Summary: This is an alternate story of how Heath arrived at the ranch. Leah is deceased, Tom Barkley is still alive, Jarrod is 18, Nick is 14, Heath is 8, Audra is 3 and Gene is an infant.
Category: The Big Valley
It was a wonderful Sunday. The sun was bright and it was too perfect of a day to work in his uncle’s hotel. For the first time in his brief life, Heath decided to skip work and spend the entire day at the county fair in a nearby town not too far from Strawberry. It would only take two hours to travel by horse so he asked Mr. Johnson, the stable owner, if he could borrow a horse for the day. Johnson gladly lent one of them to Heath.
Six months ago, Heath’s mother had died in an accident and he was forced to live with his uncle. Leah’s only two friends were too old to care for the boy, so he was placed in the custody of Matt Simmons. Everyone knew that Simmons beat Heath but no one cared; after all he was a bastard and had no other family.
The reason Heath wanted to visit the county fair were the horses. It was a well-known horse market in California, and since Heath had started to work in the stable, he had felt a special bond with these gentle creatures.
As soon as he arrived, he went to the corrals to observe the magnificent animals; he stood motionless for several minutes daydreaming about the day when he would own one for himself. For some time he wandered around looking at the different attractions; he was tempted to visit some of them but he had barely enough money to buy some food.
Something attracted his attention in the dust. There was a wallet lying on the ground; someone had probably lost it! Heath looked around but he could only see one man nearby — maybe he was the owner. He rummaged in the wallet to see if he could find something to identify the owner. He found a large amount of money, more than he had ever seen in his life. For a brief moment he was tempted to keep it but suddenly he remembered his mother’s teaching about honesty, so he decided to run after the man.
“Hey! What are you doing? Give my brother’s wallet back.” Heath heard a shout from behind as a hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Jarrod, this kid stole your wallet, come here!”
Heath slowly turned and faced a teenage boy, the owner of the booming voice. “I didn’t steal it. I just found it!”
“Yeah, and pigs fly! I should spank you.”
“No. . . please! Don’t hurt me!” Heath pleaded while he backed away and put up an arm to ward off any blows.
Nick was puzzled; he didn’t want to terrorize the kid, just scare him a little bit.
“Nick, what did you do to him?”
“Me? Nothing! I found him with your wallet.”
“Please sir, don’t beat me. I didn’t steal it, I swear. I just found it; I was going to give it back to you.” Heath pleadingly sobbed.
“Calm down, we won’t hurt you. I’m sorry my little brother scared you.
My name is Jarrod Barkley and yours?” He asked hoping to ease the situation.
“Heath. . . Heath Thomson, sir.”
“Call me Jarrod. Nick, I think you should buy Heath some ice cream.”
“Nick! You scared the living daylights out of Heath. The least you can do is make amends in some way.”
On the way to the ice cream shop, Jarrod observed the boy closely. He looked to be around eight years old and had blue eyes and blond hair. Funny, it’s the same shade as my little sister’s, he thought. He was poorly dressed and shoeless. Once they arrived, Heath was stunned to learn that there was a place where only ice cream was sold.
At first, Heath just stared at his ice cream cup; then, after few seconds, he started to eat. Slowly at first but before long, he wolfed down its entire contents in record time.
“You sure were hungry, weren’t you?” asked Nick.
“A little bit. I didn’t have any breakfast.”
“So, where are you from?”
“From Strawberry, why?”
“Just curious. Do you want another one?”
Heath was torn; he really wanted another ice cream but he wouldn’t accept charity. As Jarrod watched, Heath’s eyes answered for him.
“This time I’ll buy the ice cream!” Jarrod announced.
“Thank you sir…I mean, Jarrod.”
“You’re welcome. Are you here with your parents?”
“No, my mama died six months ago,” Heath replied sadly.
“I’m sorry. So you are here with your father?”
“I don’t have one. I’m here all alone!”
After a few minutes, Heath finished his second cup. Doesn’t look like he gets much to eat at home, thought Jarrod. For some reason he couldn’t explain, he felt a bond with this boy and wanted to get to know him better. “So, do you like school? My brother Nick here doesn’t like it very much.”
“I don’t go to school. My Aunt Rachel gives me some lessons after work, though.”
