Son of Mine
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
Victoria Barkley was pulling on her leather gloves as she approached the barn. Her horse, Misty, was saddled and waiting just outside the structure though she could see that she was only wearing a bosal instead of the bridle she would need. As she neared the horse she saw Health come out of the barn, a bridle in his hands. She looked closely at Misty and could see that the animal had been groomed from nose to tail, her coat shiny and her mane and tail were untangled and flowing free. She knew who had taken care of currying and saddling the horse.
The young blond man didn't see her as he approached the horse and started removing the bosal. She hid a smile as she heard him talking to the horse. Her second son, Nick, always said that Heath spoke more to any given horse then he spoke to people. It had proven itself time and again. She stood listening as he talked.
"Here we go Misty girl. Got you that new bridle. You'll like this a whole lot better than that old one. Wasn't fit for a pretty girl like you. You gotta have the best, cause you're carrying a lady. Don't want Mrs. Barkley ridin' around with no worn out bridle. It wouldn't be fittin'. Why a fine lady like her and a fine horse like you should be all done up pretty. Look like a picture. She does have a fine seat for a lady. Wouldn't a thought it. Course both Mrs. Barkley and Audra both was raised around horses so I guess it ain't that strange. There, all done. I'll be right back." with a pat he finished with the bridle and took the bosal back into the barn.
Victoria moved closer to the horse, running a hand over the smooth rump. She looked thoughtfully after the young man. She had lost her smile as she listened to the speech, though not because of the content of what she heard. She was honored to know that a horseman of Heath's caliber thought that she and Audra were good horsewomen, but at the use of the hated 'Mrs. Barkley'. Even when he was talking to a horse the boy would not bend. Stubborn boy, just like his father at his worst.
Almost all the things that Tom Barkley had been were distilled down in one form or another in all of his children, from the color of their eyes to the depth of their love for the land they held in trust for future generations. It had been something of a shock to her to find that the one who most physically resembled the man she had loved was the one she did not bear him. There were times, when the light hit him just right that this new son of hers looked exactly like the father he had never known.
It had taken her aback the first time she really saw him in the daylight. He had been leaning against the corral fence watching the sunrise. He had not known she was there until she had made a small sound. In the second that he had turned to see who had approached, and before he could raise the defensive shields that had become his habitual hiding place, she had seen it. It was as if a twenty-year old Tom Barkley had come from the past to visit her. For a second she was once again 16, at her father's horse farm, and a young wrangler was looking at her with those beautiful blue eyes. The moment had passed, but she hadn't forgotten, and she had seen more and more of her beloved husband's traits in the young man.
She shook off the thoughts as Heath came back out of the barn, stopping for a moment as he saw her standing there looking at the door. She could almost hear the doors slamming shut in his mind, as if he had to be guarded around her. She sighed and smiled at him. She had to keep trying to reach him. She wanted to know this boy so badly, this part of Tom. It was as if Tom had left her one last gift, and she was determined that both she AND Heath would enjoy the benefits of the new family that had formed with the coming the newest son.
Heath ducked his head a little and gave her a ghost of a crooked smile. A smile she was quickly coming to love. He was as sparing with it as with everything he did. That trait made the value rise on the commodity, and it had become something of a family hobby trying to coax one out of their newest member. So far Audra was well ahead of the rest of them, with her simple, loving approach to her newest big brother, but slowly over the last two months, he had began to share himself more with his siblings. It was a bitter pill to her that he had not seen fit to do so with her as well on as regular a basis.
"She's all ready to go Ma'am" he said, flinching a little as he realized he had used the second term that she had clearly stated she did not like applied to her. She ignored it as she had learned to do, and turned her attention to the horse.
"She looks wonderful Heath. Thank you for taking care of her for me. It's not necessary you know. I know that you are very busy."
The small smile came back again. "Yeah, this being a workin ranch and all, it keeps a man on his toes." They shared a smile at the familiar phrase. Then Heath continued "I was coming in to get some more wire for the fence in the south pasture anyway. Ciego was getting ready to saddle her up for you but I told him I'd do it so he could get back to helpin' the farrier. He's only here till tomorrow and he has a goodly amount of horses to get through. He can use all the help he can get."
"I appreciate you taking the time anyway. Things must be going well if you're already through the wire you took out this morning." She replied. She had seen Heath and Nick leave this morning with a full wagon load of wire and the crew.
"Things are movin' along. Nick seems happy with it leastways." He replied and she lowered her head to hide a smile as she once again noted the growing need for his older brother's approval. Heath and Nick had had an explosive relationship to start with. Fistfights had been a daily, sometimes hourly, happening for the first few weeks, but then after the cattle drive things had changed. Finally the two men seemed to come to a silent agreement that each had found something they hadn't been aware they were looking for.
For Heath, raised as an only child in circumstances that a grown man would have found hard put to survive, having an older brother like Nick was a dream come true. He was as protective of family as a mother bear with one cub, and Heath had become part of that family. Words would seldom if ever be spoken between them, but Nick showed everyday by his actions what his new brother was coming to mean to him.
In Heath, Nick had found the little brother he hadn't realized had been missing. While Nick dearly loved Audra and Eugene, there were more than years separating them. There were eons of experience and a love of the land that was almost overwhelming. The ranch was a living, breathing, thing to Nick, and it got 150% of his life. His sister and younger brother, like Jarrod before them, while still loving the ranch, had other interests.
Tom had been Nick's partner in running the ranch. They had made decisions together for years, and Nick had grown accustomed to having another person to split the huge responsibility that running the ranch had become. Accustomed to having someone who cared about it as much as he did, that understood the needs of the land and the cattle and the men who worked them. When his father had been so brutally taken from them, he had lost that, and without knowing it had been aching for someone to fill that empty space in his heart and at his side. In Heath he had found that someone.
again shaking her head to rid herself of her unusually introspective
thoughts, she moved to the left side of the horse and gathered the
reins. Heath moved swiftly to her side and boosted her into the
saddle with ease. She gained control of the restive horse easily and
smiled down at the blond man.
"You must join me for a ride one day. Nick can't work you every minute. I would like to share a few places with you that I have found to be particularly peaceful."
"I'd like that." He said, a faint blush rising in his face. She found the talent endearing in a boy that had been through so many things in his life, but she had learned to pretend not to notice as it made him blush even more. She didn't want him to be uncomfortable around her, or no more so than he already was. She reined Misty around, and he opened the gate to the road for her. "Enjoy your ride," he said.
She smiled and raised a hand. Then she urged Misty into a trot. The house and barns were left swiftly behind her, and she cut across the fields heading for one of those spots she had mentioned. She wouldn't tell him that it had been one of Tom's favorite spots as well, as those kind of statements tended to bring back the angry, sullen look that had started to fade from the sky blue eyes of his son.
She was startled by a covey of quail taking flight to her left, and suddenly Misty reared up in fear. At first Victoria, a good rider, simply shifted her weight to remain in the saddle, but then as Misty continued to act up she felt the horse start to fall over backward. She kicked one foot out of the stirrup, preparing to fling herself clear, but her other foot was trapped. As the bulk of her horse came down toward her she frantically kicked to free her foot, and in the moment before she would have been crushed under the horse she managed to win free. She flung herself away.
Sailing through the air she felt a moment of relief, knowing she had escaped a serious injury. In the next moment she landed on the hard ground, and her head struck a rock hidden in the knee-high grass. Everything started to fade to black around her. She tried to stay in the light, but the darkness was too strong. She raised a hand slightly, reaching for the man she could just barely see. "Tom...." she murmured just before the darkness closed in and she knew no more.
Heath Barkley clucked his tongue at the team pulling the wagon, as they seemed to not be putting much effort into it. Not that he could blame them. It was a beautiful day. For a moment he imagined himself riding his horse, Gal, across one of the big open pastures, at a flat out gallop, racing the wind. But he had responsibilities now, and he wouldn't shirk them for a moment's pleasure. Nick was counting on him to get back with the wire before the crew ran out. He had already taken longer than necessary by stopping to curry and saddle the horse for his sibling's mother.
He wasn't quite sure what had motivated him to take over from Ciego. Yes, the farrier was shorthanded, and the ranch hand would be a help to him to get all the shoeing done, but it wouldn't have taken Ciego all that long. But Heath had found himself wanting to do something nice for the woman who had so graciously opened her home to him. Despite the fact that he was a constant reminder of her husbands past infidelity.
He had been angry when he had come here. Determined to see what the father he had never known had built. To see the siblings he had not been allowed to grow up with. He had never counted on Tom Barkley's widow. Little did he know that the refined lady in the small package could wield such power. He had not really thought of the consequences of revealing his identity when he had barked the words at Nick after their fight in the barn. He had let his temper get away from him, a lesson he had thought he had learned long before and in places that having an un-reined temper could get you killed. Now he was living with the consequences of that heated outburst.
For the most part he had gained…everything. He had a family that he could sense was coming to care for him. He had access to horses like he had never seen before. He had money, not that he was planning on doing anything with that. In fact, it was something of a bone of contention with his older brother, Jarrod. Heath had told him that he didn't need all those fancy bank accounts and trust funds and such. All he needed was his monthly wages. It was more money than he had ever made, and it met his frugal needs. Jarrod had protested that all of the Barkley's were entitled to a portion of the profits of the ranch, and that each of Tom Barkley's children had a trust fund. Heath had just shaken his head. What was he going to do with all that money? Just because a man had fathered him, that didn't mean that Health should demand payment. And in his mind that was what it was. Accepting the trusts and the profits seemed to him as if he were saying that the money made it all ok. That the years of hardship he and his mother had endured were worth the money now. His head told him he was being foolish, that no one meant it in that way, but he was having a hard time convincing his heart of that.
He took in a lung full of the crisp spring air. It was warm but not scorching hot like it would be in the summer. A cool breeze wafted across the meadow, bringing the smell of warm grass and wild flowers in bloom. Butterflies and bees were everywhere, harvesting the flowers. As the team plodded along the now familiar track Heath's attention was drawn to movement across the meadow. There shouldn't be anyone out here, and there were no cattle grazing in this area. His eyes narrowed as he saw a rider-less horse, then widened as he realized whose horse it was. It was Misty!
He drew the team to a stop and wrapped the reins around the brake handle. He hastily jumped down and started toward the horse. He whistled lightly, seeing the horses head turn toward him as he did so. The horse scented the air that was blowing from Heath's direction. He heard her snort in recognition and she must have remembered the fine currying job he had done that morning for she whinnied and trotted toward him.
He grabbed her bridle as she neared and looked at the saddle. It was skewed to one side and a clump of grass and dirt was stuck in the horn. All signs Heath had seen before. The horse had gone over backwards. The question was what had happened to her rider? He knew that Victoria Barkley was an exceptional horsewoman, but even the best could be surprised. He scanned the meadow, but could see no sign of her. He walked Misty to the rear of the wagon and tied her there. He was unsure for a moment as to what he should do. He didn't know how far the horse had strayed, or exactly what Mrs. Barkley's condition was she might be fine, but afoot or she could be injured. He did not doubt that he could backtrack the horse, but that left the question of what to do with the wagon.
He looked around. There was one of the spreading valley oaks just slightly off the track about fifty feet ahead. He got back on the wagon and brought the wagon under its great limbs. Here there would be shade for the horses as they waited. He unhitched them quickly, feeling a sense of urgency building in him. He hobbled them quickly and after adjusting the stirrups, climbed on Misty. He reined her around to the place he had found her and went slowly in the direction she had appeared from.
He was watching the ground, seeing the hoof prints in the still damp soil beneath the ground cover. It was slow going through the large meadow, as the horse seemed to have done a bit of wandering around before he had spotted her. He traveled for almost ten minutes before he looked up to see the small still form lying on the ground. He was off Misty and by her side in no time. She was breathing, he could see that right off. At least he didn't have to deal with that. She seemed pale to him, though since she kept herself shaded from the sun for the most part she was always much paler than he or Nick, and even Audra's skin was tanned to more of a golden brown. He placed a hand on her wrist, and felt the strong pulse there. Her hat was lying several feet away, and he could see that there was a blotch of blood on a rock next to her head.
He needed to get her back to the ranch, and get the doctor to her as soon as possible. He had suffered many head injuries in the course of his rough and tumble life, and knew that they could be very tricky. What affected one person had no effect at all on another. It just seemed to be random. He looked consideringly at Misty. She wasn't a large mare, though taller than his own mount, Gal. She would have no problem carrying him back to the ranch, and with the petite frame of Mrs. Barkley added for that short stretch there should be no problem. He leaned down and carefully gathered the woman into his arms, cradling her head against his shoulder. When he got to Misty he soothed the restive horse with his voice, finally bringing her to a stand still. He lifted the still form into the saddle and then holding her there with one hand climbed up behind her. He pulled her back into his arms and taking the reins started back toward the ranch.
They had traveled about half the way back when he realized her eyes were open and looking at him from where she rested against his shoulder. He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile, knowing that she must be disorientated after the fall. He saw something move across her face, and her hand in the leather glove came up to touch his face.
"Tom." She said in a low voice. "It's been so long…" then her eyes closed and her head relaxed against his shoulder, unconscious again.
Health blinked several times, trying to regain his composure. She had thought he was his father! He was sure that it was just part of the confusion, the concussion that she had no doubt received from the blow. It didn't mean anything. His siblings had said that he looked very much like his father had as a young man, that they had seen him in pictures. Heath had studied the portrait over the fireplace, looking for some similarity between them, but whatever had been there in earlier years had matured to a very different face. He urged Misty to a faster pace, though staying below a trot to keep from jarring his passenger. He had to get her to a doctor.
It was almost fifteen minutes later when he rode into the yard. Ciego came out of the barn and gaped at the sight of Heath on Misty with Mrs. Barkley in his arms. The farrier, still wearing his thick leather apron came out too.
"Ciego, quick, get into town and get the doc out here." Heath snapped in Spanish. He threw the reins to the farrier, and clutching the woman tightly to him, managed to dismount without needing any help. He was glad Misty had stood still for it. Mrs. Barkley didn't hardly weigh more'n a thistle down, and this saved time.
He started for the House, aware of Ciego tearing out of the barn on a barebacked horse. That would smart after a few miles! Just went to show the esteem that the lady in his arms was held in by the hands though. As he neared the house Duke McCall, who had been working on the pump in the near pasture was coming around the back of the hose wiping his hands on a greasy rag. As his eyes took in the scene he dropped the rag and ran to open the door of the mansion for Heath.
"What the hell happened?" He said as he followed Heath inside.
"Don't know for sure. I saw Misty wanderin' around rider less and went looking, I found Mrs. Barkley on the ground near a rock, think she hit her head. Ciego is going for the doc." He paused as he reached the bottom of the stairs, and shouted in the direction of the kitchen. "SILAS, SILAS!"
Duke blinked at the volume of the shout. He had never heard Heath raise his voice before, and that shout had rivaled Nick Barkley's bellow. Heath had started up the steps by the time Silas came quickly out of the parlor where evidently he had been dusting.
"Why Mr. Heath what…" He broke off as he saw the young man with Mrs. Barkley in his arms heading up the stairs. "Oh my Lawd. What happened?" He asked as he hurried up the stairs behind the two cowboys.
"Came off Misty. I got the doc coming. Probably need some water and clean cloths." Heath said as he shouldered his way into the large room belonging to Victoria. He laid her gently on the bed, and stepped back to allow Silas access. After a last look at the pale face he moved toward the door where Duke had stopped. "I left the wagon about halfway across the south meadow. Horses are unhitched but hobbled. Get someone to go and take it on out to the crew. Send someone else cross-country to the work area and get Nick. I shoulda told Ciego to send a telegram to Jarrod while he was in town but I didn't think of it." He turned back toward the bed. "Silas where's Audra?"
"Miss Audra, she at the orphanage, she not supposed to be home till dinner time." The servant replied as he bathed Victoria's forehead with a cloth he had gotten from the bureau.
"I'll go get her myself." Duke said, "You oughta stay here. " he added to the young blond man who had become one of his bosses. He saw a flash of something that he could only identify as fear shoot through the sky blue eyes before the formidable shutters closed in them. He knew that the relationship between Mrs. Barkley and Heath had been awkward for them both these last months, and knew that the young man would have preferred to be doing almost anything else beside waiting and being the sole representative of the family in the house.
