The next two days were repeats of Tuesday, only Heath began rising before dawn so he wouldn’t encounter any of his family members at the breakfast table. How much he was eating, or even if he was eating at all, Victoria wasn’t certain. All she knew as that when he returned home each night after nine o’clock he looked exhausted, depressed, and sick. Nick tried to talk to him Thursday evening, but that simply turned into a shouting match that Jarrod had to finally put an end to. As Jarrod led Nick from Heath’s room and down the stairs the dark headed cowboy raked a frustrated hand through his hair.
“What the hell am I going to do with him?”
“Well, judging by the hollering the ladies
and I could hear all the way in the study I’d say forbidding him to work isn’t
“It might not be the answer, but anyone with two eyes can see he’s got no business leaving his bed. He can’t possibly be eating, Jarrod, or at least not much because the weight is melting off of him as we speak.”
“So I’ve seen. Mother and Audra have noticed it, too.”
“I’m more than half tempted to tie him to
that bed tonight. Then we’ll see how
far he gets in the morning.”
“I think Mother’s half tempted, too, but you know as well I do that’s not the answer.”
“Then what is the answer?”
Jarrod shook his head. “I wish I knew, Nick. I wish I knew.”
Heath Barkley rode into Stockton at noon on Friday. The quarantine was lifted on Wednesday as Jake Sheridan said it would be. Jarrod had returned to work on that day, though not before pausing at the graveyard first to pay his respects to the many who had lost their lives during the epidemic.
Heath knew the noon hour would find Stockton’s streets deserted for the most part. Many of the businesses closed down for an hour so the proprietors could go home for lunch. Like Jarrod had Wednesday, Heath stopped when he came to Stockton’s cemetery. He climbed off Charger, looping the horse’s reins around a post of the black iron fence. He removed his hat and hung it over his saddle horn.
There was no one present when the blond man slowly walked to the vast area of ground that held fresh graves. The old trees towering above Heath seemed to be offering their own version of mourning as their leaves rustled softly in the summer breeze. A tear escaped Heath’s right eye as he counted the mounds of dirt. His heart wouldn’t allow him to continue when he reached eighty.
Heath heard someone walking up behind him. He glanced at the man but didn’t recognize him. He felt the stranger stop beside him.
“You’re Heath Barkley, aren’t you?”
Heath nodded his head.
“I’m Halden Whitcomb.”
Again, Heath nodded.
The man pointed to the graves in front of them. “And these here are my children. Neil, Grace, and Emma. It’s because of you they’re dead. Because your rich papa wasn’t satisfied with one woman so he had to go lookin’ for another until he found your whore of a mama. You’re a product of sin and God punishes your kind! I just don’t understand why He had to punish my children, too!” Mr. Whitcomb dropped to his knees as sobs overtook him. “Why? Just tell me why God punished my babies because of someone like you.”
Heath stared down at the grieving man and felt like he was watching him through a long, dark tunnel. The sun was burning too hot on his head, and he was suddenly so weak he didn’t think his knees would hold him up.
The cowboy bolted for Charger. He grabbed onto the saddle just as his legs gave away. He stood there a long time, breathing hard and smelling warm leather. When he finally felt strong enough Heath slithered onto Charger. He refused to look back at the graveyard, but he knew Halden Whitcomb was still there. Heath could hear the man’s cries for his dead children as he headed down Main Street.
Jarrod returned to his office shortly before one p.m. after having dined with some associates at the Cattlemen’s Hotel. His secretary entered five minutes later.
“I’m back, Mr. Barkley!” The woman called from the outer office.
“Karen, when you get settled will you please come in here. I need to dictate two letters.”
Within seconds Karen entered the room with notebook and pencil in hand. As she sat down she said, “I saw Heath a little while ago.”
“Yes. He’s very thin, Mr. Barkley. So thin and so pale. If you want my opinion he has no business being out of bed yet.”
Jarrod smiled. “Believe me, Karen, my mother’s opinion concurs with yours. However; Heath’s opinion seems to differ. Where did you see him?”
“He was standing in the graveyard.”
“In the graveyard?”
“Yes. I was going to stop and say hello, but then with all the deaths that have occurred in the past two weeks I thought maybe he was paying his respects to a friend so I decided not to disturb him.”
Jarrod headed for the door and grabbed his hat off the rack.
“Karen, forget that dictation for now. I left the mail on your desk. Please go through it and answer any necessary correspondence for me. If I’m not back by three close up the office and call it a day.”
Before the woman had a chance to ask her boss any further questions he was gone.
Jarrod searched most of Stockton for Heath until he finally spotted Charger outside of Big John’s. The saloon was a favorite hangout of Nick and Heath’s. If they came to town for any reason it wasn’t unusual for them to stop off here for a cold beer.
The lawyer pushed against the swinging half-doors. He spotted a couple cowboys from the Circle V ranch at one table, and a lone man he didn’t know at another. The saloon’s proprietor, John Wesley Briggs, lived up to his nickname. At six foot six and three hundred and ninety pounds he had the girth of a grizzly bear. His rust colored beard and thick red hair only enhanced that comparison.
Jarrod picked up the beer John poured
him. He kept his voice low when he
said, “I’m looking for Heath. Have you seen him?”
John pointed to a room at the back of the
saloon. “He bought two bottles of
whiskey about an hour ago and has been in there ever since. It’s not like Heath to drink so much. I was gonna come get you in a little while
if I couldn’t convince him to head on home.”
Jarrod paid for his beer and added a handsome tip. “Thanks, John. I appreciate your concern.”
The room Big John pointed to was normally used for private poker games on Friday and Saturday nights. It was the size of Heath’s bedroom at home, and decorated with nothing more than a round table and a smattering of chairs.
Jarrod entered the room and closed the door behind him. He paused a moment and studied the man seated at the table. Heath’s hat had been tossed on a nearby chair. Without its wide brim shading his forehead one could easily see the evidence of Jim Garver’s fists. An empty whiskey bottle had been pushed off to one side, and Heath was pouring a shot from the second bottle that was quickly on its way to being empty.
That’s a hell of a lot of liquor to consume in an hour’s time, Brother Heath. I dare say you won’t be feeling too good come tomorrow morning.
Jarrod pulled out the chair to the right of his sibling and seated himself.
“Mind if I sit down?”
Heath looked up for the first time. A silly grin spread across his bruised face. “Jarrod, ya’ know somethin’. Sometimez, without even tryin’, you’re one helluva funny guy.”
“Oh I am, huh?”
“Yeah. Like juz now. You asked...you asked if you could sit down, but you waz already sittin’.” Heath shook his head and laughed. “Like I said, funny. Funny, funny, funny.”
Jarrod sat back in his chair and took a long sip of beer.
Brother Heath, what brings you to Stockton today?”
“Had to visit me some friends.”
The slight drawl Heath normally possessed that he’d picked up from his Southern born mother, was now coming through as strong as if he’d been raised in the heart of Dixie.
“Yep. Came to pay my repect...repent...repast...my respect...respect, thaz a hard word to say when you’re drunk, ya’ know that?”
I didn’t know that.”
“Well, take it from ole’ Heath, it is. Anyway...” Heath stared at the lawyer.
“What’d you ask me?”
“I asked what brings you to Stockton today.”
Well see, Brother Jarrod...I hope you don’t mind me connin’ your
“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘coining’, as opposed to conning.”
“Oh. I guezz you could be right. After all, you’re the lawyer and good with them fancy words and such. Anyway, I came to Stockton to pay my respects to my friends.”
“No, you don’t.” Heath’s speech was slurred but slow, making the words easy for
Jarrod to understand. “I can tell by
the look on yer face you ain’t got a fiddly doggone notion as to what it is I’m
talkin’ about. You know what yer
problem is, Jarrod?”
“No, but I suppose you’re going to tell me.”
“Sure am. Yer problem is you’re too polite. ‘Cause if you waz more like Nick, who ain’t polite at all more often than not, you wouldn’t be pretendin’ to know what I’m sayin’.”
Jarrod watched as Heath poured himself another drink and downed it in one swallow. He’d never seen the blond man drunk in all the years Heath had lived with them. Heath could hold his liquor and knew his limits. He’d told Jarrod one time that any fun he’d once gotten out of drinking in excess ended when he was twenty and working at an Oregon lumber camp. An inebriated logger lost both an arm and a leg in an accident caused by his own drunken hand. From that point on Heath told Jarrod he’d had a healthy respect for alcohol and never drank to the point it impaired his thoughts or judgment.
Until today evidently.
“Okay, Heath. Then why don’t I quit pretending to be polite, and just come right out and ask you what you mean when you say you came to town to pay your respects to your friends?”
“I just did.”
Heath thought a long minute, took another drink, then thought again.
“What waz the question?”
Jarrod took a deep internal breath. “Why did you come--”
Heath started laughing a drunken, silly laugh that was unfamiliar to his brother.
was juz joshin’ ya’, Jarrod. See, I can
be a funny guy, too. Now, the answer to
your question is...I came to pay my respects to the people I killed.”