“Why don’t you go to school?” asked Nick. He would have preferred to work on the ranch with his father instead of going to school but this kid was too young for any kind of work. He should be at school where he can study and play with other kids, he thought.
“I used to go but all the kids teased me ’cause I was poor and my Mama wasn’t married to my father. They told me I was a bastard and they beat me up all the time so my Mama decided that Rachel could learn me since she was a teacher. I like horses so I worked in the stable to help Mama with the money.”
“Do you need some money?” Jarrod asked, even though he already knew the answer.
“NO, I don’t take charity. My Mama taught me so.”
“Sorry, forget I asked. Nick and I are going to see some horses we want to buy. Do you want to come with us?”
They strolled down the street toward the corral. Nick was amazed by Heath’s knowledge of horses; he was a nice little fella. Heath didn’t say too much about himself; in fact, he didn’t talk much at all. He told only essential facts about his brief life. He lived with his uncle — a real s.o.b., in both brothers’ opinions — and worked all day. The only subject in which he opened up was horses; he had a special gift with them which Nick and Jarrod observed at the corral.
It was near sunset when Heath was forced to depart from his new friends. It was very late and he knew he would be punished but today was one of the happiest since his mother’s death and he didn’t care too much about how his uncle would react.
Five days after the fair, Nick and Jarrod arrived home. As soon as they settled the horses they had purchased, the entire family welcomed them.
“Mother, father, did you see the horses we bought! They’re the best I’ve ever seen,” exclaimed an excited Nick.
“We’re fine and thank you for asking, Nick,” replied his father with a grin.
“Now go take a bath; both of you are dirty. We will have plenty of time to talk about your trip afterwards,” added Victoria.
At dinner, they started to talk about the trip and Nick, as usual, talked all about the new horses.
“Jarrod, you have been awfully silent. Is there anything you would like to add to your brother’s tale?” Victoria asked quietly.
“Yes. We met a little boy and I’ve been thinking about him ever since then.
He made me realize just how lucky I am. I have everything I desire, I don’t have to worry about love, food or whatever, but this little kid lost his mother and he now lives with a relative who forces him to work all day. I wish I could do something for him. I know it sounds stupid, but when I first encountered him, I felt some kind of bond between us, maybe because his hair and eyes are so like Audra’s. It’s funny but all of his features seemed so familiar.”
“Maybe you can send him some money. Did he tell you where he lives?”
“Yes, he lives in a small mining town called Strawberry but he won’t accept any money. I tried already to give him some and he told me he didn’t want any charity.”
At his son’s words, Tom Barkley paled. No one but Victoria noticed; she already knew of his affair in Strawberry and she was sure that he was remembering that woman now.
“Nick, Jarrod I have a surprise for you. Three days ago I received a telegram from your Uncle Jim. He’s planning to visit us and grandpa will be coming with him. They want to see Gene and will arrive in two weeks,” Tom said to change the subject.
“That’s great, Father. The last time we saw them was when Audra was born. Now they can both see Coco.”
“And I can talk with Uncle Jim about law school!” added Jarrod.
The two weeks passed quickly. Each member of the family was busy with his or her chores and everyone was looking forward to their relatives’
When the carriage pulled up in front of the house, Nick welcomed his uncle and grandfather with his booming voice. “Uncle Jim, Grandpa it’s great to see you!”
“Nick, you’ve grown a great deal since our last visit.”
“Yes, sir, Uncle Jim, I have!”
They were all chattering as they entered the house and soon they began to exchange gifts and news. It wasn’t long before Tom’s father eagerly made his request. “Now, Tom, it’s time to meet my new grandson!”
They went to the nursery and Tom showed the newest Barkley family addition to his father. He knew that his father was a little disappointed; Gene had inherited all of his features from Victoria’s side of the family. None of Tom’s sons showed his father’s Scottish ancestry.
“Maybe next time or when Jim decides to settle down and raise a family.”
“Very funny, Father. You’re still trying to marry me off,” Jim replied with an amused voice.
“Follow me; I’ll show you to your rooms. Dinner will be in two hours.”
After dinner, the whole family exchanged some happy memories in the parlor.
“Tom, I’ve got a surprise for your family — a photo of you and Jim at your wedding. I thought I had lost it but I ran across it some time ago and thought you would like to have it.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Jarrod, Nick, come here and look at your Uncle Jim. I was a very nice kid and I haven’t changed any now that I’m grown up, have I?” Jim teased with his nephews.