Health nodded and cast a glance at the bed. "Silas, should I get Rosa? So as she can…you know…" he broke off, not sure how to continue without mentioning things that he didn't feel proper to mention in the company that was present and that was including himself!
Silas nodded. "That's a good idea Mr. Health. Only you let me go. I needs to get some more cloths, and I know where they is. You stay here and use this one, in case Mrs. Barkley wakes up. She'll want to see a familiar face then."
Heath started to reply that if that was the case then he was the wrong choice, but a shove from Duke got him moving in the direction of the bed and he soon found himself with the damp cloth in his hand and himself perched on the edge of the bed where Silas had put him.
"Now you talk to her Mr. Heath. They says that people can hear you when they is unconscious like this, that it makes them feel better to know someone is there. You talk to her." Duke and Silas went out leaving the young cowboy to awkwardly dab at the pale forehead. He wasn't sure exactly what he should say. It wasn't like they had a bunch in common, him and the widow of his father. He wet and wrung out the cloth again as it seemed to be getting warm, and returned it to her brow.
"I guess you know I ain't much of a talker. Don't rightly have too much to say about anything. The only thing I really know a lot about is ranchin' and what you need to know to do that. I know cattle and rangeland. Know what weeds to look out for, and which ones is good for medicines. I know horses, that's something we both got, I know you like horses. You can see it in how you ride. Only someone who likes horses can ride like that, be they man or woman. You ought to a seen the horse Nick and I saw on the ridge yesterday. He was big and red like the iron dirt near Strawberry, and strong…you could see it in the way he stood. Didn't even have to see him move. He was that good. Just standin' there you could tell he was the fastest thing you ever saw. He smelled us on the wind and gave us a trumpet, like we was goin' to try for his mares and he wanted to warn us off. Boy howdy but that was a sight. If I had me the time I'd be out there tryin' to drop a rope on that one. Not that Gal's not a good horse mind ya." He hastened to add as if she could hear. "It's just that she ain't really cut out for this kinda work. She's a might small, you may have noticed that, but she's dam..er really good in the brush and rocky country. Since my Mama got her for me I ain't never had to worry about her saying 'no' to anything I asked of her. But she's getting on in years and she deserves to take some quiet time for herself. Just to laze around. She ain't never had that since she was young."
He stopped suddenly self-conscious about his babbling on about the horses. Why would he think Victoria Barkley would be interested in this kind of thing? He needed to think of something else. Maybe some reassurances that she wasn't stuck with some ham handed stranger for long. "You just hang on there, Ma'am. Silas and Rosa they'll be back right soon, and the doc not too far behind I'll bet. Ciego lit outta here like his tail was on fire, not even a saddle. He'll carry doc back himself if he has to. Then Nick'll be next. He's not that far out, and Coco can run pretty good for an old horse. After that Audra will be home and you'll have everyone to take real good care of you." He stopped again.
He noticed that she had moved her head. Only a little bit, but as he watched her brow wrinkled as if in puzzlement, and her eyes fluttered partially open. The gray eyes seemed to scan the room, landing finally on him, perched on the edge of the bed. One small hand lifted, searching and he took it in his own large rough hand.
"Tom?" she asked. Her eyes glazed.
"No ma'am" he said nervously. "It's me…Heath." She didn't seem to hear him.
"Tom. I've been waiting for you? Why were you gone so long? Did something happen at the meeting?" she asked unsteadily. He noticed that her eyes didn't seem to be focusing.
'Ma'am I ain't….." he broke off as Silas and Rosa, the woman who did most of the washing and cleaning, came in, along with one of the girls who came in to help Rosa on her heavy days. He stood up, laying her hand on the bedspread despite her attempt to hold on. "I'll just wait downstairs until you're done." He said and sidled out of the room as quickly as possible. He noticed that Silas followed him out, and stood waiting outside the door.
Health went downstairs and into the parlor, desperate for something to calm his nerves. He just wasn't up for this. He had taken care of himself for years, had tended various fellow soldiers and cowhands, had even helped a woman have a baby once, not something he ever wanted to repeat. But tending to Victoria Barkley was something far beyond his ken. He didn't have a clue what he was supposed to do, and he was very uncomfortable when she kept thinking he was her dead husband. He went to the tantalus and poured himself a stiff drink. He was halfway through it when a sudden, loud, voice nearly made him jump out of his boots.
"What the hell is going on?"
Before turning to meet the onslaught on his older brother Heath threw down the rest of the whiskey. It burned at the back of his throat, but the fire settled his jumpy nerves. He turned to face Nick who had stalked across the room and was now standing in his habitual hands on hips stance.
"I was on my way back with the wire when I saw Misty in the meadow with out a rider. I caught her and followed her tracks until I found your…Mrs. Barkley. She had hit her head, and was unconscious so I brought her back here and sent for the doctor. Rosa and one of the maids are up there now." He related quietly.
"What happened?" Nick said switching from mild anger about being interrupted in the middle of a fencing job to sudden concern for his mother.
Heath shook his head. "I don't know for sure, but it looks like Misty went over. I think your m…Mrs. Barkley was thrown clear but hit her head when she fell."
"Was she conscious at all?" Nick questioned as he went and got a drink of his own. He adored his mother, and found it hard to believe that anything as simple as a fall from a horse could stop her for long.
"She uh…came around a coupla times. But she was real confused. Didn't know who I was or anything. Not sure she was even really conscious." Heath didn't add the part about her calling him by his father's name.
Nick drank his whiskey, glancing in the direction of the stairs. "You got the doc coming you said?"
"Yeah, and Duke went to get Audra at the orphanage. I forgot to get Ciego to send a telegram to Jarrod and Eugene. We can do that later when we got some news I guess."
Nick waved it away. "Not like there's anything they can do now anyway. Sounds like you took care of everything real good." Nick had taken a close look at his new brother and realized he was looking pale under his tan. Nick had come to realize that as rocky as their beginnings had been, the relationship between Heath and Victoria Barkley were just as tentative still. His mother had stood up for the young man from the beginning, and he knew she had no doubts as to his paternity. In fact he had seen over the last month or so something in her eyes when she looked at the blond cowboy, a longing almost. He was beginning to suspect that his mother had adopted the young man as one of her own. She had once made a statement that often repeated in his head. "Tom Barkley is dead and what's his is mine now." He thought that maybe that included a certain son of their recent acquaintance.
He put the empty glass down and turned to his brother. The brother he was coming to count on as a partner, and more. In Heath he had found all the things he that admired in a man: hard working, courageous, knowledgeable, honest, and a real fighter. Of course the boy was stubborn as the day was long, and rubbing more than two words together at a time was unusual for him. Just another measure of how unsettled he was despite the calm exterior he presented. Nick moved to where his brother was standing next to the fireplace looking up at the portrait of Tom Barkley. He put a hand on the broad shoulder and met the light blue eyes that turned to him. "Thanks." He said simply. A puzzled look came into those sky-washed eyes, and he answered the unasked question. "For helping Mother. Thanks."
Heath shrugged, a blush rising in his cheeks. "Just doin' what anyone would do. Weren't anything special."
"It was to me, and it will be to Audra and the others." Nick said and squeezed the shoulder he was still holding. Heath gave him a small crooked smile and looked back up at the portrait. Nick wandered away toward the windows, looking out to see if he could spot the doctor's buggy. It was several minutes later that the black buggy came rapidly into the yard, followed by Ciego on a barebacked horse. Nick winced. That was going to be one sore wrangler by the morning. He appreciated the sentiment that had led to the haste though. He caught Heath's eye and nodded toward the foyer. His brother seemed to understand, and Nick contemplated for a moment when exactly they had started reading each other's minds.
He had first noticed it when they were working on the fencing the last several days. He had come to know that Heath was a tireless and diligent worker, but this time of doing fences had shown his skill as well. It had also shown Nick that while most of the crew had come to accept Heath after the cattle drive, there were still those who wouldn't work with him by choice, and if forced to do so would make sure that Heath ended up with as much of the work as possible. Not that the younger man would complain. Nick had fumed about that, making his displeasure known to the men in question. Heath had simply looked at him and shook his head. The boy was a contrary as an old mule! Nick had decided that HE would work with his brother, and so it had begun.
The lengthening spring days were spent almost exclusively in each other's company. They had worked, ate, and rode together. Somewhere in there Nick had noticed that he didn't have to ask Heath to do something, but instead found it was already being done. He didn't have to ask for a particular tool, Heath just handed it to him as he needed it, and he found himself doing the same for Heath. They had somehow managed to turn the hostility of the previous time into something……he didn't know how to describe it. Maybe Jarrod, with all his book learning would have the words, but Nick didn't. But he found himself looking forward to the future with this newest brother.
Silas, also aware of the doctor's arrival, was letting the man in as the two cowboys came in to the foyer. Paul Merar, local doctor and long time friend of Tom and Victoria Barkley looked at them. "Ciego said Victoria fell from her horse. What happened?"
"Looks like Misty went over, and she was thrown clear. Hit her head on a rock. Heath here found her and brought her home." Nick said. As he spoke he started up the stairs, expecting everyone else to follow.
Merar, having been present at the birth of Nicolas Barkley, and well familiar with his ways followed, with a glance at the silent man who walked beside him. "Did she regain consciousness at all? How long has it been?"
"Been almost an hour now since I found her. Couldn'ta been more than a half hour or so before that it happened. She woke up a coupla times, once on the way here and once upstairs. She was real confused. Didn't know who I was, then she nodded back off."
Merar nodded. "Sounds like a concussion all right." He knocked on the door of Victoria's room and entered at Rosa's call. He motioned the other men to stay out in the hallway. "I'll let you know as soon as I know anything." He firmly closed the door in Nick's face who stepped back in surprise and snorted. He leaned against the wall, watching as Heath lowered himself to sit cross-legged against the opposite wall. Silas simply stood to the side, his eyes on the door.
That was how they still were 20 minutes later when Audra Barkley came through the front door in a manner that was more like her older brother than herself. They heard the big door slam and then heard the voice of their sister call out. "Heath! Nick! Where are you?"
"We're up here. Keep it down will you!" Nick said at his usual volume which caused Heath and Silas to exchange a grin. Moments later the slim form of Audra Barkley, golden hair mussed from what was evidently a wild ride home, appeared at the top of the stairs. She ran into Nick's arms.
"Oh Nick! What happened? Duke couldn't tell me much, only that Mother had taken a fall from Misty." She asked after she had wet her brother's shirt with tears.
"Heath found her in the meadow. She hit her head on a rock. The doc is in with her now. Rosa and one of the maids is in there too." Nick said patting her back in as soothing a manner as he could manage. Heath had gotten to his feet, and came over to stand near his siblings.
"I reckon the doc wouldn't mind you being in there Lil Sis, you bein' a female and all. It might be good to have someone familiar there if she wakes up."
Audra turned to him and smiled tremulously. "Do you really think so Heath?" she asked. At his nod she disengaged herself from Nicks hold and went to the door. With a slight knock she entered. When she didn't come right back out the two men returned to the wall.
It was another 15 minutes before Merar came out of the room. He was frowning, and he gestured for the two cowboys to follow him downstairs. Heath grabbed Silas' arm and tugged him along as he went. The servant gave him a smile, and willing went along, anxious to hear what was wrong with the woman he owed so much to.
The doctor led the way back into the parlor, and turned to find himself faced with two Barkley's and one servant all with the same expression on their faces, a mixture of hope, dread, and fear. He sighed. "Physically, Victoria is fine. Is Jarrod in town?" He asked finally, trying to avoid the news he had.
"No he's in San Francisco." Nick snapped, "Why do mean that she's physically fine? What does that mean?"
"I think you need to send for Jarrod and Eugene." He said, and was going to continue when Nick interrupted.
"I thought you said she was fine! Why do we need to have them come home if she's fine?"
"Nick. Iffn you let the man get a word in edge wise between your interruptin' maybe we can find out." Heath scolded his older brother, much to Merar's hidden amusement.
"Thank you Heath. Now, as I was saying, Victoria is physically all right. She has a large goose egg on the left side of her head from where she struck the rock and there are some bruises, but nothing debilitating, and thankfully no breaks."
"But?" Nick said, unable to contain his curiosity. Heath rolled his eyes and shrugged at the doctor who smiled slightly.
'But there is a problem mentally." He raised a hand to forestall another question from Nick. "I think we all need to sit down. This isn't going to be easy to understand." They each took a seat. "Now, number one I want you to know I believe this is temporary. That being said, Victoria woke while I was in with her. She answered most of my questions correctly, as I tried to ascertain the extent of the damage done by the concussion. Where she failed is the problem. She is….confused as to the date. She believes it is almost seven years ago."
"Seven years?' Nick said. "Does that mean she thinks…" He stopped and looked at Heath, who was looking down at the floor, a frown on his face. Nick realized that his younger brother already had an idea of what the problem was.
Merar nodded, answering the unasked question again, "Yes. She believes that Tom is still alive. In fact she is adamant that he is the one that brought her home and that she saw him a short time ago. " He looked at Heath. Except for Silas, he was pretty sure that he was the only other person here who had seen Tom Barkley as a young man, in his mid twenties. If the two men had stood side by side they would have been almost twins, the same blond hair, the blue eyes, the same build. The differences were in the life experience that shone through those eyes. While Tom had worked his way up to great wealth, he had started from a middle class upbringing. The demons that haunted his son had never tormented Tom in his youth, hadn't formed a wall of defense in the blue eyes. Those blue eyes met Dr Merar's and acknowledged what the doctor was thinking.
"She called me Tom twice, thought I was him. I figured she was just confused, from the knock on the head." The young man said. Everyone in the room could hear how much the idea that he could be mistaken for his father upset him. "Don't matter none. I guess I better get into town and get that telegraph sent. She'll be wantin' her children around her no doubt. I'll take my things with me and get me a room at the Cattleman's."
Merar saw that Heath understood far more than he had said. The blue eyes were stark, and cold with something that Merar recognized as despair. The doctor noted that Silas, who had been sitting near the doorway slipped out quietly. "Heath…" he started only to be interrupted by Nick.
"What the hell do you mean you'll take your things and get a room? Send the telegram and come back. You ain't gotta wait for a reply. What are you thinking boy?" He bellowed. He was both relieved and frustrated by the doctor's news. He was a man of action, and there didn't seem to be anything that he could do to help his mother. He noticed that Heath had hung his head, and Doctor Merar was shaking his head at him. 'What?" he asked.
With a quick glance at the quiet blond cowboy, Merar explained what Nick had evidently not figured out. "Nick he has to leave, if not the ranch then at the very least the house and surrounding areas. Your mother is in a delicate state. She's confused right now, and until she gets better we don't want her upset more than necessary. As it is we're going to have to tell her something about Tom. I'm not sure yet what that will be, that's something for you children to decide among you. But there is one thing for sure that we can't do. We can't tell her that the husband that she is sure is alive is not only dead, but has a grown, illegitimate, son. And we definitely can't have her running into him in the hallway or at the dinner table."
As Merar explained, Nick had looked at his brother who was still seated in the chair, but when the blue eyes glanced his way Nick suddenly felt as if the Heath he had been coming to know had already left the ranch. The eyes were shuttered and blank, as if there was no feeling inside. Not even the anger that had burned ice cold in them when he had first come was there to show that there was a feeling person behind them. It was as if a part of Nick was being torn away. He shook his head. "No!" he declared. "That's not the only solution. Heath can stay in the bunkhouse. He just needs to keep out of Mother's sight until she comes back around. We're gone most of the day anyway…" he stopped as Merar was shaking his head.
"And what happens if she's looking out a window when Heath goes by. Or is outside when you and the crew come in. There's too much chance of her catching a glimpse, Nick. The trauma on top of the injury could be too much for her. You have to understand that."
"And that's what's the most important Nick. You can't take no chances with your….with Mrs. Barkley's health. You think about it. If I'm here, then there's a chance she might see me, and it just ain't worth it. She's gonna be confused and hurt enough, what with you all bein' older and with HIM being gone." Both of the other men knew he was referring to Tom Barkley. "The doc says it shouldn't take long for her memory to come back. I'll just stay in town until then. I can come out in the mornings and join the work crew wherever they are, and then ride back to town at night."