“I guezz a person can’t really call ‘em my friends. I suppose I don’t even know a lotta of ‘em. But Mr. Whitcomb...he waz there and he told me I killed his children. Neil...and Grace...and Emily...no, thaz wrong. Emma. Her name was Emma. So I reckon now if I know their names that makes ‘em my friends. But they can’t be my friends for long ‘cause Mr. Whitcomb was mad that I took his babies from ‘em. Course that came as no surprise to him ‘cause I’m a product of sin, ya’ know. Thaz what he said. He announced it to the whole entire graveyard, he did, though I don’t ‘spect anyone heard ‘em cause all those in attendance was already layin’ down and restin’ in peace, as the sayin’ goes. But hell, whaz that guy take me for, some kinda’ fool? I already know I’m a product of sin. Been told that damn near all my life.”
Heath poured himself another glass of whiskey. Jarrod pushed the bottle aside, hoping if his brother had to reach very far for it he’d leave it be.
“Heath, please. You’ve had enough. Let me take you to my office and we’ll talk.”
Heath sat back in his chair and shook an unsteady finger at is
brother. “Talk, talk, talk. Thaz all you Barkleys do. Howdy boy, I...” Heath laughed again. “Did you hear that, Jarrod? I said howdy boy when I meant to say boy
“I heard it.”
“I kinda like it, though. How ‘bout you? Kinda gives a new twist to an old ex...ex...ex...”
Expression. Thaz another hard
word to say when a body’s half looped.
Anyway, I don’t wanna talk. You
people do enough talkin’ to last me a lifetime. When I first came to stay with ya’ all, I wondered on some days
if any of ya’ ever shut up.”
“Yes, I suppose you did.” Jarrod smiled as he thought of how quiet Heath had been back then. Not that one would consider him a talkative man now...or at least not when he was sober, but he’d sure come a long way in learning to contribute to a conversation during the three and half years he’d been with them.
“Especially Nick,” Heath went on to say. “Blah, blah, blah. I wonder if he knows that more often than not when he gits goin’ real long-winded like, and is wavin’ his fists in the air like a crazy man, all I hear is blah, blah, blah. Whatever he’s really sayin’ I juz tune right out.”
“I don’t blame you. Sometimes I do the same thing myself.”
Heath groped for the liquor bottle. Without pouring another drop in his glass he took a long swig. “But now unerstand this, I don’t mean to sound ungraceful.”
“Thaz what I said. Ungraceful. ‘Cause I ain’t ungraceful, ya’ know.”
“I know that, Heath. We all know that.”
“I’m pissed as hell, though. Pissed at all of you for keepin’ secrets from me. I wanna tell your mother that, but when I do I won’t use the word pissed in front of her.”
“Thank you. I’m sure Mother will appreciate your thoughtfulness.”
Heath slouched in his chair, cradling the liquor bottled against his chest and staring at the smooth surface of the table. “She’s a good woman, yer mother. I waz like a wild stallion when I came to your place. Unbroken and untamed. Didn’t think any woman had it in her to gentle me. But yer mama did. Your mama...well now she surely did.”
Jarrod found it ironic that Heath would use that particular analogy. His mother had said almost the same exact words to Jarrod one time when she told him, “Heath was like a skittish stallion that simply needed a little gentling. A little gentling and a lot of love. Underneath all that anger I saw a first place winner, Jarrod. A first place winner just like all Tom Barkley’s children.”
The lawyer patted Heath’s elbow until Heath made eye contact with him.
“And Mother thought you were a prize, Brother Heath. She saw the person you could be from the very first day you walked onto the ranch. Now, speaking of our mother, what do you say we head home?”
“She’s not my mother.”
“Nick. He made that clear the other night. She’s not my mother.”
“Heath, Nick never said anything like that to you. At least not that I’m aware of.”
“Yez he did. He said...he said...let me think a minute ‘cause I mighta’ tuned him out. No...no wait. I didn’t tune him out ‘cause what he said was too important. He said I wasn’t to talk to his mother that way. His mother. Not our mother. His mother. Your mother. I don’t have a mother, you know. Nor a father either. I’m an orphan.”
Jarrod could see this was going to rapidly turn into a pity party he had no intention of participating in.
you’re being ridiculous. You’re not an
orphan. You have three brothers and one
sister, which completely eradicates the definition of orphan in my opinion. You
have a family, Heath. A family that cares about you very much.”
As quick as Heath’s morose mood came it left him. “Eeeeeeeradicates. Howdy boy, I sure do like it when you use them big words.”
“And another thing,” Jarrod stated while ignoring his brother and barely pausing to take a breath, “what Nick said to you he would have said to any of us who were speaking to Mother in the tone you were using. He was simply letting you know you needed to back off a bit and give yourself time to cool down before you said something you’d come to regret.”
“No, no, no,” Heath shook his head. “He said his mother. I know what he meant, Jarrod. And what the hell, I don’t blame him none. I can pretend Victoria Barkley is my mother, I can tell people Victoria Barkley is my mother, but let’s face it. It just ain’t so no matter how much I might want it to be.”
“And do you plan to tell Victoria Barkley that?”
Heath looked at his brother with a dull, drunken haze to his eyes. “Huh?”
“Do you plan to tell our mother what
you just said?”
“No. Ain’t got no reason to.”
“Well, I wish you would because I think she’d set you straight on a number of issues where that’s concerned.”
“She’d juz lie to me. Juz like she did when I waz sick. She’d juz say what she thinks I wanna hear. But no matter. I’m tough. I can take it. I been hurt so much in my life by people, and by their words, and by their lies, that there ain’t hardly room left to hurt me anymore.”
The blond man plunked the whiskey bottle on the table, grabbed his hat, and staggered to his feet. “Come on, Jarrod. You’re drunk. Lez git you home.”
Jarrod watched dumbfounded as his brother
somehow managed to walk a straight line through the saloon, swing himself up on
Charger with his usual grace, and head for the ranch.
Long after supper had been eaten that evening four grim faced Barkleys sat around the dining room table. Jarrod waited until Jessybell had cleared the dishes away before bringing up the subject of Heath, and the encounter the lawyer had with him in Big John’s that day. Jarrod had spent years memorizing testimonies as told to him by clients, therefore he had no trouble recounting almost word for word the conversation he’d had with his brother. When he was finished Nick pounded a fist on the table.
“I didn’t mean anything by it when I told Heath not to talk to ‘my’ mother that way! For the love of mike, from the day Mother told us she asked Heath to call her mother I pretty much forgot he hadn’t grown up right here with us!”
“Nick, at any other time in his life Heath knows that,” Jarrod said. “It’s just that right now...well after talking to him today, or hearing him talk rather, I’ve come to the conclusion he’s carrying more pain and guilt inside than any of us can imagine. That alone can cause a man to misconstrue nearly every innocent comment that’s made to him.”
Nick and Audra continued to pepper their brother with questions about what Heath had said in Big John’s, then began offering suggestions they thought might aid in Heath’s emotional recovery. Only Victoria remained silent. When Jarrod finally turned his attention to his mother she appeared distant and far away, as though she was lost in deep and troubling thought.
The woman took her steepled fingers away
from her mouth. “Yes, Jarrod?”
“You must have some thoughts on all this. Nick, Audra, and I have just batted around every idea we can come up with to help Heath, what about you?”
The woman took in her three offspring. Their faces were so full of hope, as though she was going to dispel some sort of vast maternal wisdom that would make everything all right by tomorrow morning.
“I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. From what Jarrod tells us I have a son who spent part of his day standing in a graveyard unjustly blaming himself for those who have been taken from us by an act of God. I have a son who was once again told he’s no good and is the product of sin; something that’s been said to him far too many times in his life. I have a son who called himself an orphan, which indicates to me that right now he feels very alone and bereft. I have a son who’s ‘pissed as hell’ at me but doesn’t think he has the right to tell me that.”
The siblings exchanged smiles at their mother’s attempt at humor. Victoria Barkley was every ounce a lady, but she was full of vinegar, too, and a few vulgar words as spoken by a drunken cowboy barely earned a raised eyebrow from her on most occasions.
“I have a son who’s been hurt so many times by lies and deceit that he doesn’t realize, for the sake of his health, we had no choice but to deceive him where this issue was concerned, and he may never come to realize that. But most of all I have a son who is pushing his family away at a time when he needs them more than he ever has. But how I get that son to turn to me, or to any one of you, before he allows unjust guilt and blame to destroy him from the inside out, I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Audra squeezed her mother’s hand when she saw Victoria swipe at a lone tear. Nick finally broke the silence they’d fallen into.
“If you want my opinion we have to talk to him. All of us. Tonight. Like Jarrod, I’ve never known Heath to drink to the point that he’s drunk. Not once in all the time he’s lived here have I seen him turn to liquor when something’s bothering him. Not once have I seen him drink more than he should regardless of whether he’s happy, sad, angry, upset...whatever. We can’t let him start using the bottle as a way to hide from his pain. I’ve seen too many good men ruin their lives with that method. I won’t let my brother start down that path.”
“Nick’s right,” Jarrod agreed. “We have to make Heath understand that it’s okay to hurt, okay to be angry, and okay to feel pain when he thinks about those who lost their lives to this epidemic. But at the same time we have to make him understand that we’re the people he needs to lean on to get him through this. We all know he’s a hard nut to crack. Each one of us has come to respect that he’s a soft-spoken man who keeps many of his thoughts and feelings to himself. We’re certainly not going to be able to change that about him, and I doubt any of us really want to. It’s those qualities that make Heath the person he is. But if a simple fishing trip with me and Nick will help him heal a little bit then he needs to know we want him to tell us that. If spending a week at the lodge with Mother will help him get past some of the pain and grief, then again, he needs to know he can tell us that. If going riding every evening with Audra will somehow help him come to terms with all this, then we need to know that. If he wants to go to San Francisco for a couple weeks and stay at my apartment just for the opportunity to get away from here, then once again, we need to know that.”