As soon as the two boys looked at the photo, they both froze.
“What’s happened, did you see a ghost?”
“No but about two weeks ago we met a boy who was your spitting image when you where a child, Uncle Jim,” Jarrod replied.
“Spitting image? He could be your twin!” added Nick.
“Strange, isn’t it?”
“Jarrod, Nick, if I remember correctly you said that this boy was from Strawberry. What else do you know about him?” Tom asked with a trembling voice.
“Not much. His name is Heath, he’s eight years old and he lives with his uncle.”
“Do you know his surname?”
“I think he said Thompson…no, Thomson. His mother died six months before we met him and he told us that he doesn’t know his father. He said his mother wasn’t married.”
“Oh my God!” Tom’s glass shattered to the floor. Victoria came to the same conclusion and, after excusing herself, she ran to the master bedroom.
Everyone in the room was shocked by Tom and Victoria’s behavior. After several long seconds, Tom was able to regain his composure, and ignoring the worried glances of his father and brother, spoke to Nick.
“Nick, please go upstairs and call your mother; we need to discuss something very important. Ask her to meet us in the study, then go to your room and stay there until I call for you. Jarrod, I want you to stay.”
“No, Nick, I will tell you what you need to know later. Now, please do as I have asked.”
After several minutes, Victoria joined the men in the study. Her swollen, red eyes made it plain to see that she had been crying.
“Now that Victoria is with us, can you tell us what’s going on?”
“Father, there’s no gentle way to say this. Do you remember when Victoria and I lost a child nine years ago? Afterwards there was a misunderstanding between us, so I took some time to check the mines in Strawberry. When I arrived, I had some troubles and someone shot me. A woman helped me recover from my wound. Her name was Leah…Leah Thomson. She fell in love with me and I stared to feel something for her. At the time, I was weak in body and spirit and I broke my marriage vows. After three weeks in Strawberry, I realized that I loved Victoria with all my heart. When I left Leah, she knew that I had a family and she understood.”
Theodore Barkley broke the deafening silence. “You mean that little boy from Strawberry is your son?”
“Yes, Father, I think so. His age is right and Jarrod and Nick just told us that he looks exactly like Jim.”
“But was the mother…”
“No, she didn’t work in the saloon.”
“Why wouldn’t she write and tell you about the boy?”
“I don’t know — maybe because of my letter. As soon as I arrived home, I wrote her and told her how much I loved my family and that she should have her own family one day.”
“Tom, we must go to Strawberry to see if we can find proof that he is a Barkley; if so, his place is here with his family!”
“Father, what do you mean by we?”
“Tomorrow morning we will all leave for Strawberry — you, Jim, Jarrod and I.”
Victoria had remained silent during the entire conversation. Afterwards she simply stared at Tom before nodding her head. “Yes, Tom, if he’s your son, he must stay here with us. His mother is dead and he needs all the love we can give him.”
“Thank you, Victoria. I love you so much.”
“Now I must tell Nick.”
“That could be a problem.”
Nick had listened to their conversation, without their knowledge, through the door and suddenly he entered in the room yelling, “FATHER, HOW COULD YOU BETRAY MOTHER!”
“Nick, please calm down.”
“NO! I HATE YOU!” He hurried out of the study, and after few seconds, they all heard his bedroom door slam shut.
Tom was going to run after him when Victoria stopped him. “No, Tom, let him calm down. I will speak to him. You just go to Strawberry and bring that child home.”
Heath wasn’t so lucky when he arrived home. His uncle was absolutely furious and started to beat him as soon as he entered the hotel. No one lifted a finger in his defense since they believed his uncle had every reason to punish him.
“Please stop, Uncle, you’re hurting me…please,” Heath whimpered.
After several minutes, the brutal beating ended.
“I think you have learned your lesson, for now. Go to bed. Tomorrow you’ll have to get up early and go to the mine.”
Heath’s room was a closet with a small cot, one stool for his pants and shirts, and nothing more. He had some books before but his uncle sold them.
Heath lay down in the cot and cried; after all, he was only an eight-year-old kid. He hated his uncle and wanted to run away but he was too young — maybe in a year or two. He fell asleep and began to dream of horses and ice cream.