"This is your home now. You shouldn't have to.."
"NICK!" the blond suddenly snapped. "Quit arguing and LISTEN! I don't have to do nothin'. It's what's best. You think about how much she's gonna hurt when she finds out about your father, and then you think about how she musta been feelin' the last several months since I got here. You want her to have to go through that all over again, all at once?" The blue eyes were now blazing with fire, and Nick took an unconscious step back. He had seen the fierceness before, aimed at him as a matter of fact, but this was the first time he had seen it in turned on as a protective measure for one of the family. It was a revealing thing for Nick. He now knew that this new brother was feeling the same thing he was, the same thing all the family was. He was one of them, even if he didn't come right out and show it.
Nick met the blazing eyes squarely, and nodded. 'You're right. We have to think of her first. You just be sure you get out here every day." He said pointing to the younger man.
"The work'll get done Nick.." Heath started.
"It's not the work I'm concerned about!" Nick bellowed. "It's you. Can't keep out of trouble for five minutes when I ain't watchin' ya. No telling what you'll get into if I don't keep track of ya. Might take it into your head to wander off somewhere."
The cold fire waned into the now familiar twinkle of amusement that Nick had just recently begun to see. "Well Nick, I guess we'll just have to take a chance on me stayin' out of trouble and hope that Mrs. Barkley gets better real soon won't we?" Heath said seriously. He and Nick exchanged grins, and Nick pounded his brother on the back as they headed toward the stairs. Paul Merar followed behind, shaking his head at the curious dynamics of this family.
The next day Health was sitting at a table in the café waiting for his breakfast and reading the paper when he felt the presence of someone nearby. It was a skill he had developed over the years, one that had kept him alive. He lowered the paper swiftly, one hand dropping toward his gun. The movement stopped when he saw the two men in standing in front of him. The one with the blue eyes, dressed in an expensive suit smiled and nudged the other with his elbow.
"Well Brother Gene I do believe that our brother just about drew down on us. Perhaps in future we should greet him from across the room." Jarrod said his eyes twinkling at Heath.
The other man, a youngster of 18, smiled, his hazel eyes also twinkling. "I guess so. We city fellows just aren't up to the wild cowboy ways." Eugene replied, happy for the chance to tease his new brother. It was a tradition among the siblings, and he had waited for this new brother to be included in the fun. It was kind of a rite of passage.
Heath folded the paper neatly, taking his time. Then he kicked one of the other chairs at the table out towards Jarrod and Gene. "You city slickers better sit down and have some breakfast. It's a long ride out to the ranch, and you'll need all your strength to make it." The brothers shared a laugh. The two newcomers gave their order to the hovering waitress who had seen them enter. As soon as she had moved off the laughter faded from Jarrod's eyes and he leaned forward to speak to Health.
"What happened?" he asked, and watched as the shutters dropped over the light blue eyes. He felt a moment of regret that he had been the one to cause the rare moment of levity to end with this newest brother, who had so little in his past that was happy. Unfortunately it had to be done. Both Jarrod and Gene listened closely as Heath related the events of the previous day, and the doctor' s prognosis. Jarrod, taking it all in felt a deep sadness for his brother, he realized now why Heath had been here eating breakfast, instead of being out at the ranch, eating Silas's hotcakes. "I'm sorry Brother Heath." He said, putting a hand on Heath's left arm.
Jarrod and Eugene had taken the earliest train into Stockton from San Francisco, and had gone straight to the livery from the station. They had been waiting for the hostler to bring out two horses when Jarrod had spotted the distinctive black Modoc horse of their brother. After questioning the man at the livery they had gone in search of Heath, finally tracking him here to the café even though it was still only just after 6:00 am. Jarrod had wondered at his younger brother's presence so early in town, but had not come up with an explanation. Now it had become too obvious. His heart ached not only for his mother who must once again feel the pain of her husband's death, but for this new brother who had been forced to leave the home he had been coming to look on as permanent. A quick glance at Gene showed that he hadn't made the connection yet between their mother's condition and Heath's presence in town.
"What?" Eugene said, looking from one to the other. He noticed that there was a strange look in Heath's eyes, a look he hadn't seen since that first night. It was the look of a stranger, not that of the brother he had been coming to know in the few days he had been able to spend with him over the last several months. He looked back at Jarrod, puzzled, only to find a sadness in Jarrod's eyes. What had he missed? "What?" he said again.
"Heath is staying here in town because Mother doesn't know who he is, and since he looks like father I'm assuming that Dr Merar suggested that it might not the best thing for her if she was to be faced with father's infidelity right now." Jarrod explained to his youngest brother, and raised an eyebrow at Heath to be sure he was reading the situation correctly. Heath nodded, and quirked his crooked smile at them.
"It's not so bad. I don't got to fight Nick for the bathtub here, and I can have whatever I might want for dinner, as long as its on the menu that is." He said lightly, but his eyes spoke another story to both his brother.
"And what did Brother Nick and little sister think of this plan, if I may be so bold as to ask." Jarrod inquired.
"Didn't matter what they thought. The Doc said it was best, so that's what had to be. Nick weren't too happy bein' as how I wouldn't be there for work like regular, but since I'm riding out each morning it shouldn't matter none. Audra was upset, but then she was in there with Mrs. Barkley and I imagine that was a might hard." Heath replied, looking down at his coffee cup. Jarrod was about to speak when the waitress came with their breakfasts, and the matter was dropped as they ate.
Once the dishes had been cleared away Jarrod leaned back and looked at Heath. "Will you ride out with us?"
"I planned on it, once I seen you. Figured you two would need a guide to find the place since you ain't been here for awhile." Came the reply. They shared a laugh and, after Jarrod paid the bill over Heath's protests, the three men headed out to the livery. Heath saddled Gal while the two other men waited for the hostler to saddle their horse. Heath kidded them about not doing their own horses, and the light banter continued as they rode out of town. Jarrod and Eugene both noted that the banter stopped as they approached the ranch, and at the main gate to the ranch yard Health stopped. Jarrod noted that there was a longing in the light blue eyes as he looked toward the house, but it was quickly gone as he realized that he was being watched. Jarrod leaned out of the saddle and clapped a hand on Heath's shoulder.
"One of us will be out here to meet you each morning Brother Heath. So that you know what is going on before you go to work. I'm sure that between myself, Nick, and Eugene we can manage to make some evening trips in to Stockton throughout the week, so you won't have to spend all your nights alone either. You said that Paul indicated it shouldn't be too long before Mother gets her memory back, and then things can get back to normal."
Heath nodded absently, studying his saddle horn intently. It was as if he wanted to believe, but really didn't. Jarrod tightened his hold on Heath's shoulder, and the light eyes rose to meet his. A small quirk of the lips was all the smile he got in answer to his own, but it was something. He gave a final pat to the broad shoulder then headed toward the barn. He heard Gene saying goodbye to Heath behind him, and when he turned his head back he could see Heath heading toward the South pasture, taking the long way around the ranch yard. He sighed. His brother was vastly unhappy, trying to hide it, and doing a bad job of it. He had not seen such pain in those eyes since the fights with Nick had stopped. Not that he was supposed to have seen it then he knew. He had been fortunate one night to be present at the end of one such fight. He had pulled the two combatants apart, and had sent Nick off in one direction to cool down, and was about to order the same for Heath when he saw it, a flare of pain and loneliness that darkened the sky blue eyes. It was gone quickly, hidden behind the anger and bitterness that the young man wore as armor against the hurts that had been too frequent in his young life. Jarrod had determined then that he would do all in his power to make sure that look never returned, but it seemed it had been taken out of his hands by fate.
The two brothers rode into the main enclosure, and Jarrod was not too surprised to find Nick there readying Coco for the day's work. He looked up from tightening the cinch as he heard their horse, and a smile broke across the grim face. "Jarrod, Gene, you must have gotten the telegrams, wasn't expecting you until later today." He said, coming over to shake their hands.
"Luck had something to do with it Brother Nick. It so happens that our youngest brother here was in town requesting a small advance on his allowance for the quarter when the telegram came. We packed and took the first train heading this way. We got into town at around 5:30 this morning." Jarrod replied. "Just in time to have breakfast with Heath as a matter of fact."
The frown came back full force, and Nick kicked a small rock across the yard with ferocity. "Yeah. That's something I really don't like. It's bad enough having Mother hurt and confused, but to have to send Heath off like some……..well you know what I mean. He was just getting' used to us I think. Getting' used to me."
"Heath said the Doctor Merar indicated it shouldn't be long before her memory comes back. That means he won't be exiled to town for long. He understands Nick."
"Does he?" Nick turned on his older brother. "Does he understand or does he just accept that this is the way it has to be because he is who he is? Another punishment for being the bastard of Tom Barkley!"
Anger flared in Jarrod's blue eyes, and he heard Eugene gasp behind him. "DON'T use that word in reference to our brother again." He growled, taking a step toward Nick, who raised a hand.
"I was using it because that's how HE thinks of himself, not how I think of him…..not anymore." Nick said then intentionally changed the subject. He looked up at the house, at the window of his mother's room. "We told her last night. She kept askin' for him, so we had to tell her that he was gone. She….didn't take it well. The Doc, he gave her some sleeping powders, and she's been asleep all night. Audra stayed with her, and Silas too. She was asking for you both before….." He stopped and went to Coco, checking the already tightened cinch.
Jarrod came up beside him and placed an arm over his shoulders. He gave a squeeze. "We're all here now Brother Nick and it won't be long until everything is back the way it's supposed to be." He said trying to give some comfort to his brother.
Nick hung his head for a moment and then turned hazel eyes on Jarrod. He gathered his reins and then stepped away from Jarrod's arm to mount. He looked at Jarrod, then Eugene, and then looked to the south. " Well that's where you're wrong Pappy we're not all here now, and I got a bad feeling that's something that I'm going to have to get used to, and let me tell you…I don't want to!" With that he hauled Coco's head around and spurred her out of the yard.
Jarrod watched him disappear in the direction of the south pasture, and after a moment turned to Eugene. He nodded toward the house. "Let's go, Gene. Audra would probably appreciate a break about now. Perhaps you could make sure that she eats and then lies down while I sit with Mother?"
"Sure." Eugene answered, his hazel eyes looking after Nick. "Do you think he's right Jarrod? Do you think that Heath won't come back, even when Mother gets her memory back?"
Jarrod sighed and dropped his arm over Eugene's shoulders, so much thinner than Nick's, but still strong and sturdy like all the Barkley men. "I don't know Gene. I can only hope he's wrong. I know that I'll do everything in my power to be sure that Heath stays."
"Me too." Swore Eugene. The two men went towards the house. Both wondering what the next few days, or weeks, would mean to the family.
Heath pounded the final nail into the final fence post. The south pasture fencing was done. After what seemed like months of pounding nails and stretching wires it was over. And with the completion of the fence, Heath knew it was time to go. It had been two weeks now since he had found Mrs. Barkley. Two weeks of sleeping in the hotel and coming out here everyday to work at Nick's side. Two weeks that showed every sign of becoming a month or more.
Two weeks of no change in the condition of Victoria Barkley's memory. Nick had said she had made some progress in getting over the death of her husband. She mourned as if he had died only two weeks before, not years. The doctor was puzzled as to why there had been no return of memory, but Heath knew. He had thought a long time about it as he lay awake at night in the hotel listening to the tinny piano from the saloon across the way. While she had given him every reason to believe that she truly welcomed him into her home, he thought that now the truth had finally come out. The reason she wasn't getting her memory back was because she didn't want to remember. She didn't want to know that her beloved husband had cheated on her with another woman, had produced a son, who had shown up at the door making demands. So, when the head injury had occurred, her mind had taken the opportunity to make it all go away. And he couldn't hold that against her.
Each night one or the other of his brothers had ridden into town with him, staying for long enough to get a drink or dinner, and then returning home, or in Jarrod's case staying overnight on the pretext of business. It had been a nice gesture on the part of his brothers, but he felt that was all it was, a gesture to the brother that they felt obligated to. He had brought their mother back when she was injured, and he had been the result of their father's indiscretion. What more could there be? He had only been there a few months. What could they have found beyond that to care about. They were an honorable family, paying their debts, taking responsibility. While they had known family always, HE was the one that craved a family like a drowning man craved air. He was the one that was clinging to them, not the other way around. If he wasn't there they would still be a family, while he…..he would be alone again, as before. It wouldn't be all that bad, he had convinced himself. He had several month's worth of wages saved up. He could go somewhere else, somewhere where no one knew who he was, what he was. He could start again. With the money he had he could maybe find some land, start a horse ranch.
He watched the other men that had been helping him on this section load up the tools into the wagon. Nick had gone a little further south to check on one of the watering holes, and would be back soon. Heath would tease him a little about being gone while they had finished the work, and they would exchange a few barbs. He had come to enjoy their little exchanges, and he believed that Nick did too. He knew that Nick valued him for his work ethic, had come to respect him for his knowledge, but those were things that could be found in many men. He would not be leaving Nick short. There were lots of men looking for a job this time of year, what with the cattle drives over, and the fall branding still ahead. Nick wouldn't have a hard time at all finding someone else. At least with whomever he found he wouldn't have to make changes in the work crew to keep the peace. He had noticed how Nick had chosen to work at his side rather than bossing another part of the crew. He knew why, too.
When he had first come to this ranch he hadn't really planned what he was going to do after he had seen the family of his father. He hadn't planned the instant hostility with Nick, the fight in the barn, the blurted admission. He definitely hadn't planned the confrontation in the parlor, the encounter with his sister in town, the fight at Semple's farm. He had not imagined, even in his wildest dreams, the months since that time. The fights with Nick, the cattle drive, the days of hard, but satisfying, work. He hadn't realized how different it was to be an owner rather than a worker. It was if you were the land. Everything you did to improve the land improved you in some way. He had found it all very fulfilling.
Then there had been the family. They had made the effort to make him feel as if he belonged, something he hadn't felt since he was old enough to understand the words that people used about him. He had tried to be everything that they wanted in a brother. Now this. It was as if fate had decided that he had asked for too much, and had jerked it all away once again. After all, he couldn't exactly demand that they let him stay at the expense of their mother's health. They would try to find some way to make it work he knew. Jarrod would turn that steel-trap mind of his to the problem, and would come up with something. Maybe a small cabin on the edge of the property. Maybe he would end up at one of the Barkley's other holdings somewhere, the lumber camp or one of the mines. Out of sight and out of mind. But he couldn't do that. It would be making a joke of everything he had come to feel.
Over the course of the last several months he had come to, he would admit it to himself if to no one else, love these people who were his family by blood. He had come to look on Audra as the most perfect little sister any man could ever had. Beautiful, spirited, loving, kind, everything a woman should be. She had been the first to accept him, and her loving nature had made his days bright. Jarrod was the best elder brother that Heath could imagine. He was the smartest man that Heath had ever met, and one of the most honorable. He could think of no one else he would be comfortable asking advice from on almost any subject. He knew Jarrod would never steer him wrong. Eugene was the baby brother he had never thought to have. Smart in his own right, he was still forming the character that would make him a fantastic doctor in later years. He was eager to learn, and had a gentle heart. Then there was Nick.
It was Nick that he would miss the most, though if anyone had told him so as little as two months before he would have called them loco. Nick was everything he admired in a man. He was courageous, honorable, kind to women, animals and those weaker than himself. He gave as good as he got in a fight, and more. When you rode with Nick you knew your back was covered, and you wanted to do everything you could to make him proud of you. He stood up for what he believed in, and stood by his family to the last breath. It was that last thing which had made Heath's decision to leave easier. He couldn't put Nick in this position anymore. He could see that this game of hide-n-seek that they were playing was taking its toll on the other man. He was edgy and shorter tempered than usual.