Victoria gave a thoughtful nod. “It might work, Jarrod. If nothing else it’s a place to start. He enjoys doing all those things you
suggested. And by far the last thing he
should be doing right now is working, so if a fishing trip is in order, or a
week at the lodge, or time in San Francisco, then I say let’s give it a try.”
“It can’t hurt,” Audra agreed. “One thing I’ve learned about Heath is that he’s more likely to open up and reveal his thoughts and feelings if he’s with just one person, as opposed to being in a group.”
Victoria and her sons nodded at the truth to Audra’s words. Before anyone had a chance to speak again the family heard the front door open. Victoria recognized the sound of a gun belt being laid on the table in the foyer, and could picture Heath’s hat joining it. Jarrod looked from one family member to another. When no one voiced any objections he stood and walked through the parlor. When he came to the foyer Heath was just turning for the stairway.
“Heath! Glad to see you’re home.” The lawyer’s tone was cheery and inviting. “Come on in the dining room and eat. Your supper awaits you.”
The absence of anyone in the study or parlor indicated to Heath that more than his supper awaited him in the dining room.
Counselor, I’m sick, I’m tired, and I’ve got the mother of all hangovers. Can’t you people just leave a man be?
Jarrod walked over and put an arm around Heath’s shoulders.
“Well ‘ain’t hungry’ isn’t acceptable. Not in this house. Not for a man who’s been sick and is insisting on putting in a full day of work before the doctor even wants him out of bed.”
If Heath was healthy and at his full strength there was no way Jarrod was a match for him in terms of a physical confrontation. But the blond man was far from either one of those things, and he had no doubt if he tried to flee up the stairs Jarrod would simply chase him down and bring him back.
In order to avoid making the day any longer than it already had been, Heath gave in to his brother. As Jarrod led him to the dining room Heath was already calculating how little he could get by with eating to please Victoria, and how quickly he could consume it before claiming fatigue was forcing him to call it a night.
As the two men entered from the parlor Audra came from the kitchen bearing Heath’s plate and a glass of milk. Roast chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn were heaped high. Audra sat the food and drink in front of her brother while placing a napkin and silverware off to the side.
“Can I get you anything else, Heath? A slice of bread or a cup of coffee?”
“No. This is fine.”
Heath’s stomach flip flopped as the smell of warm chicken wafted to his nostrils. God, did he have a headache. He’d only made matters worse after he’d sobered up that afternoon by forcing himself to work twice as hard repairing fences in penance for his noon time foolishness.
The blond cowboy resisted the urge to massage his forehead. He hunkered over his plate with hunched shoulders and took a stab at his chicken. Victoria immediately recognized the body language. This was Heath’s way of saying he was angry and had no intention of taking part in the conversation that was about to ensue. Jarrod and Nick exchanged glances. They recognized the meaning behind those hunched shoulders as well.
Jarrod started the discussion, but that didn’t surprise Heath. Jarrod the wise one. Jarrod the peacemaker. Jarrod the confidant. Jarrod the father figure and male head of the family.
Jarrod’s tone was quiet and full of gentle understanding. So many times since Heath had come to live with his father’s family he had appreciated that tone and the sincerity behind it. But tonight he just wanted Jarrod to shut up.
Where Jarrod left off Nick began. Now the voice that spoke had more volume, but still the words were kind and sympathetic. Or at least kind and sympathetic until Nick started to lose his temper over the fact that Heath was staring at his food and not acknowledging the conversation in any way.
Jarrod shushed Nick as Heath knew he would. Audra tried next. His little sister oozed enthusiasm as she offered to go on a long ride with him, or pack a picnic lunch, or maybe they could spend a day swimming in the Diamond River.
Jarrod suggested a couple weeks in San Francisco.
Nick proclaimed a fishing trip was what the Barkley brothers needed.
Or how about time at the lodge with Mother, was Jarrod’s next idea.
Or with all of us - the whole family, Nick was quick to add.
Their words seemed to assault Heath from all directions. It was times like this that he longed for the little house in Strawberry. Compared to this house it wasn’t much more than a shack, and God knows he was dirt poor back then, but he had his mother. The woman who understood him about as good as any woman ever had. She respected his silences. She didn’t try to make him talk when he would rather keep to himself. She didn’t think sitting at the supper table meant having to engage in useless chatter the way these people often did. Sometimes Heath enjoyed the banter and teasing that went on when he sat down for a meal with his siblings and stepmother, but when he just wanted to be alone with his thoughts he resented his family for trying to force him to participate in their conversations. He’d learned over the years, that they seemed to take it personally if he had nothing to contribute. So, out of respect for all they’d done for him, he generally said something at every meal whether he wanted to or not. Nonetheless, that didn’t mean that at times he didn’t resent what he perceived to be their lack of respect for him. As though he had no right to private thoughts and feelings he had no desire to share.
It was Victoria who finally put an end to the conversation. She’d remained a silent observer through it all and had no doubt Heath was blocking out everything being said to him. Blah, blah, blah, as he’d told Jarrod that day in the saloon. Heath might not have been aware of it, but there was, in fact, one other woman who understood him as well as Leah Thomson had.
The family matriarch held up her hand. One by one her children heeded her signal and grew silent. She settled her gaze on Heath. He’d swallowed exactly three bites of chicken and half his milk. Now he was doing nothing but pushing his food around on his plate while he stared at the tablecloth.
“Jarrod...Nick...Audra. There’s no point in saying anything else to your brother. He’s decided he’s not going to listen so we might as well call this conversation finished. Isn’t that right, Heath?”
Heath finally lifted his head. He looked at Victoria as he stood.
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m goin’ to bed.”
Heath headed for the kitchen and the back stairs. Nick stood to follow.
“Now you just wait one cotton pickin’ minute there, Heath! I wanna talk to--”
“Nick, leave him be,” Victoria said.
“It won’t do you any good. From the moment Jarrod brought him in here he wanted no part of any of us. You could see it in his face. You could see it in the way he sat.”
Nick heaved a sigh of frustration before easing himself back to his chair. “So what do we try next?”
“I wish I had an answer for you, son. One thing I do know is that we have to come up with something and come up with it quick.”
“What do you mean, Mother?” Audra asked.
“His eyes.” Victoria looked from her daughter to her sons. “When I looked into his eyes as he stood to leave the table all I saw was pain, and sorrow, and fear.”
“Fear?” Nick questioned.
“But what is he afraid of?”
Victoria had to swallow hard to talk past the sudden lump in her throat.
“I think he’s afraid to go on living, Nick. I think...I think he wants to die.”
What made Victoria’s statement all that more prophetic, was that none of her children could dispute it.
It was ten minutes after four on Saturday morning as Heath walked down the front stairs. He had full saddle bags thrown over his right shoulder and was carrying his bedroll and boots. When he got to the foyer he bent and pulled the boots on.
The first faint rays of dawn were starting to break upon the outside world. There was just enough light coming in through the windows to see by, though the house was still heavily bathed in nighttime shadows. Heath propped a folded piece of paper against the vase that sat on the round table, then turned for the door. He hadn’t taken more than two steps when a voice spoke from the parlor.
The man took a deep breath and turned. Victoria, dressed in her pink satin robe, stepped into the foyer.
“I asked you a question, Heath.”
“Yeah, I’m goin’ somewhere.”
“I...I don’t know. I’m just gonna be gone for a few days.” The man pointed to the table. “I left you a note.”
“I see that.” Victoria walked over and retrieved the paper. She unfolded it and read out loud, “I’ll be gone for a few days. Heath.”
The woman looked up at her son. “Much like you, your notes never waste any words. Though usually they start with ‘Dear Mother’ and end with ‘Love, Heath’.”
“I didn’t have time to write all that. I wanna get movin’.”
“You want to get moving, or you don’t want to get caught by your family sneaking out of the house?”
Heath’s temper flared, but he remembered to keep his voice low. The last thing he needed was Nick flying down the stairs.
“I’m not sneaking. I just wanted to get an early start.”
“And why didn’t you tell us this last night
when we were all sitting together at the table? Why didn’t you tell us then, that you were going away for a few
“Didn’t feel like talkin’.”
“I got that impression.” Victoria paced the floor in front of her son. “Heath, when you were sick I made some decisions concerning what was best for your health that you’re quite angry with me about. Isn’t that true?”
“Ain’t angry with no one.”
“Oh, I think you are.” Victoria stopped and turned to look her son in the eye. “As a matter of fact I know you are, otherwise you wouldn’t have told Jarrod you’re ‘pissed as hell’ at me.”
If Heath was shocked over Victoria’s choice of words he didn’t show it. His eyes narrowed in fury.
“Jarrod should keep his big mouth shut.”
“Perhaps you should cork the whiskey bottle long before your tongue gets loose, then Jarrod wouldn’t have reason to open his ‘big mouth’ as you put it.”
“Doesn’t matter. What’s done is done.”
“You’re right,” Victoria conceded. “What’s done is done, and none of us has the power to go back and change what’s already happened. If I had to do it over again, if I had the same exact choices to make today that I had to make when you were so ill, I wouldn’t do any of it differently. I know that’s not what you want to hear, and I’m sorry about that fact, but your well-being was first and foremost in my mind and my heart. Heath...son, Jake Sheridan told us that while you recovered you were to have no shocks and no upsets of any kind. You were too weak to withstand that type of stress. How could I tell you about Caroline, or Billy, or Jeb, or anyone else given those circumstances?”