Dawn came too early; he woke up and limped to the mine entrance. He was still sore from the beating but he had to go to work or his punishment would be even worse than the last one. He didn’t like the mine; the place was dark and when he placed the charges, he had to squirm through narrow passages.
In the following days he worked at the mine and when he finished his work there, he had to rush to the stables. As usual, all the money he earned went into his uncle’s pockets.
Sometimes Heath daydreamed about his mother and what his life would be like now if she hadn’t died. When he had spare time, he visited his Aunt Rachel and Hannah. During those visits, both women gave him their love and a sensation of family, even if for only a few hours. In the evening, he helped his uncle at the hotel, scrubbing floors and stairs, with occasional beatings when he was too slow. He was always hungry, since Matthew Simmons didn’t give him much food, and sometimes Heath was forced, by his hunger, to rummage in the garbage for leftovers.
It was a rainy afternoon when the Barkleys rode into Strawberry; Heath was working in the mine when they arrived. They left their horses at the stable and headed to the hotel.
It made Matthew Simmons a happy man to finally have some guests pay in advance and rent four rooms. As soon as they were settled, they met in Tom’s room.
“So where do we start?” Jim asked.
“Leah had two close friends here — Hannah and Rachel; we can ask Simmons where to locate them. He didn’t seem to recognize me, probably because he was drunk when we met nine years ago.”
It was dinnertime when the four men entered the saloon of the hotel. They ate in silence until Mr. Simmons sat down to carry on some small talk. “So, what’s your business here in Strawberry?”
“Personal but maybe you can help. Do you know a Mrs. Rachel Caufield or Ms. Hannah James?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“As I stated a moment ago, it’s something personal.”
“I know them; they live right here in Strawberry. Tomorrow I’ll show you where they live.”
“You know, your face is familiar. I’m sure we’ve already met.”
The trip to Strawberry had been very wearying. They had rode for four days in the rain and even Jarrod was looking forward to a warm, soft bed, so they retired to their rooms.
Heath had been caring for the horses at the stable and he was hungry since he hadn’t had any breakfast or lunch. The new horses were magnificent and he wondered to whom they belonged. After doing his chores at the stable, he hurried to the hotel and was welcomed by a slap. “You’re late; go and scrub the stairs.”
“But I’m hungry.”
“You can eat later.”
Slowly and feeling dizzy, Heath took the bucket and started to scrub the stairs. He had worked all day but he knew that if he didn’t finish his chores, his uncle would beat him again; he still carried the marks from the previous beating. An hour later, he finished and quietly walked to the kitchen where he found some bread and cold stew waiting on the table. He was still hungry, even after finishing his dinner. He saw some bread and pieces of meat in the garbage can so he took them. Exhausted, he fell asleep on the stairs.
Theodore Barkley couldn’t sleep so he decided to take a walk. After an hour, he headed back to the hotel; as he approached the stairs, he heard a noise. “Who’s there?”
“Sorry I disturbed you, Sir; I didn’t mean to,” a childish and seemingly frightened voice replied.
“Come here, son, you don’t have to worry.”
As soon as Heath came into the light the older, Barkley gasped. In front of him, he saw a living copy of Jim when he was eight. He observed the boy more closely; he was very skinny and pale, his clothes were in tatters and he had a large bruise on his left cheek. “What’s your name?”
“Isn’t it awful late for you to be up?” he asked.
“I was working and just had my dinner.”
“Looks like you’re still eating.” he said, pointing to the piece of meat Heath held in his hand.
At these words, Heath froze and the meat fell to the floor. He quickly recovered and retrieved the fallen food. “Please don’t tell my uncle I was eating the meat. He left some stew and bread but I was still hungry. I saw someone’s leftovers and took them,” he babbled out.
“Don’t worry, Heath, don’t worry…” he choked out and ran to his room. He was outraged by the condition of the boy. He was sure the child was Tom’s son and if, in a remote possibility, he weren’t, he decided to take care of Heath himself. He would take him to live at his house in Boston. For the first time since his wife’s death, he cried. He cried for the injustice of a world where a boy was forced to search for food in the garbage and to work all day long. He promised himself that he would do everything possible to give this boy a normal life.
The next morning Theodore Barkley felt blue.