Heath knew what the problem was. In fact he had suspected it right from the start. It was his continued presence. Nick was caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand was his mother, the woman he set above all others, and on the other was the half brother that honor said he should allow to be part of the family. By staying around Health had forced Nick into this conflict, his love for his mother versus his honor. It couldn't go on, but Heath knew if he didn't do something it would. So, he had decided to go. It would be tonight. The only thing left would be to give Nick the slip for the evening. He would need as much time as possible to disappear. Honor would force Nick and the others to try to find him, and Heath couldn't allow that. He had a lot of experience in running away it seemed, and it looked like it was going to come in handy at last.
He was shaken from his thinking by the sound of Nick Barkley returning from the watering hole. Nick never showed up anywhere quietly, and this was no different. He was barking orders and directing the hands, all while he climbed down next to Heath and clapped him on the back. A close look showed Heath that Nick had taken the opportunity to do more than look at the watering hole. His hair, under the black hat was wet, and the black shirt was wet in places a man didn't usually sweat. He suspected that given the heat of the afternoon his brother had taken a quick swim.
"See you finally quit dawdling around with the fence and got it done." Nick observed, grinning.
Heath nodded and took a drink out of his canteen. He knew that his silence often frustrated this brother of his, and he used it to its full advantage. Nick stamped around for a few moments, inspecting the fence, while Heath ducked his head to hide the smile that was on his face. Nick stamped back over to Heath and nodded in satisfaction. "Yep, a good job. We'll be able to move the herd in here tomorrow. Once that's done we'll start on the North pasture fences."
Heath seized the opportunity that Nick had presented. "I reckon it'll be harder finding waterin' holes to inspect over there so's you can avoid the work. You'll have to think of something else now." The North pasture fence ran near the only watering hole, and would not need a special trip. Heath waited for the explosion, aware that the hands, who had been listening, were snickering in the back ground. Nick would be aware of it too, and it would add to the force of the blast.
"WHAT!" Nick bellowed. Heath was sure they probably heard it back at the house. "Now you listen here, I did just as much work on that fence as any man here. I waited until the job was almost done before I went to look at the hole."
Heath nodded slowly, re-hanging his canteen on the saddle horn and casually tightening the cinch on Gal as he did so. He had to time this right. He gathered the reins in his hand, and turned slightly towards Nick, which put him just in the right position. He had a clear shot across the pasture. "I know you did Nick, and I'm sure that no one minds that you went off to look at the waterin' hole, what with it being the hottest part of the day and all. In fact I can see that you suffered real bad getting there and back. Why your shirt's all wet and looks like your hair is too. You damn near must of sweat yourself to death up there! It's a fair boss that'll keep that kinda work for hisself and not force it on a hired hand." As he finished he heard the growl growing in the back of Nick's throat, and the black clad man was moving toward him arms raised. Heath flung himself into the saddle with his usual flying mount and with a whistle to Gal they were off and running. He was out of the small clearing before Nick could finish his lunge, and Heath laughed as he heard his brother yelling after him. They were not words used in polite company.
He pulled Gal down to a trot once he was out of sight of the work crew, and headed her across country toward town. He knew that Nick would stew over his joke for quite a while, and he would almost certainly be most of the way to town before Nick remembered that no one would be going into town to visit him tonight because Mrs. Barkley had requested that everyone be present at the dinner table for once. Heath suspected he would have had a hard time getting away from his brother much before the Barkley dinner hour, and it would have used up time he needed for his plan. He was already packed up at the hotel. The bag that Silas had packed for him the first night had contained most of his personal things. A clandestine trip to the house very early in the morning three days previously had gotten the rest. He didn't think anyone would have noticed that the few things that he had were gone, since no one would have had any reason to go into the room. Silas had packed his mother's picture that first night, but he had wanted his small remembrance box and the few changes of cloths that he owned. He had been forced, in the last few months, to get more things than he had previously owned since he couldn't wear the nearly threadbare things he had brought with him, and he was well set for the future. He even had a good coat that should see him through anything winter could toss at him. It had been a present, from Mrs. Barkley.
She had been approached by a man in town who made the sheepskin coats, and who had been selling them at a low price in order to get money to travel on after being stranded in Stockton due to lack of funds. Heath, who had driven Mrs. Barkley into town that day, had been summarily ordered to try on the man's stock, and when one of them had fit him, she had purchased it for him. He still blushed to think of it. He had heard how much the man was asking. Even his own mother had never spent that much money on a single piece of clothing for him. In fact Gal had cost her just a little bit more. He had not had a chance to wear it yet, but he had slipped it on several times, and had made a fool of himself in front of the mirror in the bathroom when no one was around, just looking at himself in that expensive coat. Yes, for the woman who could have so generously treated the man who had brought such pain to her life, he could do this. He could leave. He urged Gal up to a gallop again, might as well get it over with.
Victoria Barkley put down the silver backed brush that had been a present from her husband Tom on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and looked into the mirror. She recognized herself, but there were changes that she didn't recognize. Audra had done her hair in a different fashion then she recalled having, and there were new lines and a few wrinkles that had not been there the last time she remembered looking in this mirror. And she wasn't the only one that had changed. Her children were all older than she remembered.
Jarrod was a man in his prime, handsome, suave, successful, and knowledgeable. Everything he had planned to be once he graduated law school. He must be something to see in the courtroom she thought to herself. Eugene had lost the chubbiness of his young adolescence and was now a slim, attractive young man, studying medicine of all things at Berkeley. She had always suspected he would follow his eldest brother into a profession, rather than take to the ranching life. He had been a quiet child, given much to reading. In Audra she saw all the things that a mother could desire in a daughter. The girl had left behind the coltish slimness of youth to blossom into a lovely young woman. She was graceful, and loving, and even under the circumstances, spirited. She spoke of charitable works and horses with equal energy, and Victoria knew that the tomboy lived comfortably with the fashion plate. Of her children it was the one she would have said she knew the best that she now didn't recognize.
Nick had always been more hers than any of the others, the one with her temper, and her deep love of family. His care and concern for her was evident in his reaction whenever they were in the same room. If anything could be said, it was if he was more anxious than she for the return of her memory. Nick had been the one she knew would always stay on the ranch. From the time he could first climb on a horse and follow his father out to work, he had been determined to be part of everything. Her recollection was of Thomas and Nick Barkley side by side, running the vast ranch together, arguing over how things should be done, who should do what, and when. With Tom's death she knew that the burden of that work must have fallen heavily on her younger son's shoulders, but he had handled it well it seemed. None of that surprised her and neither did his handsome bearing and loud manners. He was the king of the Barkley holdings, and he showed it.
What had her confused was his manner. He left every day after breakfast to work the ranch with an eager promptness that was unusual for Nick. If he had things to do and people to see, they usually waited for Nick to show up in his own good time, he didn't fit his schedule to them. And his return home was even more confusing. He came in, sometimes with a grin on his face, and by the time he had come down from bathing he was quiet and withdrawn, almost angry she would have said. He sat at the table, often glaring at the empty chair to her right as if there were someone there who displeased him. He quickly ate his meal and asked to be excused. He would then retreat into the parlor or head into town for a drink. The stories told by his siblings, and by Nick himself on the evenings that he was at home, indicated that it had not been this way the last several years, in fact she had gotten the distinct impression that he had been happier recently then he had been since his father died. The ranch was prospering better than ever before, but there was something…..….If she had been asked she would have said that her son seemed to be missing something, someone.
Then there was the chair at the table. She did not understand why it was there. Everyone seemed to have a habitual chair that they returned to each meal, and the one to her right remained empty. It was not as if it had been the place that Tom had occupied, being left empty out of respect. No, it was if there was someone it was waiting for, that her children were waiting for, who might return at anytime and need his or her place at the family table. And it wasn't only her children who acted this way. She had come into the dining room one evening before dinner a week previously to find Silas setting the table. His back had been to her, and he did not realize she was there. He had placed the settings at each seat, including the one to the right of her place. As she watched he had stopped and looked at the table, then with a slow shake of the head he had picked up the extra setting. He had clutched the plate and silverware to his chest for a moment then with a sigh had gone back into the kitchen, all without noticing his interested audience. Silas had been setting that table for so many years that she almost could not recall a time when he hadn't been with them. Such a mistake was not like the faithful servant.
To add a third part to the mystery there was the room. She had been walking through the mansion, going from room to room, looking at the changes that had been made over the lost years of her life when she had gone into the small room next to Nick's. It was one of the smallest of the bedrooms. She had recalled it as being used as a guest room. It had quickly become apparent to her that it was no longer so. There were cloths hanging in the closet, work cloths, in colors that Nick didn't wear. A warm looking sheepskin coat obviously new, and a pair of warn boots that had seen much better days were also there. Further inquiry had shown a few items in the bureau, including a worn box tied with a blue ribbon that she had not opened.
She had left the room, drawing the door closed behind her as she had found it. She had not mentioned what she had found there to her children, had not asked the questions that were in her mind. Doctor Merar had said that it would be best if her memories came back to her on their own, rather than as stories told by others. Some limited information had been shared by her children but beyond that she had been left on her own. She had accepted this as what was best, but it had been frustrating. She didn't like being kept in the dark.
She rose to her feet with a last glance in the mirror and headed downstairs for dinner. She had heard Nick's noisy advent almost thirty minutes before, and if the number of slammed doors in his wake were any indication, he was in a very bad mood. He had stamped loudly down the hallway and downstairs several minutes before. They all habitually met before dinner for a sherry or whiskey. She swept down the stairs and into the parlor where her children had already gathered. Jarrod and Eugene rose to their feet as she entered. Nick who was at the tantalus pouring himself a large whiskey, poured her a sherry and brought it to her when she was seated at Audra's side on the settee. He then took his whiskey and retreated to the empty fireplace to lean on the mantle, sipping his drink. His face was dark, and he was obviously unhappy. A quick glance around at her children indicated that no one seemed to be happy. Jarrod was watching his brother with a thoughtful expression on his face. Eugene and Audra were exchanging glances, and Audra's blue eyes looked as if they were bright with tears.
Victoria began to wonder if she had made some mistake requesting that all her children be present at the dinner table at the regular time that evening. It had seemed over the last two weeks that there was always someone missing, or coming in at the last minute, or leaving directly afterward for town for one reason or the other. She had found herself longing for the regular ritual she could remember from years previously. Everyone dressed for dinner, on time, enjoying one another's presence and lingering over the meal to discuss the day's happenings or local news. It had been a cornerstone of their family life, a way of affirming their connection, and she had wanted to regain that. But one glance around at her children showed her it was not to be. There was something going on that she did not understand, and she was going to get an answer tonight about what it was.
Silas called them to dinner and they went in, Victoria on Jarrod's arm and Audra coming in with Nick and Eugene. They sat down to a superb meal, served silently by Silas. Victoria watched as her children ate their meals. Audra picked at hers as if she had no appetite. Nick was shoveling it down as if it had no taste whatsoever. Eugene was eating slowly, his eyes going from sibling to sibling. Jarrod was eating calmly, as if unaffected by whatever it was that had the others upset, but she could see a sadness in his eyes. She dabbed her lips with her napkin and returned it to her lap, then folded her hands upon it.
"I have several questions for which I would like answers." She raised a hand, as Jarrod was about to speak. "I understand that Paul has said that my memory should be allowed to return at it's own rate, but there are some things that I feel that need to be addressed, and I WILL have answers. Tonight." There was no compromise in her tone. She watched as the four exchanged glances, and continued in a firm voice.
"There is a room upstairs, the one next to Nick's, it appears that someone has been using it on a regular basis. From the clothing I would say that the person was male and working on the ranch. Since I have been out of my room no one has been there. Also, there is the matter of this chair." She waved to the empty seat to her right. "It is obvious that it is there for a reason, and is used regularly. You all go instinctively to a certain chair, and none of you approach that one. This leads me to believe that there is someone else who has been living here in the house, who shares meals with the family, and who has and is working the ranch with Nick. Am I correct?" She need only to look at the faces of her three younger children to know that answer to the question. Eugene looked guilty, Audra was crying, and Nick looked like he was about to explode. Jarrod, no doubt due to his training in courtroom decorum, had no expression on his face beyond a slight twinkle in his eye.
"Very good Mother." He said, pride in his tone. "We obviously forgot where we all got our love of puzzles from."
"Thank you Jarrod," she said coolly, "But that doesn't answer the question, or tell me why the things disappeared out of the room sometime in the last two days."
"WHAT?!" Nick was on his feet with a bellow, the chair falling to the floor behind him. The others all stared at him.
"Nick…" Jarrod started.
"What do you mean the stuff is gone? It can't be gone. SILAS!" he bellowed again toward the kitchen.
"Nicholas," Victoria began, only to be interrupted as Silas came in swiftly from the kitchen, alarmed at the yell.
"What's wrong Mr. Nick?" he asked anxiously.
"Did you pack up the rest of Heath's stuff?" he asked as if everyone wasn't sitting there starring at him, his siblings with horror, and his mother with curiosity.
"No sir, Mr. Nick, " Silas replied with a quick glance at Victoria. The cat obviously being well and truly out of the bag he continued." I's only packed him a few change of cloths and his picture, the one of his mama that he sets so much store by. I wouldn't touch no more of his things, you know how he is about that. Likes to do for hisself does Mr. Heath."
"Dammit, I knew it!" Nick said slamming a fist down on the table. He started for the door. Jarrod grabbed his arm.
'Nick calm down. There has to be an explanation. We can…"
Nick shook off Jarrod's hand and kept going. "Of course there's an explanation! And I know just what it is, he's leaving." Nick marched out into the hall, followed by the rest of the family. He stopped at the table and grabbed his gun belt. As he strapped it on, Jarrod tried again.
"Nick where are you going?"
"I'm going into town and find out which way he went. Someone must have seen him go. He wouldn't take the train, and he would want to take that pony of his so he wouldn't take a boat down to Frisco or up to Sacramento. Once I find out which way, I'll track him down and haul his butt back here where he belongs." He out on his hat, and started for the door.
Jarrod grabbed his arm, and this time held on. "Nick! Think about what you are doing. There are consequences….." he glanced at their mother, who was standing at the base of the stairs listening.
Nick looked at her, and their eyes met. Victoria could see so many emotions there in the hazel depths. She could see his love for her, his concern, but there was something else, a longing, a desperation that she had never seen before in those eyes. Nick had never been a needy child. What he wanted he went and got and damn the consequences. Now it was as if he had lost something so dear to himself that the thought of it was ripping his heart out. Not sure what she was agreeing to, she nodded. A grin flashed across his face, and he was gone with a slam of the door. She turned to her other children. Audra was openly crying, leaning on Eugene whose eyes were looking bright as well. Jarrod was staring thoughtfully at the door, but then turned to look at her. He offered his elbow.
"Shall we go into the parlor Lovely Lady? I believe we have some things to talk about." She placed her hand on his arm and they went toward the parlor. She wasn't sure what she had started with her questions, but something inside her told her that she needed to know whatever it was. She raised her chin unconsciously, ready to meet whatever it was head on, as was her custom.
Nick flung the saddle on Coco in record time. He was mounted and heading out of the yard before a sleepy Ciego poked his head out of the bunkhouse to see who was stirring in the barn at this time of night. As soon as he was out of the gates he brought Coco up to a ground-eating gallop. He wanted to be in town as soon as possible, though something told him he was already too late. But the sooner he got on the trail the better chance he had to track his brother down. Almost as an afterthought he had tied a bedroll, kept ready in the barn, to his saddle, and he could get whatever else he needed in town.
When he saw the lights of Stockton ahead he pulled Coco to a walk. The horse was blowing a little, but she still had plenty of bottom, and would get some rest while he hunted for answers. He didn't even bother going to the hotel. He knew that would be a dead end. He stopped in front of the livery stable where the Barkley family usually put up their horses while they were in town. He knew Heath liked the place because they let him care for his own horse with no fuss. He went in and roused the sleeping hostler who lit a lamp and peered at him grumpily.
"What is it with you Barkley's tonight, in and out, in and out. Will you lot never make up your minds? Can't a man get no sleep?"
"When did my brother leave?" Nick asked towering over the smaller man menacingly. The man looked up and gulped. Nick Barkley was famous for his temper, and the fights between the two brothers were legendary. Maybe whatever had Heath Barkley living here in town had finally come to a head. Nick sure looked mad enough for it.
