vanessa brought her hand up and patted Nick affectionately on the cheek. “I’ve done what I can, Nickie. Now, Heath needs you.”
“Jarrod’s better at…”
“Heath needs you, Nickie.” Her voice was stern.
“Fine then. I’ll see to the horses and wait for him in the barn.”
Heath led Charger into the barn, placed him in his stall, and took off his saddle before he noticed Nick. “I thought you’d still be with the crew.”
“I should be; so should you, boy.”
“Then why are you sitting out here in the barn?”
“I was told to talk to you.”
Heath’s mouth twisted into a humorless grin. “Now, I wonder who could have given that order.”
“Who else?” Nick shrugged.
“Thought you were the boss man around here, big brother. Since when did you start taking orders?”
“Some orders I take,” Nick replied with another shrug, “and so will you. Get over here.”
Heath walked over and stood in front of his brother. “You were mad at Father when he died?”
Nick’s eyes widened in surprise. For a few seconds he did not answer. Then he said simply, “Yeah, I was.”
Heath took a seat next to his brother; neither looked at the other as they continued to talk. “Why?”
“He shouldn’t have let them kill him.”
“You held that against him?”
Nick cleared his throat and spoke gruffly, “Yeah. I always thought he wouldn’t ever give up and die, no matter what anyone did to him.” He cleared his throat again. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way I felt.”
“But you forgave him?”
Nick realized why Vanessa had insisted that he talk to Heath. “Mostly. You having a hard time forgiving him for that too?”
“Yeah.” Heath drew in a deep breath. “Boy howdy, that cousin of yours can sure stir the pot.” Nick muttered his assent. Then the two brothers sat in silence for several minutes.
“He was a good father, Heath. I wish, well, you should have been able to know him.”
“Vanessa said he kept a tight rein on ya.”
“I needed one,” Nick replied with a soft chuckle. Then he turned and looked at Heath. “He wouldn’t have put up with your taking off and such. The reason wouldn’t have mattered; he’d have had your hide for worrying the family.”
Heath gave Nick a sideways glance. “Learned that one from experience, did ya, brother?”
Heath sighed. “I just…I always thought that someday…”
Nick reached over and squeezed Heath’s forearm.
“Doesn’t make sense ya can miss someone you never meet.” Heath’s voice had sunk to a whisper.
“No reason you should be different from the rest of the family, brother. We all miss him.”
“Nick, after ya did something stupid, something wrong, did he always forgive ya?”
“Did you stay mad longer after he died, or after…well, after you found out about me?”
“Mother told me I didn’t have a right to stay mad just because he wasn’t perfect. She asked me something too.”
“If the possibility existed that I could have fathered a child?”
Heath eyes’ widened. “Did you answer her?”
“No. She didn’t wait for one. She just wanted me to think about the answer.”
Heath stayed silent. Nick sat next to him and waited.
“You getting hungry?” Heath finally asked.
“Been hungry for about two hours now,” Nick replied.
Heath stood and pulled Nick to his feet. “We best get up to the house then, before Silas says he’s too busy fixing supper to fix us a lunch.”
“He wouldn’t dare,” Nick thundered, clapping Heath on the back and propelling him toward the barn door.
As they started into the yard, Heath stopped short. “Charger! I need to…”
“RAUL!” Nick bellowed.
The ranch hand appeared out of the shadows, “Yes, Boss?”
“Put up Heath’s horse.” Nick put an arm around Heath’s shoulders. “Come on; let’s eat!”
Vanessa stopped in the doorway and stood silently observing the figure standing in front of the fireplace staring at the painting of Thomas Barkley. After a few minutes, she walked over and stood beside Heath.
“It’s a good likeness, but it’s not where you’ll find your father, Heath.”
He stared down at the glass in his hand and then finished the whiskey in it with one swallow. “Is there anywhere I can find him?”
“Only in the hearts of the ones who loved him.”
He turned and looked down into her eyes. “It takes a lot of energy to hate someone.”
“A fire requires fuel to keep burning,” Vanessa observed.
“I should quit feeding the fire then?” Heath asked wearily.
“Are you ready for it to go out?”
“Maybe I am.”
She reached up and placed her hand against his cheek. “You have other, better ones to keep you warm now.” She patted his face gently and let her hand drop.
“Well, you’re right about that,” he acknowledged, and a slow smile spread across his face.
She answered with a wicked grin, “I always am, Heath. Just ask Nickie.”
“Don’t have ta.” He reached out and slipped her arm through his. “Thank you, Cousin Vanessa.”
“You’re most welcome, Cousin Heath, most welcome.”
They walked away, arm in arm, as the fire sputtered and died.