Heath simply stood there looking down at Victoria. When he spoke all he said was, “How could you not?”
The man turned for the front door once again. Victoria ran to his side and grabbed his arm.
“Heath! Heath, please. Honey, you have no business leaving this house. You’re still sick. You’re still weak. Please, if nothing else just stay until you’re fully recovered. After that...well after that if you still feel the need to get away for a few days I’ll support that decision with no questions asked.”
“I’m sorry, but no. I already made up my mind. I’m goin’ and I’m goin’ now.”
The blond man freed himself from Victoria’s grasp. Without any further words he walked out. It was the first time he’d left this house without kissing Victoria goodbye since the day he began calling her mother.
The woman recognized the significance of that action as she leaned against the door and cried.
Heath Barkley had no particular destination in mind when he’d left the ranch five days earlier. But then there were many things he was uncertain of, like whether or not he ever planned to return to what had been his home for the past three and half years.
Heath hadn’t taken much with him when he rode out that Saturday morning. Just two changes of clothes, his leather jacket, his gun, the rifle Nick had given for Christmas, two boxes of ammunition, his canteens, a few personal items he had room for in his saddlebags, and his precious Charger. The heavy coat Caroline Atkins had admired two months earlier had been left hanging in the closet. It wouldn’t fit in Heath’s saddlebags, and besides, July wasn’t that far off. He hardly needed a winter coat in the middle of summer. When the seasons began to change again he could buy himself another coat if he was still in an area that felt the bite of winter winds.
The blond man crossed into Nevada that fifth day of his journey. It was all his weary body could do to make camp at sunset. Victoria had been correct. He was too weak to travel. Heath supposed, deep down, he knew that the morning he’d walked out of the house. But the urge to get away from that ranch, from Stockton, was far stronger than the urge to stay. Funny thing though, after five days on the trail the pain was still with Heath. He thought he’d find the sorrow that filled his heart lessening with each mile he put between himself and home. That hadn’t happened so far, but tomorrow; tomorrow he’d ride on and he’d begin to forget. Begin to forget he was the person who killed one hundred and thirty-five men, women, and children. Yes, tomorrow he’d put enough distance between himself and Stockton so that the memories, and the pain, dimmed.
That night’s supper was hardtack and beans. The last of the food Heath had packed from Silas’s kitchen was eaten the previous evening. He hadn’t wanted to take too much, in part because of the logistics of carrying it on Charger, and in part because he wouldn’t take what wasn’t his. He supposed Nick would raise the roof at that thought and call it pig-headed foolishness. And maybe it was. After all, Heath had given the Barkleys the work of two men since the day he’d arrived. As time had gone on and he’d earned his new family’s trust, Heath and Nick had begun sharing the responsibilities of running the ranch on a day-to-day basis. Nonetheless, Heath didn’t take charity. When he walked out of that house he had little more with him than he’d carried the day he walked in. The money he had in his wallet amounted to forty-three dollars. Everything else he’d earned over the past three years, and he’d earned quite a bit as an equal partner in all the Barkley holdings, was either sitting in his account at the Stockton National Bank or had been invested for him by Jarrod. He supposed if he’d been smart he would have waited to leave until he could have gotten to the bank and wiped his account clean of the several thousand dollars that resided there, but it truly didn’t make any difference to him. There was a time in Heath’s life when he would have considered forty-three dollars a fortune. He’d get by on that until he found work.
Long after the sun set Heath sat in front of the fire sipping coffee. He found his mind drifting to the ranch. He could picture exactly what everyone would be doing now. Supper was over and Victoria was sitting by the fireplace in the parlor reading, or doing a cross-stitch, or maybe sewing a cuff button back on one of his shirts. Heath quickly discarded that last idea. She certainly wouldn’t be worrying about fixing his shirts for him now.
Jarrod might be in the parlor, too, reading the newspaper. Or he might be in the study doing work he’d brought home from the office. Nick could be doing any number of things; cleaning a gun, mending something in the tack room, or convincing Jarrod to play a game of billiards with him. Now Audra...Heath had no doubts as to what Audra was doing. She was in the parlor setting up the checkerboard for their nightly game. Boy howdy, did that girl love to play games.
But then Heath remembered the picture in his mind was a bit off-kilter because he was missing from it. And if he was missing from it then who would sit and play checkers with Audra?
The man whipped the last of his coffee into
the campfire. The flames hissed and
flashed high a moment as though they were scolding him, then burned back down. Heath pushed himself to his feet. He swayed back and forth as a wave of
dizziness caused the landscape to spin.
When the world finally stopped turning he walked over to check on
Charger one last time. As he petted the
horse’s nose with long tender strokes he said, “Some thing’s are best
Four more days passed in which Heath continued to ride farther into Nevada. He bypassed every town he came to. He had no desire to meet up with anyone or be engaged in conversation.
The man ran a hand over his face. It had been over one week since he left the Barkley Ranch, and over one week since he’d shaved. A good many years had passed since he’d worn a beard. Not since he’d worked for Clint and Carter Armstrong on the Double A Ranch down Yuma way when he was twenty-one. He’d worn his hair long at that time, too, letting it grow to his shoulders. But then, that was the fashion most of the wranglers who worked for the Armstrong brothers adopted. It was rough and rugged country made up of rough and rugged men. Heath Thomson was known to be about the roughest and most rugged of the bunch. Though he had no mirror to look in Heath knew his beard was a burnished auburn in color, just like he knew if he went without a hat for several days under the hot sun his hair didn’t bleach to pale blond like most folks would assume it might, but rather ended up with streaks of golden red running through it. For years Heath had wondered where that came from. His mother had been a brunette, as had his Uncle Matt. It wasn’t until he arrived at the Barkleys and found out about his Scottish heritage and his strawberry blond Grandfather, Theodore Barkley, that the mystery was solved.
Heath stopped his travels when the Nevada sun was in the middle of the sky. He’d forgotten how hot this part of the country could be. He found a bit of shade for himself and Charger in a tiny grove of scraggily trees, but not much else. Heath knew he needed to find a water hole before the day came to an end. He’d refilled his canteens beside a stream the previous morning, but the water was almost gone. And as much as he dreaded making contact with anyone, be they man, woman, or child, he was going to have to head for a town soon. The muscles in his shoulders and upper arms were beginning to ache again; his headache was back, too. Not to mention he was starting to cough. A couple nights rest in a hotel room would do him good, along with a hot bath and a few hot meals. Then he could inquire as to any ranches in the area that might be looking for help. He knew he could come by work easily enough. If not in Nevada, then on up in Idaho territory. It didn’t make much difference to Heath. Work was work and one ranch was about the same as any other. Well, almost any other unless you compared them to the ranch he held close to his heart. But he didn’t plan on mentioning that one to anybody. As far as he was concerned Heath Barkley ceased to exist the day Billy Garver died.
Fourteen days had gone by since Heath had left home. Fourteen long days in which Victoria had gotten very little sleep.
The woman was alone in the house that Saturday afternoon. Like she’d found herself doing on many occasions since Heath’s departure, she wandered up to his room. Victoria crossed to the bed where she rested a hand on a brass knob. Heath had left the room neat and clean as was his habit. The bed had been made, the multi-colored quilted spread pulled tight and hanging with military precision to the floor. He’d even changed the sheets as though to say the room could now be turned over to someone else. His closet broadcast that same message. He’d pushed the clothes he’d left behind to one end of the wooden rod, leaving the other end barren as if Victoria was going to find a son to replace him who would have need of the empty space. His dresser was the same way. The clothes he hadn’t taken with him had been moved down so that the upper two drawers were empty. The few personal items he’d kept on display in the room were gone, as was the small wooden box he kept in his dresser that held things that were dear to him; - his mother’s Bible, a wooden train engine that had been the only toy he’d ever had as a child, a poem Rachel Caufield had written for him the night he was born, and a pocket watch that had belonged to his maternal grandfather, Morgan Thomson.
Victoria smiled a bit when she looked at the one remaining item in the room, the cougar statue sitting on top of the dresser. The ugly thing had been sent to ‘The Barkley Boys’ two Christmases ago by Tom’s sister Josephine. Aunt Josephine had never been out of Philadelphia and her notions of ranching were amusing at best. She never had understood her brother’s love of the land or the animals. It was so foreign to how they’d grown up. Exactly what the cougar represented to her sister-in-law about the ‘wild west’ Victoria didn’t know, but evidently the woman thought it was something Tom’s sons would like. Victoria remembered the laughter that accompanied the opening of that gift, and also recalled how thankful she was that Aunt Josephine was far away in Pennsylvania. To say her four sons had displayed poor manners that Christmas Day would have been an understatement. Though Victoria had to admit she and Audra hadn’t been much better as they, too, were drawn into the men’s fun.
A playful argument had ensued after dinner about which brother should be forced to take ownership of the statue. Nick thought it would make a perfect addition to Jarrod’s office, while Jarrod thought Eugene should take it back to college with him, while Heath was all for saving it until Audra’s February birthday and passing it on to her. By day’s end the cougar had been put away on a closet shelf in the study and all but forgotten about. Or at least forgotten about by everyone but Heath. Two months later he was the one who retrieved it and put it in Nick’s room. From that point on the cougar had made the rounds. It would stay in one brother’s room for a while, only to be moved some time later on the sly. Much to Victoria’s horror it had shown up in the middle of the dining room table on a night when Jarrod was entertaining California’s Attorney General, had ended up in the bathroom once, and traveled to Victoria’s room on another occasion. She never was able to determine who had put it any of those places, though she suspected Heath was once again the guilty party. Because he was so quiet people didn’t think of him as a prankster, but his family had learned long ago he possessed a wicked sense of humor that every so often was just itching to break free.