"A..about two hours ago. He came in with his saddlebags and a bedroll. Didn't say word one. Gave me a five-dollar gold piece for taking care of the horse and just mounted up and rode off. Just like that." He replied nervously not sure if it was good news or bad news to Nick in his current mood.
It quickly became obvious which it was. Nick let out a growl of anger and picked up a pitchfork that was leaning nearby. The hostler shrunk back against the wall, but was ignored as Nick simply gripped the handle with white knuckled fists. The hostler could see the arms trembling with the power of that grip. If it hadn't been hardened ash, he knew the handle would have snapped in two. Finally the spasm seemed to pass and the pitchfork was tossed to the side. The burning eyes were turned back to the man cowering against the wall. 'Which way?" the growl came.
He pointed east with a trembling finger. Nick went out, spurs jingling rapidly. The hostler poked his head out the door and watched as Nick went into the general store down the block. Five minutes later he came out with a set of saddlebags and a rifle in a sheath. He put them on his horse and turned to eye the hostler, who shrank back. "I need a horse. Something with good wind and legs."
The hostler pointed out a bay in the back stall, and Nick was soon leading it out of the livery. He swung up into the saddle and tied the lead rope of the bay to the saddle horn. "Put it on our tab." He turned and went out of town in the same direction as his brother. The hostler stood watching until he disappeared into the darkness, then he started toward the saloon. He had a heck of a tale to tell his friends.
Nick rode for several hours at a steady pace. Then he stopped and traded the saddle to the bay. He started again, keeping to the main trail to the east. He figured that Heath would probably stay on the road for a while. It was nighttime and there would be little chance of him being seen. It was the dawn that Nick feared. When it got light his little brother would be free to take to the back trails, where no one would see him, and where he could disappear into the Sierra Nevada on one of a hundred sparsely traveled paths. If that happened he could search forever and never find him. The very thought made Nick pull up the bay and curl over his saddle horn with the force of the grief that pounded into his guts.
How had it come to this? How had a ragged, angry boy who seemed to destined to bring nothing but pain to his family come to mean so much to him? How had that same stubborn, willful boy burrowed into his heart and found a place that had been waiting just for him. When had he become the partner that Nick had missed since his father died. How had he become the second half of Nick Barkley? He didn't know, and right now didn't even care. It just was, and he wasn't prepared to give it up. He started the horse forward again, keeping a sharp lookout on either side of the road for any sign that his brother had stopped for the night. While he knew Heath could go on all night, or as long as his stubborn strength moved him, he knew that the horse could not. She had made the trip to town and back, and several trips along the fence. What he wouldn't do for himself, Heath would do for that squat little pony. She would need the rest before they started up the west slope of the Sierra's, and the horseman in Heath would know it and bow to the need. That and the fact that he hadn't expected to be followed this soon. He had obviously expected that no one would know he was gone until the next day, giving him a head start that would have been insurmountable. It struck Nick suddenly that that there was also the very good possibility that his brother didn't expect them to follow at all. That no one would care, just another problem solved.
It was nearing two AM before he saw it, the faint glow of a small fire. He had to hope it was Heath, and not some other traveler. The only hope he had was that anyone else would have been asleep hours before, and the fire would have died down. This fire was small, but still burning. Heath would have made himself some coffee, before bedding down. The leftover would be ready to heat up in the morning before he started out. Nick swung down from the bay, and tied the horses on a sturdy limb. He was happy to note that the wind was coming from the direction of the camp so the little Modoc wouldn't catch sent of him or the horses and warn Heath. Coco was too experienced a horse to make noise, and the bay had pleased Nick in the hours on the road. They would be good here.
He made his way slowly through the brush, being careful where he stepped and what he brushed against. He was as quiet as someone could be in this kind of situation, short of an Indian who always seemed to be able to ghost over eggshells without so much as a sound. He wished for that ability now, wanting to take his brother by surprise, and not allow him time to run. Nick could see the fire now, through the branches. He crept closer and could see some of the clearing. He could see now that he was lucky he had seen the flare of the fire. Heath had chosen his camp well. In a small cut back of an old riverbed, the camp was surrounded on two sides by steep banks that ended in a slight overhang. No man could walk on that without tumbling down and that left only the front of the camp to be guarded. He could see that only the combination of a nearly new moon and one tall tree with whitish leafs had allowed him to see the reflected light of the fire.
He crept closer, and could see a blanket wrapped form on the ground next to where the Modoc stood, ground tied next to some grass. He shook his head. The horse was the best trained he had ever seen. Even as confident as he was of Coco he would never leave her to her own resources while he slept. Heath had once told him that the horse was like having a guard dog. She would fight as fiercely as any canine if they were attacked. Nick hadn't quite believed him, but wasn't willing to take the chance. He moved to the edge of the clearing and was about to call out when he felt a cold gun barrel touch him behind the ear.
"Boy howdy Nick. If you'd a made any more noise coming through those bushes they coulda heard you back in Stockton. Don't take up no life of crime, you ain't made for sneakin'." He heard his little brother's drawl behind him as the barrel disappeared. He spun around to see his brother, his boots off, and his white socks glowing faintly in the firelight.
Nick snorted and put his hands on his hips. "Well ain't that a fine howdy do. I come all this way after your scrawny butt and this is the thanks I get. Insults!"
"I didn't ask you to come Nick. You shoulda left it alone. It's for the best." Came the soft answer. Heath headed back into his camp. Nick followed along.
"FOR THE BEST!" Nick bellowed, hearing the Modoc snort at the sound. He eyed her warily as she looked at him. There was a light in the little horses eyes he didn't like. He sidled around so that Heath was between them. He modulated his tone as Heath pulled the blanket back to reveal his saddle and bags. "There's nothing about this that's for the best." He said.
Heath moved the saddle up and threw the bags aside. He sat down on his bedroll and brushed off his socks. He pulled on his boots, and turned to face his brother. He didn't figure he was quite up to an argument with Nick with his boots off. "Nick, think about it. It's been two weeks, and there ain't been no change. How long we gonna do this? A month, two, six, a year? When's it gonna be the right time to break her heart all over again Nick? You already had to tell her that your father is dead a second time. Do you want to be the one to tell her about me?" he said as bluntly as possible.
Nick shook his head, and sat down on a fallen log near his brother. "I would do anything not to hurt her. And I think you would too, but this is not the way. It's too late anyway. Jarrod has probably already told her by now, so the whole thing is…what's that word that Jarrod is so proud of…moot." He growled. He saw the shock in Heaths eyes, those sky blue eyes that said more than his brother ever would.
Heath shook his head, trying to understand. They had told Mrs. Barkley? Why? He looked at Nick, the question in his eyes, and Nick knew what he wanted to know. Another of those things he had come to realize had taken place. He knew this man as he had never knew anyone before, not his father, not his brother, Jarrod, no one. "She saw your room, and your chair at the table. She put two and two together and came up with four. No big surprise I guess. There ain't nothing wrong with how she thinks, it's only what she remembers. We all kinda underestimated her there." He shook his head as he thought of the amazing woman who was his mother. Now that he had found Heath he took a moment to think about what it must have been like for her to find out all over again.
It had been she that had first accepted it, first acknowledged that his father had been unfaithful, that a child could have resulted. When Nick considered the kind of man that could have resulted from such a union, such an upbringing, such a life, he felt incredibly lucky that THIS man had been the one that had come, and that his mother had forced them all to see that he WAS the son of Thomas Barkley. But what about now, how would she react? She would still know about the infidelity, as she had before, but that hurt had been far in the past. This time she would not have seen Heath, not heard his impassioned defense of himself and his rights, not know that he had resisted his sister's awkward blandishments. He was suddenly anxious. What if she refused to accept it, him? What if she would not allow him in their home, on the ranch? What would he do then?
If that was so, Nick knew that Heath would leave and there would be no bringing him back. His heart ached at the very thought. He looked back at his brother, and he saw the understanding flash in those eyes. Evidently that mind reading thing worked both ways! "I can't hurt her again Nick. I can't." came the low words in that soft drawl he had come to love. He heard the love that this boy felt for Victoria Barkley in that drawl. Heard the determination to do what he felt was right for her, for all of them, even at his own expense. How could he not love a brother who loved his family so much he would give them up for their own good? Nick nodded, understanding. Then he got to his feet. He looked around the sparse camp. He waved a hand at the bedroll and saddlebags and the fire.
"Pack it up. We can be home in time for breakfast if we push it. It's about time this family had breakfast together…all of us."
"NO!" Nick interrupted "Don't say it. We don't know how she took it. Don't tell me that you ain't man enough to go and face her and find out." He threw out the challenge and wasn't surprised to find himself toe to toe with his brother, blue eyes blazing into his own. Heath wasn't the only one that could use anger to get something done. "Something to say?" he growled, ready to fight if necessary. He was determined to drag his brother home one way or the other. If it had to be tied to a saddle so be it.
Heath stared at him for a moment, then quirked that crooked smile at him, taking a step back. He shook his head. "You almost had me goin' there, big brother. Reckon I'll come along peaceful. No need to get violent." He moved to roll up his bedding.
"Boy, you are the most contrary, stubborn, cantankerous…" Nick started, moving to help his brother. The sooner they got on their way the better. Both men tried not to think about what could happen when they got to the ranch.
Victoria Barkley seated herself in one of the plush leather chairs, facing the settee where Audra and Eugene sat. Jarrod chose to remain on his feet. A certain amount of detachment would be required in this, and he hoped his courtroom training would stand him in good stead. He took in the sight of his sister, leaning against Eugene, her eyes wet and haunted. Eugene was looking at him, his eyes full of questions. Jarrod was aware that it was all on him. He would have to be the one.
He turned at the end of his pacing to face his mother who sat, in her usual upright, graceful manner, her eyes on him. How best to do this? Just come right out with it, or let it come out a piece at a time? He elected the latter as it would hopefully be less of a shock to a mind already dealing with the pain of a lost husband and lost years.
"Do you remember, Mother, when I was seven and Nick was almost three. You had just lost Thomas, Jr. to the cholera, and things were….strained here. Father decided to look into some trouble up at one of the mines in person, the mine in Strawberry." He saw his mother's hazel eyes darken, and knew she remembered that time, remembered the stained atmosphere, the quiet fights behind closed doors, the distance at the dinner table. She inclined her head, indicating he should go on.
"Father was there for almost three months, and when he came back, you and he eventually seemed to reach an agreement to try to move on, put it all behind you. Just over two years later Audra was born, then Eugene. I remember that just after he returned that things were very quiet, and that he stayed in the guest room, in the room next to what is now Nick's room as a matter of fact. Do you remember why he did that, Mother?"
His mother looked back at him, and then looked at her two younger children, who were watching the whole thing with bright eyes, clinging to each other's hand. He watched something pass through her eyes, regret, anger, disappointment perhaps? Then she looked back at him. "I suspect that since you are asking the question, and are doing so in front of your brother and sister, that you all know WHY he did so. Is it common knowledge?" She asked calmly.
Jarrod, not put off by what could be considered a too calm reaction to the revelation that her husband's infidelity was perhaps commonly known, considered his answer. Then he nodded. "Yes, I'm afraid it is. It was inevitable under the circumstances." He watched her closely. She paled slightly, but her eyes remained locked on him, unwaveringly. He felt a surge of pride knowing that he was the son of this remarkable woman. He suspected a good half or more of the 'Barkley guts' had come from her.
"Go on." She said when he paused. He saw the suspicion in her eyes, and suspected she had figured out what he was about to say, but she demanded it anyway, not shying from the truth. The Barkley guts indeed.
"Almost four months ago now, a young man rode up to the ranch looking for work. He was ragged, and angry, and one of the best hands with horses Nick had ever seen. He wouldn't answer questions, and was very quiet. Nick instantly thought he was a railroad spy, sent to find out what we were planning. Nick confronted the man in the barn one night. There was a fight, the first of many it seemed, and Nick asked him who he was. The young man, Heath is his name, told Nick who he was, and why he was here, and it had nothing to do with the railroad. Nick dragged him into the house and called Gene and I. We confronted him together, a rather daunting prospect I am sure. Not that it stopped Heath. In fact it only made him angrier. He told us that…" he paused, and his mother finished the thought for him.
'He told you that he was the son of Thomas Barkley, the result of an affair he had with a woman in Strawberry twenty-three years ago." She said the paleness replaced by spots of red on her cheeks. There was no anger in her voice, no denial. She seemed to be far away in her thoughts for a moment then she blinked and looked at Jarrod. "He never went back to see her, never wrote to find out if a child had resulted from their……liaison, I demanded he sell the mine, and he complied. We did not speak of it again after that time of silence you remember, and we put it behind us, as we did the death of your brother. I see that was a mistake. Is… is his mother still alive?" she asked.
Jarrod shook his head. "Heath's mother, Leah, died last year. He wasn't told who his father was until she was on her deathbed. She didn't want him to be alone once she died. She hadn't married and there are no other relatives that we know of."
"He has been staying here, in the house, for the last four months?" she inquired.
"At your insistence." Jarrod said with a nod. He wanted her to know that it wasn't just her children who had believed Heath's claim, but she herself.
"Then we all believed him? That he is your father's son?"
"Not Nick. Not at first." He said. He wanted everything to be known. "They had a rocky start, but once Nick got over the initial shock of it all he came around quickly, began to see the advantages to welcoming Heath into the family. You often pointed out those advantages to him after a fight."
The flash of his mother's gray eyes showed him that she knew exactly what he was doing by constantly mentioning her approval of the newcomer's status, he gave her a slight smile, and she nodded in that regal way that he so admired. "Very well. We have established that your father sired a son out of wedlock, and that we have welcomed him into the family. Why has he not been present the last two weeks?"
Jarrod cast another glance at his siblings, who were now looking at him with wide, anxious eyes. Evidently they too sensed that Victoria Barkley was not going to be pleased about the revelation to come. He turned back to her. "We thought, the doctor and all of us thought, that it would be better for your….condition if you were not faced with too many traumatic revelations at one time. We knew it would be hard for you to hear about father, we didn't want to add to that burden." There, that sounded logical and reasonable.
If possible his mother sat up straighter in her chair. "So, if I am to understand you correctly, it was decided that lying to me for my own good was not only appropriate, but medically necessary?"
"I wouldn't phrase it that way, but yes." Jarrod replied, suddenly not so happy with his explanation.
"I WOULD phrase it that way. So not only have you withheld vital information from me regarding my husband and this family, but I must also assume that a member of that same family, one you say that I have come to regard as such, has been exiled not only from the house, but from the company of his siblings, and even the ranch itself. Is that correct?"
Jarrod was definitely getting uncomfortable with this line of questioning. "Heath understood the doctor's concern and volunteered to move into town during your recovery. Doctor Merar felt that it wouldn't take long for your memory to return…." He broke off at another flash of those eyes.
"An assumption that has proven incorrect." His mother pointed out. "Leaving aside how your…Heath feels about having to leave the house, how has the rest of the community viewed it?"
"I don't understand? What do you mean?" Jarrod asked, not quite following.
"I mean, Jarrod, that I am not ignorant of the fact that the presence of an illegitimate son of a man of the standing of your father must have caused a lot of talk among the community. I am also aware that the talk would not have been pleasant for this family, and especially not for your…Heath, I believe you said his name is. Do you not feel that this sudden move into town might be taken as a sign that he is no longer welcome here? I am assuming of course that my...how did you put it…condition has not been made public. Since I have received no visitors of late, it is hard for me to tell how much is generally known."
Jarrod was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Was it possible that they had made a mistake in allowing Heath to leave? That they had caused even more pain for the brother that they had just discovered? "We did what we thought was best, based on the advice of your doctor." He defended, " As to how the town people view Heath's presence there, I don't know. He hasn't said anything."
"He wouldn't." Audra murmured. Tears were streaking her face. She rose from the settee and kneeled at Victoria's feet. "We did what we thought was best for you Mother. Heath understood, but it hurt him to go, I know it did. I could see it in his eyes when he came to say goodbye to me. You can always see what he's feeling in his eyes, if you really look." Her own blue eyes were intent as she looked at her mother. "You like him Mother. He's so easy to love, but so hard to get to know. I think you were enjoying the challenge."