“Father, are you all right?”
“No, Tom, I’m not. Last night I met the boy; he broke my heart. He’s your son; I’m sure of it.” He stopped talking as soon as he noticed Matthew Simmons; he glared at the man with hate.
“Well, folks, as soon as you’re ready, I’ll show you where Rachel and Hannah live.”
“Mr. Simmons, last night I met a young boy and I would like for him to show us where they live.”
“You mean Heath? He’s busy right now working in the mine. Everyone who lives here must earn his bread. You know, I took him in as charity; I didn’t want to see him in an orphanage since he’s my sister’s boy. He’s just a bastard…” He never knew what hit him. Theodore Barkley’s punch hit him with such force that it left his sons and grandson speechless. “What in the devil?”
The four men left Matthew on the floor with his unanswered question.
“Father, I wanted to hit that s.o.b.!” declared Tom Barkley.
“Sorry, Tom, maybe next time. Let’s ask around, someone can tell us where the two women live. Jarrod, please go to the mine and ask for Heath.”
After receiving directions, Tom, Theodore and Jim arrived at Hannah’s house. Tom knocked and after few moments, an old woman opened the door.
“Yes, may I…Mr. Tom, you’re here! Why didn’t you come before?”
“Hannah, is Rachel here?”
“Yes. Sorry, we wanted to take care of Heath like we promised Leah, but Mr. Simmons…”
They entered the little house and Tom introduced his father and brother to the two women.
“Mr. Barkley, why didn’t you come earlier?”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you receive my letter?”
“No, Rachel, I didn’t. I came here because three weeks ago my two older sons met Heath at the county fair. Several days ago they told me that he looked like my kid brother at his age, so…”
“I’m sure the Good Lord is protecting Heath. When Leah died, I wrote you a letter in which I said you had a son…” The rest of her statement was blurred in Tom’s mind. Heath was his son; he jumped from the chair and ran in the direction of the mine where he met Jarrod.
“Father, I just talked to the overseer; he told me that Heath is down placing a charge. He’s my brother, isn’t he?”
“Mr. Barkley, what a pleasure.”
“Why are you letting a little boy work in the mine?”
“Mr. Barkley I’m not the first and won’t be the last. Heath is small enough to crawl into tight places. I pay his uncle well for his nephew’s work.”
“If something happens to Heath, as God is my witness…”
“Why do you care about him? He’s only a bastard.”
“BECAUSE HE’S MY SON.”
They all heard a rumble, and after few minutes, a small figure emerged from the mine entrance. Heath froze when he saw the two men running toward him. When they neared, he recognized Jarrod, the nice guy he met at the fair.
“Heath, are you all right?” asked the older man.
“Yes, why?” He backed off a little when the stranger came near.
“Heath, don’t worry, I don’t mean you any harm. You need to come with Jarrod and me to Hannah’s house.”
“But I can’t go. My uncle…” he muttered.
“Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you anymore.”
Heath felt a strange bond to the man kneeled in front of him and he already knew and trusted Jarrod.
“Heath, don’t worry, this is my father, Tom Barkley. He wants to talk with you.”
Heath followed the two men. The way Mr. Barkley kept staring at him made him feel uneasy. Finally they reached Hannah’s house, which made Heath very happy. It had been a long time since he last visited Hannah and he hoped Rachel would be there as well. He was puzzled because he didn’t know Jarrod’s papa and he wondered about the reason why he was being so gentle to him. “Hannah!” he said running inside the little house. He hugged the little woman and smiled.
“Heath, it’s been a long time.”
“Aunt Rachel! I’m so happy to see you. Mr. Barkley asked me to come but I don’t know why.”
“Heath, this is difficult for me to say,” Tom said as he knelt down to Heath’s eye level. “Nine years ago I was here in Strawberry, and I met a wonderful woman…your mother. She fell in love with me and I with her. She knew I was married but we spent beautiful moments together…”
“You mean you are my father?” Heath asked in a weak voice.
“Why didn’t you come get me?” Heath asked dryly.
“I didn’t know that Leah had a child, I swear I really didn’t know.”
“And now, what are you gonna do?”
“I will take you to our home to be with your family. You already know Jarrod and Nick but you have a little sister — her name is Audra — and a little brother named Eugene.”