It was Nick who had moved the cougar from Jarrod’s room to Heath’s room one of the first nights Heath was sick. When Heath was recovering from his illness and had finally taken notice of it he’d grinned and told Nick he’d pay him back. Now Victoria wondered how a stupid little thing like an ugly statue could bring tears to her eyes.
The woman mentally chastised herself as she walked to the closet. She couldn’t go on like this. None of them could. Without giving it a second thought she began to spread the clothes out on the rod. She turned when she heard Nick’s voice behind her.
“What are you doing?”
“Moving these clothes back like they were. If I don’t they’ll be wrinkled when Heath returns.”
“You think he’s planning to?”
“I don’t know, Nick. But I can hope.”
When Victoria emerged from the closet she found Nick sitting on the arm of Heath’s chair.
“He took the family picture, you know.”
Victoria’s eyes followed Nick’s to the barren table in the center of the room. This was where Heath had displayed his copy of the most recent family photo taken last summer when Eugene was visiting with Anna.
“I realize that. He also took his mother’s photo.”
Nick looked at the nightstand. Sure enough, the small picture of Leah Thomson was missing that Heath had always kept there.
“Then that says it all. He’s not coming back.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it says something else.”
“Like Heath needs his family more than he cares to admit right now. That Heath loves his family far more than he knows how to reveal.”
Nick shook his head at what he deemed the silly sentiments of a female.
“It’s been two weeks, Mother. You said he told you he was only going to be gone a few days.”
“I know. But a ‘few days’ is a very abstract term.”
“I think two weeks is a heck of a lot more than a few days no matter how abstract. You should have let me go after him that first morning like I wanted to.”
“Nick, we’ve had this discussion before. What good would have done for you to go after Heath?”
“You know what good it would have done! I’d have brought him back here. Knocked some sense into that stubborn head of his! Sat on him in this bed if that’s what it would have taken to make him rest and get past all this.”
“It would have never worked and you know it. You couldn’t have guarded him twenty-four hours a day, none of us could. Eventually he would have left again. Only that time filled with so much resentment that he might never come back.”
“Well it sure doesn’t look to me like he’s planning to come back this time, so why should we have been fretting over next time!”
As soon as Nick saw the tears that welled up in his mother’s eyes he regretted both his temper and words. He gently pulled her down until she was sitting in the chair. He leaned sideways, hugging her tiny form to his broad chest.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that...it’s just that I’m worried about him and I miss him. I miss him something fierce.”
“I know, sweetheart.” Victoria tightened her arms around her son’s waist. “I miss him, too.” The woman glanced up at the bronze statue, longing to see it suddenly show up in any other part of the house. “I’m worried about him and I miss him, too.”
He was hot, so hot he felt like he had his head in Silas’s cook stove. And tired, so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. The cough was worse now, too, jarring his body and almost throwing him from the saddle with its force.
Three weeks had passed since he’d left the ranch, or maybe even four, and Heath had yet to come across a town. It was so strange. He was familiar with this part of Nevada and was certain he’d stumble upon small settlements as he traveled. But not a building or person had been seen. It was all Heath could do not to give a mirthless laugh. He’d wanted isolation and now he had it. Charger wandered aimlessly day after day because his master wasn’t cognizant enough most times to give him any directions. Heath had long ago lost his hat and felt the sun scorching his head. And speaking of the sun, that was another weird thing. They hadn’t run across any water holes, but somehow Heath’s canteens remained full enough for him to get a drink when necessary and for him to give Charger a drink. Or maybe he was slipping in and out of delirium, and didn’t realize he was finding water on occasion and refilling the canteens. All the cowboy knew for certain was that if he didn’t come to a town soon he’d die. Not that he necessarily feared that event. He was far from home now, but the pain was still with him. So in the end, death would be a welcome relief. He’d dreamed of Jeb the other night and woke up with tears on his face. Yes, if only death would come she would be his friend.
Heath patted Charger on the neck as he slumped forward, too weak to hold himself upright in the saddle. “I’m sorry, old pal,” he murmured as he hugged the big horse. “I never meant to bring you this far from home and leave you high and dry with no one to take care of you. You were a wonderful gift from a wonderful family. If there was any way I could get you back to them I would.”
The dry, desert-like world began to swim in front of Heath’s eyes. As he toppled from the saddle he mumbled, “I really would.”
It seemed to Heath as though he’d been trying to return to consciousness for days now, but that he felt too darn good to make the effort. Each time awareness would flick on the edge of his brain he’d snuggle deeper into his pillows and pull the covers closer to his body. It was the humming that finally brought him around. Someone was humming his mama’s favorite hymn, The Old Rugged Cross.
Heath made three attempts at opening his eyes before he was finally able to take in the world surrounding him. He was lying in a single bed supported by a black iron frame. There was a matching bed five feet to his left. The beds were separated by an old battered nightstand that held a lamp residing atop a lace doily.
The cowboy’s eyes roamed a larger portion of the room next. A five-drawer dresser stood against one wall, and a comfortable looking chair similar to the one in his room at the ranch sat in the far corner. The walls were clean and covered from top to bottom with a fresh coat of white wash. Pale blue curtains hung at the two windows that were opposite one another and billowed gently in the morning breeze.
A woman stood at the washstand with her back to Heath. She was pouring fresh water into a bowl and arranging clean towels next to it. When she turned around and caught sight of him she smiled.
“Well, a cheery good morning to you! I’m so happy to see you’ve finally decided to join us.”
For some reason the young woman with the lilting Irish accent looked familiar to Heath. But try as he might he couldn’t place her. No doubt about it, she was a beauty in every sense of the word, and if he’d run across her in the past he would have definitely remembered the encounter. She was slender and fine-boned as a young filly, and had large eyes that could be green, or could be amber depending on how the light hit them. Her deep red hair was pulled back in one thick braid that fell to her waist while bangs fringed her forehead. She wore a mint green dress with a lace collar and had a white ruffled apron covering it that fell to her shins, just like the apron Heath remembered his mother wearing when she cooked at the Miner’s Cafe in Strawberry.
The woman crossed to Heath’s side and placed a hand on his forehead.
“Ah, no sign of fever. That’s good.”
“Oh my, yes. You were burning up when Doctor Wallace found you.”
“Yes. Just outside of town.”
Heath hiked himself up on his elbows. Through the west window he could indeed see the tops of buildings.
“When did he find me?”
“Four days ago.”
“Four days ago!”
“You don’t remember any of it, do you?”
“No, I don’t reckon I do.”
With a weary sigh Heath sunk back to his pillows and watched her return to the washstand where she picked up a black medical bag.
“Well, take it from Monica...that’s me, you’ve been one very sick man. But no matter, Doctor Wallace and I, we took good care of you.”
The woman returned to Heath’s side and removed a stethoscope from the bag. “Now sit up for me.”
“I asked you to sit up. I need to listen to your heart and lungs.”
Heath pulled the covers a little tighter around his bare chest. “I’m fine.”
“That might be so, but you were sporting a
good deal of congestion just yesterday.
I need to see if it’s better.”
“I said I was fine.”
“Now, Mr...” Monica stopped there, waiting for her patient to supply her with his name.
Heath barely gave it a thought when he said, “Lee.”
“And would that be your first name or last
Heath had to admit that was a logical question. Days ago, when he’d been on the trail, he’d decided he’d use the male version of his mother’s first name when supplying anyone he met with his name. On a ranch full of men he could get away with introducing himself simply as Lee. It might be weeks before anyone thought to ask if that was his first name or last, if they ever thought to ask at all. Leave it to a woman to throw a wrench in his plans.
“You don’t sound too sure of that,” Monica said, as though she was privy to some sort of information Heath wasn’t aware of. “But then I suppose the fever you were running has you a bit addled.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“Now, as I was saying, Mr. Lee...do you have a first name?”
Oh, Lord, just what I need, a talkative woman.
“And that might be...?”
Heath hadn’t given much thought to this. All he knew was that he no longer had the desire to be known as Heath Barkley.
“Mr. Lee? Your first name, please.”
Heath thought another few seconds, then said, “Morgan.”
“Well, Mr. Morgan Lee, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Now as I was saying, I need you to sit up for me.”
“Oh, no. No buts. And don’t be so modest. My goodness, Tess and I bathed you so if you’re worried--”
Heath felt the color drain from his face. “Bathed me?”
“Yes. You were filthy, full of trail dust and several weeks worth of dirt by the looks of you. And so ill. So very ill. Really, Mr. Lee, you must take better care of yourself.” Monica reached for the blankets Heath was clutching to his chest. “Now come on, let go of these. I’m only going to put my stethoscope against your chest, and then against your back. Nothing more. I promise.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“No, but I am Doctor Wallace’s nurse.”
Despite Heath’s continued protests the woman got him to a sitting position. She propped the pillows up behind his back so he could lean against them. With great reluctance he loosened his grip on his covers. He allowed them to drop to the middle of his stomach, which was as far as he was willing to let them go.