Victoria smiled at her daughter, and caressed her smooth cheek. One of the things she regretted most about her loss of memory was the loss of the years with her children. She felt as if they had been apart for all that time. Now, she found that there was another child, one she didn't know. One she hadn't borne in her body. She remembered the 'quiet time' as Jarrod had called it when Tom had returned from Strawberry. She remembered the confession, the apologies, the vow that never again would he be with another woman. The circumstances of their meeting hadn't made a difference to her heart. She had taken the news as any wife would have, banning him from her bed, their shared room, even from her heart for a time. But the wound had healed, and they had once again become the couple that she had always imagined them to be. Now to know that there had been a child…. She put together what Jarrod had said. The mother, Leah had not remarried, the boy had been ragged and angry when he came, she thought of the few items she had seen in the small room upstairs. She suspected that his life had not been easy, in comparison to her own children who had never known want. She felt a thread of sympathy for the other woman, left alone by a man she could not have, with a child that branded her as a loose woman. And the boy….what had he endured?
She looked at Jarrod. "I take it from what Nick said that he suspects that your ....Heath" She couldn't quite say the word 'brother', "had taken the rest of his things and left permanently?"
Jarrod nodded. "Nick and Heath, once the fighting stopped, seem to have formed a partnership in more than the ranch. Seeing them together is a revelation." He said thoughtfully. "Like seeing two sides of the same coin, where Nick is dark, Heath is fair, where Nick is loud, Heath is quiet. They complement each other, and build on each other's strengths. It is a testament to what brotherhood should be, but seldom is. I've noticed that recently that they don't even have to speak about some things, they just exchange a glance and then do what has to be done, in perfect concert, working as one. If Nick says that Heath has gone, I would be willing to wager that he has." There was a sadness in Jarrod's voice as he spoke that was noticeable.
"Nick will find him won't he Jarrod, and bring him back?" Eugene spoke for the first time in a while, anxiously.
"I suspect that there will be no stopping him from trying to do so, Gene. The question is will Heath come, and if he does, what will happen then?" He looked at his mother.
She drew in a long breath, her eyes on her hand that was smoothing the golden hair of her daughter who had rested her head against Victoria's leg. What could she say? It was obvious that this boy, this …son of Tom Barkley had come to mean so much to her children. That it had happened in such a short time spoke to her of how extraordinary the boy must be. That Nick, her most stubborn and suspicious child, had accepted him so deeply into his heart, spoke even more of the connection that was obviously there. But how could she bear it? Jarrod had pressed the point that she had approved the inclusion of this boy into their family, even welcomed him there. But could she do it again. She was not the same woman who had opened her home to the son of her husband by another woman. She was still grieving that husband, that life she had built with him, those lost dreams. She looked from the serious eyes of her eldest son to the anxious eyes of her youngest.
"I…can not say that I am sure what my reaction will be when I come face to face with ..Heath, but I feel strongly that he should be here, with his family. While I cannot pretend to be happy that this has happened, I will not deny him the rights that are his by the virtue of his birth. I hope that he and I can reach an accord of sorts, until I regain my memory." She said after careful consideration. She was rewarded by the flare of pleasure and gratitude in the eyes of her sons, and by the hug that her daughter gave her.
Shortly afterward she excused herself to retire to her room. She once again sat at her dressing table and looked in the mirror, searching her own eyes for some answer of what she should do now. She had agreed to meet the son of her husband, to live with him in her home, to see him at her table, to see her children interact with him as if he were one of them. Could she bear it, for her children, for the other Victoria Barkley who had welcomed him into her home? She didn't find the answer then or at any time during the long night as she lay awake in the bed she had once shared with her husband.
Nick and Heath pulled up their horses into the yard just after dawn the next day. It had been a long trip back, and both men were dusty and tired. Heath had suggested stopping in town to sleep and clean up, but Nick had felt an almost overwhelming urge to get his brother back on Barkley land, as if by having him there, Nick could control what he might do. He wouldn't be leaving that was for sure. They tiredly led the three horses into the barn and bedded them down. Heath took his usual care with his Modoc, and then took care of the bay from the livery as well. The discussed the horse's good points as he worked, and were happy with the addition to the remuda.
They stored their gear, and Nick took the bedroll from Heath who was also carrying his saddlebags. They entered the house through the kitchen, and Silas broke into a huge grin as he saw Heath.
"It sure is mighty fine to see you Mr. Heath. I was missin' you powerful lots. It weren't the same in the mornin's with out you coming through and sneaking a biscuit b'for breakfast." He gladly shook Heath's offered hand. "You lookin' skinny as when you first come here. They don't feed you in that town? I make you some of that sausage gravy you like so much. That put some meat on your bones, yessir."
"Sounds good Silas. I missed your cookin'," Heath said as he followed Nick toward the stairs, "and our mornin talks." He added quietly so that only Silas could hear. They shared a smile before Heath went upstairs. Silas returned to his cooking, humming a happy hymn to himself. Yes, God had brought the lost lamb home; everything was going to be all right.
Since Nick was first up the stairs he took full advantage of being that much closer to the bathroom, and had grabbed a change of cloths and was heading in for a bath before Heath could even finish dropping his saddle bags on the bed. Heath, resigned to waiting through the no doubt long hot soak that his brother would indulge in, quickly hung up his small wardrobe, and sat back down on the bed. The last thing he put back in place was the picture of his mother. He sat there staring at her picture for several minutes, then pulled off his boots. He was glad to be back here, more so than he thought he would be. He had grown used to it over the last several months. The room was large, more room than he needed, but he was becoming used to it, that and the soft bed with an actual mattress, not a straw ticking. He lay back on the bed, not bothering to pull back the bed spread since he was still dirty even after knocking off as much dirt as possible before he entered the house. He closed his eyes, meaning only to rest until he heard Nick come out of the bathroom, but he was quickly asleep.
Nick did take a long time in the bath; knowing that his brother was waiting magnified the pleasure of the hot water. Nick wasn't sure why he liked to get a rise out of the boy. Perhaps it was because then he could really know for sure what was going on in that boy's brain. Anger was better than nothing. Nick had never held back any of his feelings. When he was mad you knew it, and when he was happy you knew that too. With Heath it was hard to tell the difference. Nick had learned just how effective that poker face could be in several of the almost nightly poker games in the bunkhouse. All of the hands had tried to best the quiet new Barkley, but so far Heath was the winner overall. Nick currently owed his brother twenty three dollars and change for the last game.
He climbed out of the tub and dressed. He cleaned the room and was heading back to his bedroom to get his boots and vest. He was surprised when Heath didn't come out of his room immediately headed for the bath. He knocked quietly on the door, not wanting to wake his sleeping family. When there was no answer he pushed open the door and grinned as he saw the sleeping figure of his brother. It was right to have him back here. He went quietly into the room. The depth of his brother's exhaustion was evident in the fact that he didn't wake. Usually the boy was as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Nick looked around the room, and nodded in approval as he saw the cloths hung in the closet and the picture back beside the bed. The window was open, letting in the cool morning air, just as Heath liked it. That was more like it!
He pulled an extra blanket down from the top shelf of the closet, and spread it gently over the still form. He then placed a light hand on the blond head, standing there for a moment quietly. He thought he heard a noise behind him in the doorway, but when he turned there was no one there. He took one last look at his brother, pulled the blanket a little higher around the broad shoulders and then went to his room. Maybe an hour-long nap before breakfast would be a good idea.
Victoria Barkley leaned back against the door of her room that she had just closed. She wasn't sure why she had fled before Nick could see her. And that was what she had done, fled. She had heard someone in the bathroom, and had come out to see Nick's tall form going down the hall. He had paused at the door to the room next to his, and knocked gently. He had then entered, and she had followed, to stand by the open door. She could see a man on the bed clad in tan pants and a blue shirt. To see the face of the man she would have had to push open the door further and step into the room as the bedside table and a picture frame blocked her view. That she could not do. Not now. She watched as Nick looked around the room and then nodded, evidently pleased with something. He then went and got a blanket from the closet and spread it over the sleeping man. She saw that he put his hand down somewhere near the head of the bed, and that was when she turned to go. She was in her room with the door closed when she heard the door to Nick's room close.
She went to her dressing table and sat. It seemed she was spending a lot of time looking at this strange woman who she had become. She wondered what the day would bring. She had not been able to sleep the previous night in anticipation of the meeting to come. She found herself becoming more curious about the man who was her husband's son. While she, more than anyone, knew the depth of love and tenderness of which Nick Barkley was capable with those he loved, she had never seen him act in such a way with Jarrod or Eugene. She did some mental math. Heath would be twenty-two, four years younger than Nick. It would have been a difficult age difference when they were younger; the older boy would probably been impatient and annoyed with a smaller, younger playmate, as Jarrod had been. Now, the age difference was diminished as both men were evidently born to the land, ranchers and cowboys both. They worked side by side, and the bond had evidently grown quickly and deep.
She rose and began to dress. It would time for breakfast soon, and she expected to meet her new…could she say it, or even think it…stepson. She dressed carefully, and took her time going downstairs. She found Audra, Gene and Jarrod all at the table, but the two empty chairs showed that the other members of the family had made no appearance. Silas appeared at her elbow after Jarrod had seated her in her customary place.
"Mr. Nick and Mr. Heath come in around dawn Mrs. Barkley. I think they musta rode all night cause they is powerful tired. I went in to see both of them and they is sleeping hard. I thought it best just to let them sleep. I's could go and wake them if you wants." The servant said. Victoria, feeling a sense of relief that the meeting would be delayed, shook her head.
"No Silas. Let them sleep. If they didn't get back until dawn it must have been a long night for them. We'll talk later. They may as well be rested." She replied, a little ashamed at herself for her cowardice. She looked at Jarrod who was looking back at her with concern. She gave him a small smile and reached for his hand that lay on the table beside her. "Shall we say the prayer?" She asked and bowed her head.
It was several hours later when Heath awoke. He had to lie there for a minute and get his bearings. He recognized he was in his room at the house, but he wasn't sure why he was sleeping on top of his bed, evidently in the middle of the morning if the light from the window was any indication, and wearing all his clothes. It suddenly flooded back to him as he turned his head and saw the picture of his mother sitting on the side table: the accident to Mrs. Barkley, his moving to town, his decision to leave, and Nick's late night retrieval. Everything came back to him.
He must have fallen asleep waiting for Nick to get out of the bathtub. He hadn't been sleeping well, if at all, in the hotel. He had been so tired for so long, that he was beginning to think he would never sleep again. He sat up, noting as he did the blanket that had covered him. He didn't remember getting that. Shrugging he folded it neatly and returned it to the closet. He gathered up some clean clothing and padded down the hall to the bathroom, smiling as he passed Nick's door and head what was either his brother snoring, or a grizzly savaging some poor soul. After a long, luxurious bath and a shave he returned to his room. He pulled on his boots and sat there on the bed, unsure what to do. He knew he should go downstairs and get it over with, but he found himself wanting to have Nick there, at his back.
He laughed to himself. It seemed silly, feeling like he needed backup to face a tiny regal woman like Mrs. Barkley. After all he had faced down the three other Barkley men once, and had even faced his sister in a hotel room, how much worse could it be? He knew the answer to that right off. It could be a complete disaster. Now that she knew about him, how did Mrs. Barkley feel? She was mourning her husband all over again, and now this; his illegitimate son was being forced down her throat. Heath felt almost sick at the prospect. He had wanted to be home so badly that he had ignored the growing feeling in the pit of his stomach as he an Nick had ridden home the night before, exchanging quips in the darkness, teasing each other about their prowess with woman, poker, and drink.
He rose to his feet and went down the back stairs, ashamed at his cowardice. He heard Silas humming from the pantry, and quickly stepped out the back door. He had plenty of things to do, and he should be able to keep busy until Nick was up and around. He was sure that it wouldn't take long for his brother to track him down once he was. He smiled a bit at that. It seemed that he could count on his brother to track him down whether he wanted it or not, he thought, recalling the previous night. He headed toward the barn to check on Gal. She had gone the distance for him with no complaints the previous night, but he wanted to be sure that she was doing well. He found her snoozing in her box beside Coco, who seemed to have developed a snore not unlike her master's. Heath snickered to himself and headed out the back door of the bard toward the breaking pens where he knew there were some 2 year olds waiting to be gentled.
Heath had never believed that a horse should be 'broke', preferring instead to gentle them not that he didn't have a lot of experience with riding a bucking horse. Some horses didn't seem to share his idea of a man/horse partnership, and had to be shown who was going to be in charge for most of the time. These two horses had grown up wild, and were not really fond of people. Heath had been working with them…before. He now went back over to the pen where they were being held and climbed up on the top rail. He sat there quietly, and after several minutes, the line-back dun, always the friendlier of the two, came over to sniff at him. After several seconds of consideration it came closer and allowed him to scratch at that itchy spot between its ears.
The other horse, a roan mare of impressive size, stood at the other side of the corral, watching warily trying to pretend it wasn't interested, but Heath noted that the ears kept creeping forward to listen to the low murmur of his voice as he spoke to the dun. The ears would come forward, and then she would sweep them back as if she had been caught listening, only to have them creep forward again. He slid down off the fence into the pen next to the dun, and ran his hand down it's back. It shied for a moment, then came back to enjoy the touch. He ran his hands all up and down its legs. He even got it to let him to lift one hoof off the ground. This horse would be easy to train to saddle. It seemed to like humans, and wasn't frightened. The roan was going to be different. Heath finally sent the dun off with a light slap on its rump. He went to lean on the coral fence about ten feet from the mare, which watched him warily. He was so focused on the horse that he didn't see the slight form in the shadow of the barn, watching him from afar.
Victoria had come out of the house to enjoy the cool morning air. Jarrod was in his office working on a legal brief. Audra and Eugene had gone for a ride, and Victoria had found herself restless. She had gone upstairs and had heard Nick's continued snores. A quick glance at the room next door to Nick's had shown the door still closed. Evidently the confrontation was to be put off for a while. Restless, she had told Silas she was going for a walk around the yard and had gone outside. She had walked around the barns, and had been about to head back to the house when she had seen him. From this distance she couldn't see any details, but she knew it had to be him.
He was tall, though not perhaps as tall as Nick. The sun glinted off blond hair revealed by a tan hat pushed back on his head. She could see he was lean of build though broad shoulders spoke of potential to fill out. She could tell by his walk that he was a horseman, and much to her chagrin, it also told of his heritage. Watching him walk across the corral was like seeing Tom in his prime. A smooth effortless walk that spoke of harnessed power. She watched as he leaned casually against the rails, his eyes on the roan in the corner of the pen. She had passed the pen on previous walks, and had noted that the horses seemed to be nearly wild, not allowing her to approach. He didn't seem to have a problem with the dun, who had wandered off to eat from the hay scattered on one side of the corral. The roan didn't seem as interested in making friends. She watched, as the man seemed to be talking to the horse, and she longed to be close enough to hear his voice, and see his face clearly. From this distance he could have been anyone, but she remained in the shadows. She wanted to meet him in the house; in a place SHE was comfortable. She felt she would need that stability.
She watched, entranced as the roan, evidently having been overcome by curiosity, took a step toward the unmoving man. She tensed as the horse suddenly reared, and came back down with a thump not far from the young man. He didn't move, didn't even seem to notice. She could see he was still talking. The horse took another step closer, and she saw the man put out a hand. The horse seemed to lean away from it at first, but then she sniffed at it. The hand just stayed there, and the man kept talking. THIS was the silent, angry, man that Jarrod had described? For a moment she thought that perhaps she had mistaken a new hand for the man she was trying to think of as her stepson, but then she recalled the walk, and knew she had not done so. After a few more moments the horse took the final step that brought her with in reach of the hand, and it glided carefully up to her forelock and scratched gently. The horse was tense, she could see that from here, but the hand continued to the proud neck, and the shoulder. The horse moved closer as if to allow more access, and the hand continued across the back and rump.