Silence fell in the little home; Tom approached Heath and hugged him. He felt the boy stiffen but after few seconds, he relaxed in his arms. The quiet was broken by the slam of the door as Matthew Simmons entered. He had received word that Heath’s newfound father had reached him. “You won’t take Heath away from me! Come home, NOW!”
Heath wriggled from Tom’s arms and went to hide behind the stove. “I don’t want to come!”
“You will come with me. The judge placed you in my custody!”
“Sorry, but you are wrong. The moment Mr. Barkley stated that Heath is his natural son, you lost any rights you had!”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Jim Barkley, my brother’s lawyer.”
“Okay, maybe you’re right but I deserve some money. I kept Heath in my home, I fed him…”
“You have five seconds to leave or I swear to God that I will kill you,” Tom said as he motioned for his gun.
Heath didn’t hear this conversation because he was too afraid of his uncle.
When Tom found him, he was on the floor with his arms wrapped around his legs, his chin resting on his knees and he was sobbing. “Please, I don’t want to go with my uncle.”
Tom took him from the ground and rocked him for several minutes. “Don’t worry, you are coming with me. Your uncle can’t hurt you anymore,” he kept repeating.
After Heath calmed down, he was introduced the other Barkleys.
“Hi! I’m your grandpa, come here and give me a big hug.” At first, Heath was hesitant but the large smile on Theodore’s face erased any doubts he had, so he sprinted toward the open arms. That evening, there wasn’t a single dry eye in the little house.
It was clearly out of the question to spend another night in the hotel so the Barkleys decided to spend the night at Rachel’s house. The next morning Jarrod prepared to go to the hotel to retrieve their belongings.
“I wanna go, too. I want my Mama’s picture,” said Heath.
“Okay, you can go, but stick close to Jarrod.”
Heath reached for Jarrod’s hand. Jarrod took his little brother’s hand and smiled down. They left the house and for the first time, Tom heard Heath’s laughter.
When they reached the hotel, Jarrod felt Heath’s grip tighten. Heath led his big brother to his room and pulled two items from under the bed — an old photo and a broken wooden train. He placed them with some clothes in one bag and looked at Jarrod. “I’m ready.” He followed his brother and helped him collect the Barkleys’ belongings.
They were almost out of the hotel when Heath’s uncle stopped them. “Well, well, well, so my nephew is leaving without saying goodbye.”
“Leave me alone,” Heath babbled.
“Sure you want to go to their fancy house? That’s fine but remember you are trash. Thomas Barkley doesn’t want you; he’s ashamed of you…”
“Don’t you dare speak to my brother in such a manner. Come on Heath, this man doesn’t deserve you.”
Heath looked at his uncle for the last time, and for the first time in his life, he didn’t fear him.
Tom had wired Victoria with the latest news and hoped that his wife had been able to speak with Nick; sometimes his son was as stubborn as a mule.
“Jarrod, what should I call your father?” Heath asked on the way back to Rachel’s house.
“Heath, he’s OUR Father. The best thing would be to ask him yourself.”
“Sir, may I call you Papa?” Heath asked as soon as he the entered the little house.
“Heath, you are my son and it would make me very happy for you to call me Papa, and remember I love you.”
“Thanks…Papa.” Heath said hesitantly.
“You’re very welcome,” Tom replied with a smile.
The farewells to Hannah and Rachel were full of tears. Heath was leaving the only family he had ever known and he was scared.
They rode for several hours, and near sunset, they halted and prepared for the night.
“Papa, how long does it take to reach your house?” asked Heath.
“Four days, but remember it’s OUR house. Your sister, brothers and Victoria, my wife, are waiting to meet you there.”
“I don’t like Nick; he yelled at me but he did buy me ice cream afterwards.
Papa, can I have ice cream at home? I liked it and I wanna eat it again.”
“Sure, whatever you want.”
“Really? Even apple pie? Mama always baked one for Christmas.”
Tom didn’t reply to this last question; he simply hugged Heath and gave him all his love. The four days passed quickly. It was near noon when they reached the ranch.
“Papa, that’s where you live? It’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes, you will live there now, too.”
As they reached the porch, they were welcomed by the whole family.
Nick ran to his father. “I’m sorry for what I said to you,” he simply said.
Nick walked to Heath and hugged him. “Welcome home, little brother.”