Heath felt cold metal come to rest against his chest as the woman placed a warm hand on his shoulder.
“Now take a deep breath.”
Heath did as requested. The metal cone moved and Monica said, “Again. Another deep breath please.”
This action was repeated two more times, then Monica had him lean forward. Now the stethoscope was placed on his back. Each time it moved he was asked to take a deep breath.
“Okay, Mr. Lee, we’re done. See, now wasn’t that easy? And not nearly worth the fuss you gave me.”
Monica helped Heath lean against his pillows once more, then folded the stethoscope and put it away.
“I believe I can give Doctor Wallace a clean bill of health on your behalf.”
Ah...don’t thank me. It’s the good doctor you should be thanking. The poor man, he’s so busy he’s barely getting two hours of sleep a night. He was coming back from the Grishem ranch when he found you. Goodness knows he didn’t have the time to take on another patient, but of course Doctor Wallace couldn’t just ride away and leave you lying there in the hot sun. So he brought you here and tended to you until his attention was demanded elsewhere. Then Tess and I took over.”
Monica looked into the cowboy’s face. “If you’ll pardon me for sayin’ so, you don’t seem very happy about your good fortune. As a matter of fact you have an air of sadness about you that makes a body wonder how she can be of help.”
“So you’ve told me on several occasions already. But alas, I recognize a stubborn Scotsman when I meet him, so I’ll leave you to your brooding.”
“I’m not Scottish.”
“Oh, Mr. Lee, you are a funny one,” Monica laughed as she picked up her medical bag. “I knew you were a Scotsman the moment I laid eyes on you. Why that wild red hair and beard just give you away. Yes, you look like a rugged bonnie man of the highlands, you do.”
Heath decided he needed to take a long look in a mirror. Monica must have read his thoughts.
“There’s fresh water here on the stand for washing up, and a toothbrush and toothpowder for you to make use of, too. In the top drawer of the dresser are some clothes for you. I see by what you brought you favor blue shirts, but the ones you had are dirty and need a good scrubbing. Now I myself picture you looking quite dapper in brown. Or green, as well. Yes, green would go nicely with your coloring. Anyway, you’ll find shirts, pants, socks, and underdrawers in the dresser.”
A tiny bit of longing touched the edges of Heath’s soul as Monica rattled on about the shirts and what colors she thought he’d look best in. Audra was forever trying to convince him to wear something besides his favorite blue chambray work shirts on a daily basis.
“So come on now, up with you. Get out of that bed.”
Heath started to throw back the covers, then thought better of it when he realized he was stark naked beneath them.
Monica laughed again. “Oh, come now, Mr. Lee, I’m a nurse. It’s not like I’ve never seen a man in the all-together before. And Tess and I did bath you as I already mentioned.”
Heath did nothing more than blush.
“But, I can see by the look on your face you prefer to take your clothes off for a pretty lady when the time is of your choosing.”
The cowboy blushed even harder at that remark, and was somewhat astounded that this fresh-faced young woman would say such a thing. When Heath made no reply Monica said, “I assume you would like me to leave, is that it?”
“If you insist, then I shall. Though mind you I’m reluctant to do so. You’re still weak and could take a nasty fall.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“I’m sure you will be. Just the same, I wish Jarrod and Nick were here.”
Heath stared at the nurse sure he hadn’t
heard her correctly. “Pardon me?”
“Jarrod and Nick.”
“How do you know Jarrod and Nick?”
“Me? Oh, I don’t know them. But when your fever was at its highest you were calling for them. You appeared quite desperate to have them near. Tess and I felt so bad for you because you seemed so upset...so frightened. Are Jarrod and Nick friends of yours, Mr. Lee?”
“No.” Heath hesitated a moment before finishing his reply. “No, I don’t know who they are.”
“I see. Well, that does happen sometimes when a person’s temperature gets unbearably high.”
“The mind makes things up. Imagines people who don’t really exist.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, I reckon that’s what happened to me then, ‘cause I don’t know anyone by those names.”
Monica headed for the door with her medical bag in hand. “I must get a move on, I need to help Doctor Wallace. You get yourself cleaned up and dressed, then go out to the kitchen.”
“Yes. This door leads to the parlor, and from there you’ll be in the kitchen.”
“Is this your house?”
“No, it belongs to the doctor. As a matter of fact this is his bedroom. There’s another bedroom on the other end of the house where Tess and I sleep.”
“Is Tess a nurse, too?”
“No, she’s the doctor’s housekeeper.”
Heath kept a blanket around his waist as he swung his feet to the floor. Before the nurse could walk out the door he beckoned her one last time.
The woman turned to face Heath. “Yes, Mr.
“Where am I?”
“I already told you, Doctor Wallace’s house. I better come right back over there and check you again. Maybe your temperature isn’t as low as I thought it was.”
I’m okay. What I meant was,
where is this place? The town. What’s
the name of the town?”
“Oh, the name of the town it is you’re wanting.” Monica smiled at her patient as though he’d be delighted when she told him where he was. “Heaven. You’re in Heaven, Mr. Lee.”
“Yes. Heaven, Nevada.”
And with that Monica left Heath alone to clean up and dress.
Thirty minutes later Heath exited the bedroom. Though he was loath to admit it, he certainly could have used assistance from Jarrod and Nick. He felt well-rested, but still weak. He discovered if he moved slowly he could manage pretty well, anything resembling a brisk pace caused the room to spin.
A look in the mirror that was mounted on the washstand told Heath all he needed to know about his appearance.
No wonder Monica called me a Scotsman.
Heath’s time in the sun without his hat had streaked random strands of his blond hair red just like he knew it would. And his now full beard was red as well; again, just like he remembered it being back when he worked on the Double A. Heath supposed he was going on eight weeks without a hair cut, that fact was showing, too. On the sides of his head his hair hung over his ears, in the back it touched his shirt collar. Heath’s hair was curling in the back, too, something else he’d discovered on the Double A that his hair did if it got long enough. The man couldn’t help but smile a little bit. He doubted any of the Barkleys would recognize him if they passed him on the street. But that was okay. Today...today Heath Barkley died and in his place Morgan Lee was born.
Heath put on a green shirt and pair of tan pants. The pants weren’t his. They felt brand new. Yet they were styled exactly like the pants he favored and were his size. The shirt fit him perfectly, too. Well, maybe that wasn’t exactly true. Both the shirt and pants were a bit baggy, but if he was at his proper weight he had no doubt they’d fit him as though they’d been made for him.
Heath wondered if these people who found him had gone out and bought him new clothes. He recalled Monica saying his other clothes were in need of washing. After four weeks on the trail he could imagine that was true.
The man opened the small closet the room contained. His leather jacket and gun belt were hanging there, his saddlebags and boots rested on the floor, while his rifle was propped in a corner. He checked one of the saddlebags and discovered his wallet and money within. All forty- three dollars was accounted for which spoke of the honesty of these folks. Before he moved on he’d have to pay them back for the new clothes and the care they’d given. Though it was ranch work he was wanting, he was certain there was something he could do in this town to earn some money for a few days, even if it was just mucking stalls at the livery stable.
Heath pulled on his boots then made his bed so Doctor Wallace’s housekeeper wouldn’t have to. It was the least he could do in partial repayment of her kindness. He made his way to the door and walked into the parlor.
The main room of the house was small, but comfortable. A stone fireplace took up one wall with two maroon overstuffed chairs angled sideways to the hearth. Each chair possessed its own matching ottoman. Heath could almost picture the doctor stretched out at the end of a long day, smoking a pipe while he read the newspaper. A floral patterned couch sat across from the chairs with a coffee table in front of it. A bay window with a cushioned window seat looked out over a front porch that contained two rocking chairs on one end, and a swing on the other. The small yard was more flower garden than anything else and rimmed by a white picket fence.
The cowboy followed his nose through the room. He could smell eggs frying and easily found the kitchen. A black woman almost as tall as Heath and three times as wide stood at the sink with her back to the cowboy. She wore a gingham dress that was both orange and brown, and had a matching gingham scarf tied backwards on her head. Like Monica, she was humming a hymn, though this one Heath recognized as When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.
The woman seemed to sense Heath’s presence. She turned around and gave him a broad smile.
“Well, there you are! Monica told me you’d be out shortly. Have a seat, baby. Tess has your breakfast ready.”
When Heath hesitated Tess pulled a chair
out from the round table that sat four. “Come on, son, have a seat. Unless,
that is, you prefer takin’ your meals standing up.”
“No, ma’am. I don’t reckon so.”
“I don’t reckon so, either. And I’m not ma’am. I’m Tess. You just call me Tess, baby.”
“And you would be?”
“Yeah. Morgan Lee.”
Heath was forced to drop his gaze under Tess’s doubt-filled scrutiny.
“Morgan Lee, is it? You don’t look like no Morgan to me, or any
Lee that I’ve ever seen either.”
“I don’t, huh?”
“No siree bob, you don’t. Now with that shaggy hair and beard you’re sportin’ you look a little like my old friend George Custer, but of course you’ve got too much red in that mane to be kin to him.”
Heath looked up as a plate was set in front
of him. Despite the cowboy’s efforts to
remain isolated from the world around him he couldn’t help but raise a
skeptical eyebrow. “You knew General
“I surely did, baby. But then old Tess knows lots of people. And speaking of that, which Lee’s would it be that you’re related to?”