Victoria was about to turn and go back to the house when it happened. A covey of quail, hiding in the bushes near the side of the corral suddenly took it into their heads to fly off with that peculiar 'whirr/coo' sound that they made. The horse, already nervous reared in fear. She saw the man dodge swiftly, flinging himself away from the slashing hooves. He rolled across the dirt of the corral, and came out on the other side of the fence. She saw him start to lift his left hand to calm the horse, but he grabbed it with his right and curled over it as if in pain. She could see that the shirtsleeve was torn, and thought she caught sight of blood on the light blue material. She was starting forward when she saw him tuck the arm against his chest and climb up on the lowest rail. He held his right hand out toward the spooked horse, obviously talking calmly to it.
She watched as the horse paced nervously for a few moments, and then, amazingly went to the man, allowing him to scratch once more at the forelock area. After several minutes of attention the man sent the horse off with a light pat, and climbed down from the fence. She watched as he wrapped the sleeve back around the arm and buttoned the button. Perhaps the wound wasn't bad, he didn't seem to be acting as if he were badly injured. Sensing that soon her presence would be revealed she went through the door and back toward the house, her thoughts stayed with the young man out by the corral.
Thirty minutes later she was sitting in the parlor when Nick came down the stairs. She could hear his spurs jingling as he approached. "Ah, there you are Mother," he said, "Sorry about missing breakfast. Me and Heath rode all night to get here, guess we were both tired out." He looked around the room s if expecting to see someone. "Have uh….Have you met Heath?"
"No. I believe he may be outside. I …saw someone from the barn, out near the breaking pens."
"Yeah that's where he'd be, him and horses. He can't rub two words together when he rides with me, but let him loose with a horse and he's like some gossipy old lady, can't shut him up. I'll go get him, must be almost lunchtime. Maybe we can get this over with, huh?" With typical speed he was out of the room, and the door was slamming before she could reply. She knew he would be stalking toward the breaking pens making plans as he went. Nick was a manager. He saw things that needed to get done, and went about getting it done the quickest way possible, regardless of what might be going on with the parties involved.
Victoria looked up as Jarrod entered the room. "I take it Brother Nick is up and about." He said smiling.
"Yes. He went to get....Heath. I believe he is down by the breaking pens." She replied.
"Good." Jarrod said. "We need to get this over with. I think it's best for everyone." He looked closely at his Mother. "You do understand that we want what is what's best for everyone, don't you? We aren't trying to force Heath down your throat. We, I, know this is difficult for you, more so than we can understand. If it is too much to ask of you, Heath will understand if you don't want him here right now. All we ask is that you try and if it is too much, that you understand that we have come to love him, and that we would like to find an equitable solution that everyone can live with."
She nodded, knowing that he was telling the truth. If she felt she could not live with Heath here, she knew that the young man would go, and his siblings would not resent her for it, though she knew there WOULD be some hard feelings. Somehow she suspected that the most understanding of the parties involved might prove to be her stepson. He, unlike she, had everything to lose. It was hard for her to pinpoint her true feelings regarding the matter since she knew that she had accepted the young man without reservation less than two weeks earlier, but now had only doubts and trepidation at the mere thought of meeting the man.
Both she and Jarrod jumped as the door slammed open and Nick's voice echoed through the house. "Jarrod! Silas! Where is everybody? Dammit, I need help here!"
Jarrod and Victoria rushed into the foyer and both came to stop as they saw Nick, supporting a pale Heath, stumble through the door. One look at the left arm of the pale blue shirt showed the reason why the young man was pale. It was now soaked with blood from just below the elbow to the cuff. Victoria gasped at the sight of the arm, then raised her eyes to the pale face, and gasped again. She put out one hand and supported herself by leaning on the wall. TOM! This boy was the image of Tom in his younger years, the same blond hair, just now starting to darken, the same sky blue eyes, and the same handsome features. He WAS Tom Barkley's son! She could only stand there and stare as Jarrod rushed to the young man's side and reached around to grip his belt, helping Nick to support him with out moving the injured arm.
"What happened Nick?" Jarrod asked as they started toward the stairs. Silas came out of the kitchen and took one look at the scene.
"I'll gets the bandages and sends someone for the doctor right away." He said and disappeared out the still open door.
"He was down at the breaking pens, where we have those two wild mares. You know how he gets in with them, talks to them. Well one of them got excited or something and got him with a hoof. Looks like it's broken. One of the bones is poking through the skin." Nick said as they started up the stairs. The blond man muttered something that Victoria couldn't hear, and she heard Nick snort.
"No I won't blame the horse! Of the two of you she was the smartest. Now shut up and let us get you into bed. Seems like you done nothing but lie around all day one way or the other. Do I have to do all the work around here? This is a working ranch you know." Nick's voice faded as they entered the small room upstairs. Victoria could not take here eyes off the last place she had seen him, this son of her husband.
She turned and went back into the parlor, needing to pull herself together before she did anything. How ironic, that the child he never knew was the child who looked most like him, she thought. The child I didn't bear him. She felt a flash of jealousy that the other woman, Leah, could produce a child in the image of the man they had evidently both loved. Victoria closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. She opened them to find Silas standing before her, his hands filled with bandages, and a concerned look in his eyes.
"You okay Mrs. Barkley? We can have the doctor look at you too if you is feeling poorly." He said. She shook her head and glanced at stairs. Silas followed her gaze then looked back at her. "I knew right away he was Mr. Tom's boy. Ain't no mistakin' that face and those eyes. Like looking back 30 year it was when I first saw him." Silas said in understanding. "He a good boy. Mrs. Barkley. He just wants to have a family to love him. Don't be afraid to take him into your heart, you wasn't before, and you ain't regretted it yet."
With that the old servant turned and left the room, going quietly up the stairs with the bandages. She watched him go, her mind awhirl with thoughts. Finally she shook her head and gathering her skirts went swiftly up the stairs. She would have to work this out later. Right now there was an injured person to deal with. Who he was would have to be put aside. She came into the room to see her sons leaning over the blond man who was sitting on the edge of the bed. As she entered the young man was speaking.
"No Nick! I don't want no bullet to bite on, just cut the shirt off and get it over with. I got another shirt, but the arm I'm kinda fond of. On second thought you maybe oughta give that pig sticker to Jarrod, he's got a fine steady hand." She was amazed as he reached down into his boot and produced a knife that he started to hand to Jarrod, only to have Nick intercept it.
"Oh and I don't? Who dug that splinter outta your hand two weeks ago?"
"I believe it was you Nick, and that's why I was thinkin' that Jarrod would be a better choice. You near took off my thumb."
Nick growled and proceeded to cut the blue shirt off with a few deft slashes of the knife. He tossed the bloody shirt on the floor in the corner, earning him a look from his brother on the bed. "Don't you go messing up my room Nick, I done seen your room before Silas gets to it in the mornin'.
Victoria so far unnoticed in the doorway noticed that the man spoke with a light drawl, and his diction indicated that his schooling had not been extensive. She suspected that it had not been a priority in a life that held many hardships. She moved further into the room as Nick helped the blond lie back on the bed with the injured arm lying across his chest. Jarrod noticed her there and smiled. He stepped back to allow her access to the bed, as if it he expected her to take charge of the situation. She turned from Jarrod to find herself looking into those sky blue eyes, her husband's eyes. For a moment they locked gazes, and she saw in those eyes pain, longing, and wariness, then everything was gone. It was if shutters had been drawn, and she felt strangely bereft.
She shifted her eyes to the arm, and grimaced at the sight of the bone poking through the skin on the outside of the arm. It must be painful, but beyond that brief flash in his eyes, and the whiteness of his face, the young man showed no sign of it. He studied her solemnly, returning her quiet regard, as if waiting for her to make the first move. What had this boy gone through that such a wound elicited no more concern than this? She shifted her eyes from his again, and turned to Silas. "We'll need to stop what bleeding we can now but Paul will have to take care of the break. I don't think we should clean it now, Paul will want to use something, and I believe it would be better if he's had some anesthetic first." She took one of the clean cloths and leaned over to place it gently on the wound. She couldn't apply much pressure, but she hoped that the cloth would help to control the already sluggish bleeding.
"I'm sorry." Came the soft words from the young man, and her eyes went to his face.
"What for?" she asked, marveling again at the resemblance between this young man and Tom. But then Tom had never had such speaking eyes.
"You shouldn't have to tend to me. You shouldn't have to deal with me at all. It would have been better if Nick had just let me go." Was the answer, and she could not doubt his sincerity. This man would not make statements to deceive or to curry favor. She could see that in his eyes.
"And who should tend to you?" she asked, curious as to his answer.
"Don't need any tending. Usually take care of myself just fine. Woulda just gone into town and had the doc fix it up, then no one woulda been put out." He said.
"I found him trying to get a saddle on that horse of his." Nick added in from where he and Jarrod were standing against the wall. "Damn fool was just gonna go into town. Stubborn idiot woulda fell on his face trying to get in the saddle if I hadn't come along and helped him inside."
"Nick, I don't recall askin' for your help. I was doing ok on my own." Heath replied, his eyes flashing blue fire. Oh, how Victoria remembered that flash in Tom's eyes when he was angry.
"It's part of being a family that you don't have to ask, Heath." Soothed Jarrod. He was interrupted by a call from down the stairs.
'Hello, anyone here?" It was Paul Merar.
"Up here Doc." Bellowed Nick as everyone else flinched.
"Nicholas! Please do not yell in the house." Instructed his mother.
Paul Merar was quickly there in the doorway. "Hello. I ran into your hand on my way from the Hanson's. He said there was some sort of problem with Heath." He strode across to the bed, and moved in as Victoria stepped back. She found herself strangely reluctant to move from the young man's side. She noticed that Paul was glancing at her with concern, and gave him a small smile. He turned his attention to Heath. "Well young man. I see you broke the arm. Is there anything else that you would like to share with me, or is that the extent of the damage?" He seemed to Victoria to be in a jocular mood, given the severity of the wound, but she said nothing.
"That's it doc. The bruises you can't do nothin' about anyways so they ain't worth looking at." Heath replied.
"Well, since you are rapidly becoming my best patient, I'll take your word for it until it proves out differently." He gently probed the arm, noting the tightening of the jaw when he touched near the wound. He nodded to himself. "The break itself, outside of the penetration of the skin, is clean. I'll have to operate to return the bone back into place. Silas, you've helped with that before I believe. You can assist me. The rest of you can wait outside." He started to turn back when Victoria spoke.
"I will be staying also." Everyone, including the man on the bed looked at her. "You will need someone to hold a lantern for better light, and someone to hand you your instruments. I have done it as often as Silas."
"Victoria…." Merar started only to stop as she turned her eyes to him. "As you say."
"Mother, don't you think…" She turned her eyes to Jarrod who also stopped in midsentence, shrugging. He led Nick, who winked at Victoria without a word, out of the room. When the door had closed behind them she went to the bureau where she lit the oil lamp that was there, and brought it over to the bed.
"Anything from you young man?" Merar asked Heath who had watched everything with a faint twinkle in his eyes.
Heath snorted and shook his head. "I already got one bad arm doc, I ain't goin' for more problems. Just get it over with." Merar and Silas exchanged smiles, while Victoria shook her head at them all. It was certainly a lot of fuss over her doing what she would do for anyone.
But he's not just anyone, is he? Her heart said. She looked up to see the clear blue eyes on her again, giving away nothing, but seeing so much. So like Tom, yet so different. Tom had never been this closed in. As with Nick, what Tom felt you knew about, good or bad. She found herself wanting to know what was behind those eyes. She watched as Merar administered the ether, and the blue eyes fluttered closed.
As the doctor prepared to take care of the arm, Victoria studied the unconscious face of the man who was her husband's son. She acknowledged that fact to herself though she had harbored no thoughts that he might not be once she had understood that everyone in the family had welcomed him. They had reasons, and since they could not have known how much he resembled their father so many years ago, they had to be good ones. She noticed that the relaxed face of the young man now seemed years younger. Without the shuttered eyes he was simply a handsome young man who resembled Tom Barkley. Now, she could see the small differences that differentiated him from Tom: the curve of his jaw, the bump in his nose that spoke of having been broken at least once, the sweep of his hair, a man unto himself, to be taken as such and no more.
Perhaps that was the best way to approach this. Not as this man being Tom Barkley's son, but simply as Heath Barkley, a man in his own right, having his own character, his own history, and his own place in this family. It was something to think about.
It had been four days since Dr. Merar had repaired Heath's arm, leaving it in a cast and with a sling that he had told Heath to use without fail, that is once he got out of bed in a day or two. Victoria had assured Merar that his orders would be followed, wondering at the smiles exchanged by her children who had all gathered to hear the verdict. She had found out what those smiles meant later that afternoon when she had caught Heath in the hallway, halfway back to his room from the bathroom with no sling. How he had gotten into his pants and the now sleeveless shirt she wasn't sure. She had been the recipient of a charmingly crooked smile and bland blue eyes as the boy had retreated back to his room. Later that evening as the family was sitting down to dinner, Silas having volunteered to take a tray up to Heath, the man in question had come through the door, prompt if pale, and had taken his seat at Victoria's right. He had been quiet, picking at his food, and listening to his siblings talk. Victoria found herself acting similarly. He had finished before everyone else, eating too little as far as Victoria was concerned, and had asked to be excused. Victoria had caught Nick's muttered comment to Jarrod about 'having to tie the boy down in his coffin comes the time to bury him.' She pretended not to hear as she sipped her after dinner coffee. She was amused that shortly thereafter Nick had excused himself and disappeared up the stairs to check on his brother.
Over the next two days she had watched as this young man interacted with her children. She came to realize that the man had built a different relationship with each of his siblings. With Audra he was the perfect sounding board. She prattled on for hours about her work at the orphanage, and he seemed to actually listen, either asking questions or making comments at the correct times. That she adored the young man was equally obvious. He was unlike any of her other brothers. Jarrod often simply tuned her out, Nick tended to just walk away, and Eugene would listen for a short time then cut her off. Perhaps it was the fact that the two were the only ones with the coloring of the Barkley side of the family, perhaps it was because of Audra's loving nature, or perhaps it was because it was obvious that Heath adored his little sister, treating her both as the young lady she wanted to be, and the tom boy she still was at times. It was easy to see that they genuinely enjoyed each other's company.
With Eugene, Heath was a brother closer in age, and more willing to listen to the problems of a young man finding his way in the world. His eldest brothers were strong personalities that tended to overwhelm his own. He sometimes felt when he was with them that he had to conform to their expectations, to become just like they were, in order to stay in their good books. With Heath he had found a man, with a strong personality of his own, who had no problem letting Eugene be whomever he wanted to be. Gene could talk about his academics, women, poker, horses, just about anything and Health would actually ask his opinion instead of trying to give him one. He really appreciated that. Victoria noted that the two could sometimes be found simply sitting quietly reading books.
Heath's relationship with Jarrod was a two-sided coin. It was obvious from how they talked to each other that Heath had every respect for Jarrod as a man and a lawyer. He had no problem with Jarrod's obvious superior education, and Victoria had even heard Heath asking Jarrod for the definition of a word in one of the books he was reading. Nick would rather never know what a word meant than ask. He would have felt it gave Jarrod too much satisfaction, even if it wasn't so. But as much as Heath looked up to Jarrod, Victoria could see that Jarrod valued Heath's knowledge as well. Jarrod was working on a case of a man injured in a logging camp. The man was saying that the logging company had been negligent in maintaining their equipment, thus causing his injury, a permanent disability. Jarrod, though familiar with logging because of their own holdings, had little working knowledge of a lumber camp and the machinery there. It seemed that Heath had worked in the camps, and Jarrod had been asking him a series of questions, and had listened to every word, obviously respecting his brother's grasp of the subject. Mutual respect.
It was his relationship with Nick that revealed the most to Victoria about the character of this new member of their family. That Heath was the little brother that Nick had always wanted was obvious from the beginning, and that this new brother was firmly in Nick's large heart was a given. What Victoria hadn't expected was Heath's obvious love and devotion for Nick. She could see it in the twinkle in his eyes when he was tormenting Nick with his quietness. When he was talking quietly with his brother about something that they had planned on the ranch she could see the deference in Heath's attitude, that came not from fear, but from a sincere respect for the other man's ideas. Nick was the perfect big brother as far as Heath was concerned she was sure. She had caught the two sneaking out on the third morning, just before sunrise, Heath's sling abandoned somewhere, with biscuits stolen from Silas's kitchen in hand. The two had looked like boys caught in the act, and had stammered out an excuse, building on each other's words until she had simply waved them out in frustration. Nick, usually gone from breakfast to dinner suddenly found numerous reasons to make appearances at the house, and without fail ended up tracking down his brother for a short talk about this or that problem on the ranch. It had been both amusing and instructional to Victoria.