“Yes, you know. Like the Rothwell Lee’s of New York City? Or the Henry Lee’s of Chicago? Or the Franklin Lee’s of Boston? Or the Robert E. Lee’s of Virginia?”
“Robert E. Lee? You knew him, too, I suppose.”
“Don’t you go smirkin’ at me. If Tess tells you she knew Mr. Robert E. Lee, then you can bet your bottom dollar on that fact.”
By now Heath thought the woman was half out of her mind, but kept his opinions to himself as he dug into the plate of eggs she’d put before him. It wasn’t until he’d taken the first bite that he realized two things. Number one; he had a healthy appetite for the first time since before he got sick, and number two; she’d made him the exact same breakfast Silas knew he favored. Two eggs over easy, two pieces of toast spread with butter and strawberry jam, three strips of bacon, a blueberry muffin, and fresh squeezed orange juice.
Tess pulled out the chair to Heath’s left and sat down next to him.
“Go on, baby, you eat up. You’re so skinny old Tess could thread you through a needle.”
Heath had seen enough of himself in the washstand mirror to know how gaunt he was. The beard hid his hollow cheeks and the jaw line made sharp by weight loss, but anyone who knew him well would see signs that indicated he hadn’t been physically well in many weeks.
The meal commenced without further conversation. When Heath was done he pushed his plate aside.
“Thank you. Everything was very good.”
“Well now, aren’t you a nice young man,” Tess
grinned. “Quiet, but nice. Polite and such a gentleman. I bet you do your mama proud.”
“My mama’s dead.” Heath’s reply came out quick and terse. He came here to put his past behind him, not to relive it every time he turned around.
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that, I just thought--”
“Thought what?” Heath asked as he finished his juice.
“Well, Mo...you don’t mind if I call you Mo, do you? Morgan...Morgan just doesn’t seem to fit you. I bet other people have called you Mo a time or two, huh?”
Heath thought of Nick. “I reckon so.”
“Does it bother you? ‘Cause if it does I won’t call you that.”
Already feeling like he’d been bombarded with too many reminders of the family he was trying to forget since waking just one short hour earlier, Heath replied, “I’d prefer Morgan if you don’t mind.”
“All right,” Tess sighed. “Morgan it is. But you sure don’t look like a Morgan.”
“You’ve already said that.”
“I guess I have, haven’t I? Such is the affliction of the elderly, baby. The memory is the first to go. And speaking of memory, what were we talking about? Oh, your mama. So she’s passed on, you say?”
Heath sighed. Obviously the woman wasn’t going to let this subject drop.
“Yes, ma’am. Almost five years ago now.”
“I see. Well, that sure is odd.”
“When you were so sick you were talking to her as if it hadn’t been that long since you’d seen her. You said, ‘Mother, I’ll pick up that package for you when I’m in town. You know Nick, if you leave it up to him he’ll forget.’ ”
Heath’s eyes narrowed and he set his glass
down with a fierce thump. “I never
called my mama that. Mother. I never called her that, so I guess it
couldn’t have been her I was talkin’ to, now could it?”
“Goodness gracious, there’s no call to get so angry about it. Fever plays tricks on the mind, that’s for certain.” Tess stood to carry Heath’s dishes to the sink. “If you say there’s no woman in your life you call Mother then I imagine you know best. Of course, if you want my opinion you sounded like you knew her real well. Like you have a lot of love for her and--”
“Where’s my horse?”
Tess turned around. “What was that?”
“My horse. Charger. He would have stayed with me. Doctor Wallace must have seen him.”
Tess started laughing. “You sure are a moody one, Mr. Morgan Lee. One minute we’re talking about mothers, then before I know it we’re talking about horses. But no need to fret. Your horse is being looked after. He’s been stabled at Mr. Thurmond’s Livery. Rest assured, Randall is taking good care of him. That little boy has yet to meet a horse he doesn’t love, or a horse that doesn’t love him back.”
“Little boy? I’m not sure a kid should be taking care of Charger.”
“Randall’s feelings would be hurt if he heard you say that, Mr. Lee.”
“How old is he?”
“He’s too young to be working in a livery then.” Heath stood. “Where is it? I’ll go take care of Charger myself.”
Tess gave Heath a pointed look. “Mr. Morgan Lee, how old were you when you held your first paying job?”
“Don’t cock your head like that and pretend you didn’t hear me just to avoid answering my question. You might get away with that with some others in your life, but not with Tess. Now how old were you?”
“I reckon about six.”
“And what’d you do?”
When Heath didn’t answer Tess prompted, “Mr. Morgan Lee? I asked you what you did to earn money when you were six years old.”
Heath finally gave in under the woman’s gaze. He was finding her to be just as persistent as Victoria Barkley.
“I worked in the mines. And in...in a livery stable.”
Tess smiled. “A livery stable. So see. You have nothing to worry about. Randall will take good care of your horse.”
“That might be so, but I’ll go check on him anyway. Just as soon as I pay you folks back for the clothes and care you’ve given me I need to be on my way.”
“I’m sorry to be the one who has to break the news to you, son, but you’re not going anywhere.”
Heath watched as the woman moved about the kitchen cleaning up the remnants of breakfast as though she hadn’t just made what sounded like a veiled threat.
“What do you mean I’m not going anywhere?”
“Didn’t Monica tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
Tess looked up from wiping the table and met Heath’s eyes.
“This town is under quarantine, baby. We’re right in the middle of a diphtheria epidemic.”
The room started to spin in a counter clockwise motion. Before Heath could hit the ground Tess had him seated in a chair. Without asking any questions she wet a towel with cold water from the pump and placed it on his forehead.
For a moment Heath wondered how she knew he was on the verge of passing out, but he quickly pushed that thought aside as his entire being cried with despair.
No! Oh, God, please no! No!
For the first time since he’d left home Heath had nowhere to run to. No place to hide. No means of escape. No matter how hard he tried to be Morgan Lee, when push came to shove God was making certain he was well aware he was Heath Barkley.
Heath Barkley, Tom Barkley’s bastard son.
Heath ignored Tess’s orders to return to bed and rest. She followed him through the house and watched as he took his wallet out of his saddlebags. He put it in the back pocket of his pants, buckled his gun belt around his waist, then headed for the front door.
“Now just where do you think you’re going, Mr. Morgan Lee?”
“I already told you. To check on Charger.”
“Your skinny behind don’t need to be goin’ to check on no one, let alone a horse. It needs to be right back here in this bed. I don’t know what kinda spell that was you just had in my kitchen, but I recognize when someone’s about to faint dead away on me.”
“I’m not gonna faint. I’m fine.”
“No, you’re stubborn is what you is. Stubborn as the day is long. Well, have it your way then. You just go marchin’ right on outta this house and collapse in the middle of the street. And when that happens you just see if ole’ Tess comes along to pick you up.”
The woman was still predicting a multitude of maladies that were bound to befall Heath as he exited the house. He crossed the front porch in four strides and trotted down three wooden steps. He walked the flower-lined path to the front gate, refusing to take notice of the hundreds of blooming roses that made him think of Victoria’s garden back home. When he arrived on the sidewalk he paused, then looked both left and right.
As towns went, Heaven was a small one. To the north Heath spotted a bank, a saloon, a hardware store, a rancher’s grain and supply store, the jail, and the undertaker’s, which also doubled as a furniture store. To the south, and immediately next-door to Doctor Wallace’s house was his medical office. Beyond it was a barber shop, cafe, a general store, a dress maker’s shop, a tiny post office, a blacksmith shop, and the livery stable. Houses were interspersed amongst the businesses, and at the very edge of the town Heath could see a steeple rising above a church. Another building with a bell mounted on a ten-foot tall pole stood across from the church. Heath correctly assumed it was Heaven’s schoolhouse.
Heath walked south toward the livery stable. It was a few minutes before ten on Thursday morning and the town was quiet. Too quiet as far as Heath was concerned. He knew what that meant. Everyone who wasn’t sick was helping those who were, and if that wasn’t the case then most folks who were healthy were hiding in their homes, too scared to come out. Heath hated to tell them this, but from recent experience he knew they’d all been exposed to the disease long before Doctor Wallace was aware of its arrival. Therefore, cowering in fear while hoping the deadly virus passed them by would do little good.
The stable that housed Charger was so close to being an exact replica of the stable in Strawberry where Heath had worked as a boy that he had to close his eyes and reopen them twice to make certain he wasn’t dreaming.
A man Heath guessed to be sixty-five years old with thinning gray hair, stooped shoulders, and a weary smile approached.
“Howdy, son. Somethin’ I can do for you?”
“I was told my horse is here. A chestnut bay gelding.”
“Oh, sure. Sure. We got him. Randall’s taking mighty fine care of him. So you’re the stranger Doc Wallace found outside of town.”
“Well, you’ve got yourself a beautiful horse there, son. Yep, that’s one mighty fine lookin’ animal.” The man held out a hand gnarled by years of hard work. “I’m Jasper Thurmond. I own this here livery.”
“Morgan Lee,” Heath said while shaking the man’s hand.
“Glad to see you’re back on your feet. Lord knows we’ve got enough sick people in Heaven. We sure don’t need anymore.”
“No, sir. I reckon not.”
“I suppose you’ve got a hankerin’ to see that horse of yours.”
“Don’t call me sir. Makes me feel old. Jasper will do. Come
along then. Follow me.”
Heath passed empty stall after empty stall, most of them in need of repair.
Jasper seemed able to read Heath’s thoughts.