The one relationship she couldn't quite pin down was hers with Heath. He had treated her with respect, and had made himself as unobtrusive as was possible when two people lived in the same house. At first she had found his quiet presence unnerving thinking that he was holding back on her account, but had quickly come to the conclusion that he simply had no use for idle chat. He interacted with his siblings in a simple quiet way, and they accepted him as such, so she did as well. She had many questions, about his life, his mother, about what he knew of his father, but she was hesitant to ask. She sensed that Tom Barkley was a subject that he was not comfortable with, and she could understand that. She had found herself, over the last several days, wanting to find that comfortable spot with this man that her children said she had reached before. She was convinced that since she had done it once, she could do it again. She just had to find that common ground once more. What frustrated her was how to do it.
She rose from the chair she was sitting in, and went to the window, rubbing at her brow. She had a terrible headache that had been with her most of the day. She looked out the window, observing that the late spring storm that had been threatening to move in since last night had done so, and the sky was a leaden gray. The temperature had dropped precipitously, and the previous warm spring days might not have existed. She pulled her shawl around her and went to feed another log on the fire. Only she and Heath were in the house. Jarrod had gone into town, taking Eugene and Audra with him. Silas had taken the wagon to the orphanage with some supplies that they had needed. Nick was of course out on the ranch. She almost fell forward into the fire as her headache seemed to flare, and she was only saved from at the very least a bad burn by a strong arm around her waist bringing her back to her feet.
She knew who it was even before the soft drawl came to her ear "Ma'am are you all right?" She could hear the concern in the question, and allowed herself to slump against the strong chest, as she would have with one of her own sons. She felt…safe. She rubbed at her brow again trying to ease the ache. She found herself suddenly lifted into the air and carried to the settee, where she was put down with infinite care. She could hear the drawl from a long way away, and she closed her eyes against the suddenly too bright light. "Ma'am I'm going for the wagon. I'll get you into town as soon as possible."
She opened her eyes to see the wavy form of Heath starting for the door, and she fought aside the pain for a moment to speak. "Heath Barkley…No son of mine is going out in this weather without his coat. Get your sheepskin coat before you go." Her strength left her as she finished, and she closed her eyes and started to sink into the blackness. As she did she thought she heard a voice calling after her…
"Mrs. Barkley…. Ma'am…Mother!?"
Heath knelt by the settee, calling to the woman who had come to be a second mother to him. He called to her but there was no response. He couldn't rouse her. He started out the door to get the wagon, and then remembered that Silas had the carriage, Jarrod had taken the surrey this morning along with Eugene and Audra, and Nick was using the buckboard for supplies. He would have to take her on a horse. He had no choice. He went to the barn and with some difficulty got his saddle on Gal. The strong little horse would have no trouble with the added weight of Victoria Barkley. He led her to the hitch rail in front of the house, letting her stand ground tied there as he went inside. He would need some blankets for the unconscious woman. It had become quite cold, as the storm had moved in. He ran upstairs and into this room, quickly stripping the blanket off his bed and grabbing the extra one out of the closet. He was about to head back downstairs when his eye fell on his coat.
Her words before she passed out echoed through his mind. "No son of mine is going out in weather like this with out a coat…." Did that mean her memory had returned? Had she been confused, thinking it was one of the others with her? Knowing that speculation would get him nowhere he headed downstairs. He couldn't get the cast inside the arm of the coat, and he certainly wasn't taking a knife to it. He'd rather cut off his arm then destroy her gift. He did grab his rain slicker off the peg to the side though.
Downstairs he wrapped the still form in the blankets, then the oiled slicker and then awkwardly lifted her in his arms. His left arm screamed in agony at the weight, but he ignored it as he had ignored pain before. Pain was something that could be easily ignored if you know how he had found. You simply turned your mind to something else. In this case he turned his mind to what he had to do. He needed to get Mrs. Barkley into town, into the hands of the doctor who could help her. It was incredibly difficult getting on the horse with his burden, but after a fashion he managed it. He thanked God for the steady little horse that allowed him to do so with out shying or casting more than a puzzled glance his way.
He gathered the reins and started toward town. He had debated the route he would take. The road would be easiest, but not fastest. If he cut across the north pasture, he would not only save time, there was the possibility that he might run into Nick making another pilgrimage to the house. He made the decision and cut across the fields. He glanced at the face of the blanket wrapped woman, seeing no sign of her awakening. He figured she should be warm enough in the blankets, but he made sure they were close against her. He noticed there was a slight sprinkle starting to fall. That wasn't good. While he didn't mind getting wet, and the slicker should protect the woman until they reached town, his cast would probably not fare as well. He was using the left hand to hold the reins since Gal would respond to leg pressure for guidance just as easily as neck reining. He couldn't support his passenger with his left arm he knew, so there would be no protection for it. Even as he thought about it, the rain started in earnest, pouring down in buckets. Gal snorted her displeasure at being caught out in the storm.
"You're getting soft Gal, if you're gonna give me a hard time about a little bit of rain. Gonna have to start leaving you out in the corral instead of that comfy stall. You're getting as spoiled as Jingo and Coco are." he spoke to her, watching her ears twitch, and smiling as she shook her head as if refuting the idea. "Ok, but no more complainin'."
They rode on in silence for several minutes the rain not slacking at all. Heath looked at his cast and saw that the surface was soaked, and the plaster was starting to feel heavier and heavier. The doc was gonna chew him up one side and down the other when he saw that. He sighed. There wasn't much to be done now. He squinted through the rain sure that he had seen movement ahead. Out of the murk came five men on horses, and he instantly recognized Nick on Coco. Nick evidently recognized Heath shortly there after, because he heard the man start cursing.
Nick and the others were all in their slickers, on the way back to the ranch having abandoned their fencing project for the day. There was only so much you could do in a deluge. Nick had looked forward to a quiet afternoon with his brother, maybe getting in some poker or a game of checkers in front of a warm fire. He missed having Heath at his side, and was looking forward to having the man back in action soon. He knew that Heath would soon be out and working even with the cast. He was contemplating what effects this late storm would have on the various crops when a lone horseman seemed to appear out of the mist. He recognized the Modoc mare immediately, though he had a hard time recognizing the rider until he was closer. Heath seemed to be carrying something wrapped in a slicker across his lap. Nick could see the white cast, uncovered in the rain, and he cursed out loud.
He put the spurs to Coco, leaving the rest of the men behind and approaching his brother as quickly as possible. Heath pulled up as Nick reined Coco in, and the rancher could see that he brother was soaked to the skin. He still couldn't figure out what Heath had across his lap. It looked like a slicker wrapped around some blankets. But why would his injured brother be out in the rain, with no coat, carrying blankets? He was going to sure as hell find out!
"What in hell are you doing out here? You may have noticed that it's raining and cold. Maybe if you were wearing that slicker instead of carrying it…" he broke off as he caught sight of his brother's eyes. There was fear in the clear blue depths. What was going on? "Heath?" he asked.
Heath shook his head, "I didn't know what else to do Nick. She almost fell in the fire and I could tell her head was hurtin her real bad. She passed out and wouldn't answer me so I knew I had to get her to town. Weren't no one around and all the wagons was gone so I just loaded her on Gal and started into town. I was hopin to run into you. You can come along." The fact that his normally silent brother was rattling on like Audra chilled Nick's heart. He guided Coco next to the Modoc and reached down to move the blanket aside. His mother's pale face was all he needed to see. He swore under his breath and turned Coco to face the approaching cowhands.
"Get back to the ranch. We're taking my mother into town to the Doc." He said succinctly and then turned, expecting to take the blanket wrapped form from his brother only to find that Heath was already moving on toward town. Nick shook his head at the stubbornness, and went after him. Gal was moving at a good trot, and Coco quickly caught up. "I can take her now." He said, wanting to do something besides just ride along side. The blond cowboy shook his head and didn't pull up.
"Ain't that far, I got her. No need to disturb her. She seems to be ok, just not awake." He said, without glancing at his brother. Nick grumbled under his breath and Heath looked at him with a crooked grin. "I don't think your mama would approve of that kinda language was she feelin' better. You best clean up your mouth boy or she'll take after you with her spoon." He teased.
"I've heard you say worse." Nick muttered, only to be met by innocent eyes. He swore again. They rode the rest of the way into town in silence. Nick casting anxious eyes not only at his mother, but at the quickly disintegrating cast on his brother's left arm. That wasn't good at all. The were heading down the street toward the doctor's house when Nick spotted Audra and Eugene, who had his arms full of boxes, on the sidewalk. They spotted their two brothers at the same time, and both stared in confusion at the sight. Nick spurred Coco over to the sidewalk, while Heath kept going.
"Gene, dump those boxes over at Jarrod's office. If he's there bring him down to the doctor's office, if he's not, find him. Audra you come along with me." Audra's eyes were huge and confused, as she looked after Heath's retreating form, but she stepped forward and held her arms up to Nick. He leant down and swept her up to sit across his lap. Her pelisse would be wet, but he didn't care. He looked down at Gene, still standing there, staring after Heath, as he turned Coco. "Get moving Gene!" he barked and spurred after his brother at a gallop, his little sister moved with him like the horsewoman that she was, easing the burden on the horse. He felt his heart swell with pride. What a family he had!
They were there at the house as Heath was pulling up. Nick quickly lowered Audra to the ground, and swung down to lift the still bundle from his brother. As he headed toward the front door of the house he caught a glance of Audra, steadying Heath's stirrup so he could dismount easily with his one arm, and heard her scolding him about being so wet. He grinned a little at that. He mounted the porch to the house and kicked at the door. "DOC!" he bellowed, "Hey Doc!"
Merar opened the door, his eyes amused, but they quickly got serious as they saw Nick with the bundle of blankets, the soaked Heath coming up behind him, and the anxious Audra bringing up the rear. He waved toward his examining room and followed Nick in. His wife was there too, coming to see what the commotion was. He rapidly unwrapped Victoria, noting that she appeared unconscious. He turned to her children, casting a glare at Heath's ragged and soaked cast. Not even in a sling he noticed. "What happened?"
Heath recounted what he had seen, and Audra added that her mother had mentioned a slight headache that morning before she insisted that Audra and Eugene went ahead with the shopping as planned. Nick added that Heath had brought her in on his horse as soon as possible. Merar nodded, then motioned them all out of the room. "I'll let you know as soon as possible." He pointed at Heath. "You. Get dried off and sit down. I want that arm supported as much as possible. I'll take a look at you as soon as I finish with Victoria." He closed the door to the room, leaving the three to stand in the outer room staring at each other.
"You figure I got any chance of explaining this to him so's he won't kill me." Heath said nodding his head at the cast. The other two could see that it was obviously just barely staying on his arm. Nick shook his head.
"Nope" he said cheerfully. "I think you're done for. We'll give your horse to some kid for a pony so don't worry about her." Audra laughed at the frown that her blond brother shot his brother. She wrapped one hand through his other arm and led him toward the second examining room. She knew where the towels were kept, and she figured if she was with him, then Heath would take better care of himself than he had so far.
Heath allowed her to lead him away, listen to her gentle scolding again, as Nick pulled off his slicker and sat down in one of the chairs. He rubbed his brow. It was turning into a heck of a day.
It was almost an hour later before Merar emerged form the examination room. Jarrod and Eugene had arrived and had joined their sibling in the waiting room. Heath, drier, but still damp was sitting in one chair his arm propped up on a pillow at the insistence of his sister who sat beside him, his other hand in hers. It struck Merar as he saw them side by side, Heath paler than usual because of his injury no doubt, just how similar the two were. They could almost be twins, until you looked into the world wise eyes of the young man, and you knew that the innocence that was still in his sister's eyes had been taken from him many years before.
He smiled a little to ease the fear he saw in the eyes of each of the Barkley children. "She's fine. In fact she's better than she has been for the last several weeks." He said putting their fears to rest immediately. "She woke up about 20 minutes ago, still with a headache but feeling better. She remembers everything now, except for the events of the day of her accident. I believe that might be permanently gone. She's gone back to sleep for now which is the best thing for her." He smiled as the Barkley men slapped each other's backs, and Audra hugged her blond brother, wiping tears from her eyes. "Audra, you may sit with her until she wakes, but I believe it may be a few hours." The young blond woman nodded and after hugging each of her brothers in turn she entered the examining room. Merar turned his attention to the young man who was still sitting on the couch. "You, young man, follow me." He hid his amusement as Heath cast a despairing glance at his brothers who smiled and waved him on. They went into the 2nd examination room, and Merar firmly closed the door on the advancing Nick who had evidently decided to join his younger brother at the last minute.
Nick grumbled as Merar shut the door in his face, and turned to find his brothers smiling at him. "Yeah, well he won't be complaining about you two not covering his back with the doc. I gotta listen to it all the time."
Jarrod clapped Eugene on the back and went to stand near Nick. "Yes, Brother Nick. I can see how having Heath around all the time is a great burden to you. In appreciation Gene and I will treat you to lunch and a drink, how about that?" His blue eyes twinkled. Eugene was grinning from ear to ear, and Nick couldn't help but add his usual brilliant smile to the collection. He pounded Jarrod on the back vigorously.
"It's about time someone paid instead of me." Nick said, and led the way to the door. "Let me tell you that brother of ours has more ways of getting a man to pay for a beer then Coco has hair…" they disappeared toward the diner.Epilog
The family had decided to take advantage of the now nice weather to enjoy a picnic on the Sunday afternoon following the storm. Silas had packed a delicious lunch; with way more food than was necessary even with Nick and Heath's usual appetites. They had all eaten until they were stuffed, and now were all recovering. Nick and Jarrod were unashamedly sleeping under a large oak tree, their twin snores bringing much amusement to their younger siblings. Eugene and Audra had decided on a walk around the small lake they had chosen for the spot to picnic, leaving Heath and Victoria sitting on the blanket they had spread on the ground, looking over the placid water of the lake.
They had not spoken of the events of the last month, both preferring to simply move on with the development of their relationship. Victoria had thought long and hard about her responses when she had been amnesiac. She was satisfied that she had not managed to damage her relationship with this new son of hers, for she had come to think of him as such. She regretted that he had left, knowing how it had hurt him to do so, but grateful that Nick had gone after him and brought him back. It would have not have been the same without him, and upon examination, she felt that even if she had not gotten her memory back she would have wanted him to stay. As Audra had said, he was not a man that was easy to know, but then neither had Tom been at first. As they had grown together she had come to know him as she knew herself. She did enjoy the challenge of getting to know this part of her husband, this man who was her son as well as his.
She finished the last of the lemonade in her glass and was going to get some more when Heath spoke softly from the other side of the blanket. "Would you like some more Mrs. Barkley?" He had the pitcher in his good hand. Victoria had very firmly suggested that he wear the sling, and he had complied so far. Though she didn't mention that she had seen him ride in with Nick yesterday with the sling hanging empty around his neck. She held out the glass and he filled it. She sipped, and set the glass down. She then turned to him.
"I believe that you called me something else several days ago. I find that I much prefer that form of address. Please use it from now on."
The blue eyes looking at her were puzzled; he obviously didn't know what she was referring to. She took pity on him and refreshed his memory. "The day of the storm, when I was ill. You called me Mother. I much prefer it to Mrs. Barkley or heaven forbid, Ma'am. I would like you to use it from now on, unless you have an objection to my being referred to as your mother." As she finished she saw the quiet joy in the blue eyes, and the love. He smiled at her, and reached over to take her hand in his rough, callused hand.
"No son of yours could ever object to having you for a mother….. Thank you." He said, giving her the first full smile she had ever seen. He quickly ducked his head and looked away toward the lake, obviously uncomfortable with the emotions.
She patted the hand in hers, and turned back to look at the lake herself. They sat hand in hand, watching the wind move over the lake, and enjoying the love that was in their hearts.