“Not much business right now. A lotta that has to do with the epidemic a’ course. Not much travelin’ going on as you can imagine.”
“I suppose not.”
“Now when folks is healthy I’m kept hoppin’ come Saturday nights. A lotta cowboys come in from the neighborin’ ranches. The saloon can barely hold ‘em all. Most of ‘em like to drink until they can’t walk a straight line. Their horses get stabled here on account of that law the sheriff has in place.”
“No drinkin’ and drivin’ the sheriff says. Ain’t that just the most peculiar expression you ever heard?” Jasper winked and elbowed Heath. “But you won’t hear me complainin’. Best thing the sheriff ever did for my business. I been makin’ money right and left since she started enforcing that one.”
“Yep. Sheriff Tess.”
Heath stopped in his tracks. “Did you say Sheriff Tess?”
“I surely did.”
“As in Doctor Wallace’s housekeeper?”
“Yep. One and the same.”
A woman sheriff? And a black woman at that? Heath was beginning to think Tess was right. Maybe he did need to go back to bed. He was certain if he could just start this day over he’d find it to be a bit more normal than he had so far.
“But then Tess does a lot of things around Heaven, Mr. Lee.”
“Uh...yeah. I’m gettin’ that impression.”
Jasper led Heath out the back of the livery. A thin, tow-headed boy stood inside a small corral. Charger pranced around the child, getting his morning exercise.
Mr. Thurmond beckoned the boy.
“Randall! Randall, come here, son!”
Randall patted Charger on the nose, then turned and ran for his boss. Charger danced after the boy as though he didn’t want to lose sight of his new playmate. As soon as Charger caught a whiff of Heath’s scent he threw his head back and whinnied. He trotted over to the fence and nudged his face against Heath’s shoulder.
Heath smiled as he patted the horse’s neck and stroked his nose.
“Hey, Charger. Hey, boy. No, I didn’t go off and leave you. I’ve just been laid up a few days is all.”
“He’s a right nice horse, Mister. Charger is his name you say?”
Heath turned his attention to Randall, who was scrambling onto the fence. The boy sat down. His small hand joined Heath’s in petting Charger.
“Yep. Charger’s his name.”
“Well, Mister, that’s one fine name for one fine animal if you don’t mind me sayin’.”
Heath smiled at the boy’s enthusiasm. It brought back memories of his own enthusiasm for horses when he was the same age.
“No, son, I don’t mind you sayin’. Thank you.”
“Where’d you get him from? Did you buy him out at the Slater
ranch? My ma keeps house for Mrs.
Slater so I been out to their place a time or two. Mr. Slater sure has got some
top a’ the line stock.”
“Nope, didn’t buy him from Mr.
Slater.” Heath looked at Charger and
smiled. “He was a gift from my family.”
“Boy, are you lucky. Your family must love you an awful lot to give you a gift like Charger.”
At that moment Heath couldn’t help but think of Caroline Atkins. Randall’s words were almost identical to hers back on that cold, cloudy April afternoon.
"Wow! Both the chocolates and this pretty coat. Your family must love you a lot, Mr. Barkley."
When Heath finally made a reply he was barely able to mask the pain in his voice. “Yeah. Yeah, I reckon they do, son.”
Jasper turned to his helper. “Randall, this is Morgan Lee. Mr. Lee, this is my employee Randall Becker.”
Heath held out his hand the child. “Randall. Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet you, too, Mr. Lee. Say, you don’t happen to be related to General Robert E. Lee, do you? Tess knew him ‘fore he passed on.”
“So I’ve heard. But no, I’m not related to the general. As a matter of fact, why don’t you just call me Morgan?”
“My ma says it’s not proper to call adults by their first names.”
Heath smiled. “Your ma sounds like she’s working hard at raising a polite young man, but if I give you my permission to use my first name then I think it’ll be okay. What do you say?”
“Well...all right. As long as you explain it to my ma if she asks.”
Heath tousled the boy’s shaggy hair. “I’ll do that.”
It was when Heath lifted the boy off the fence that he noticed the signs of poverty. The pants with the patches sewn at the knees, the lack of shoes on the child’s feet, the cuffs of the shirt that rose a good two inches above his wrists, and the fact that the child weighed ten to fifteen pounds less than most boys his age.
So that explains what such a young boy is doing working here. How well I remember.
Jasper put an arm around the child’s shoulders.
“Randall, you’re in charge for the rest of the day. I gotta be gettin’ on home to the Mrs.” The man looked at Heath. “My wife’s got the sickness. She’s doin’ poorly. My daughter’s been stayin’ with her as much as possible, but she’s a widow with nine youngins’ of her own. Some of them have takin’ sick, too. It’s all Eunice...my daughter..it’s all Eunice and me can do to keep up with things in both households.”
Now Heath understood the man’s weary smile and the worry he’d sensed behind it. As Jasper started to walk away Heath hailed him.
“Tess told me about the quarantine, so since I can’t leave town for a while I’ll be needin’ a way to make some money. Maybe you and I can help one another out.”
“Well, I can assist Randall in keeping things goin’ here.”
Jasper chuckled. “Son, your horse is the only one I’m boardin’ right now. I think Randall can take care of Charger all
by himself. And until the quarantine is
lifted I won’t have any busy Saturday nights.”
“I reckon you’re right there, but it looks
like you can use a man who’s good with a hammer to do a few repairs around
Jasper thought a moment, then gave a slow nod of his head.
“Well now, that’s a fact. The place has kinda fallen apart the last few years ‘cause of my bursitis. My body hurts me so bad on some mornings it’s all I can do to get out of bed, let alone drive a nail. You a good carpenter?”
“All right, I’ll tell you what. You get to work on anything around here you see needs fixin’. I’ll stop back late this afternoon, and if I like what I see I’ll pay you three dollars a day to return this livery to tip top shape. That wage includes boarding your horse.”
Though not since arriving on the Barkley ranch had Heath worked for as little as three dollars a day, he wasn’t going to argue with the man. Between the money he already had and what he figured he could earn over the next couple weeks, he’d easily be able to pay Doctor Wallace for room and board, plus have cash in his pocket when he rode out of here.
“Fair enough. I’ll get started right now.”
“Randall can show you where everything is. I’ll see you boys sometime before the sun sets.”
Heath watched as the old man walked to a house across the street. He was surprised to feel a hand slide into his. Randall looked up at him with excitement lighting his eyes.
“Gee, Mr. Lee...I mean, Morgan. Gee, Morgan, I guess we’ll be workin’ together, huh?
“Looks that way. Now how about if you show me where Mr. Thurmond keeps his tool box.”
“Sure. Come on! Follow me.”
Without dropping Heath’s hand Randall led him to a back room where the cowboy found a well-equipped toolbox and a pile of lumber. Within minutes Heath was hard at work with a faithful helper by his side.
It was noon when Heath put his hammer down. He’d repaired all the loose boards on two stalls and replaced the ones that were missing. Randall proved to be a competent assistant. He handed Heath tools before he was even asked for them, and swept both the stalls clean of wood shavings and old nails when Heath was finished.
Despite Randall’s earlier exuberance, Heath found him to be a quiet little boy. If he had something to say he said it, otherwise he kept his peace. Something Heath found refreshing after his morning with Monica and Tess.
Heath stood back to admire their work. “Well, Randall, I’d say we’ve done a good job given the time we’ve put in so far. After lunch we’ll start again.”
“Yes, sir. Mr. Thurmond will be pleased.”
“I’m glad to hear that ‘cause I can sure make use of the money I’ll be earnin’.”
The boy helped Heath gather the tools and put them back in the box.
you turn your money over to your ma too, Morgan?”
Heath looked at the child as he propped some lumber up against a stall.
“The money you make. Do you give it to your ma to help her make
ends meet like I do?”
Heath crouched down so he and the boy were eye level.
“My mama passed away a few years ago, Randall. But before that, when she was still livin’, yes, I gave her the money I earned to help her make ends meet. As a matter of fact when I was your age I worked in a livery stable just like this one.”
“I sure did.”
“Was the man you worked for as nice to you
as Mr. Thurmond is to me?”
“Yep. Mr. Carver was his name. And he was real nice.”
“That’s good, ‘cause I hear tell there’s some mean bosses out there who don’t treat kids right.”
Heath thought of some of the mine bosses he’d had as a child and how many times he hid bruises from his mother when one of them would kick him or slap him because Heath, at six years old, wasn’t working fast enough to suit them.
“I hear tell that, too, Randall. Which makes a man like Mr. Thurmond even more special.” Heath stood. “Come on, let’s go get some lunch.”
“I saw a cafe down the street. Is the food any good?”
“I don’t know. I ain’t never been in there. Ma and I can’t afford to eat our meals out. Besides, I brought my lunch. I’ll just wait here for you.”
Heath watched as the boy took a dented tin lunch bucket off a low shelf. When all that appeared was a shriveled apple and a hard piece of bread Heath asked, “You got anything else in there?”
But I’ll share with you.”
Randall began to tear the bread in half.
“That’s mighty nice of you, Randall. But I’m thinkin’ that a boy who does a man’s job like you did this morning needs more in his stomach than an apple and a piece of bread. So why don’t we walk down to that cafe and I’ll buy us both lunch.”
“Thank you for the offer, sir, but I don’t take charity.”
Somehow Heath knew that’s what the child was going to say.
“Well now, I don’t look upon it as charity. You see, Mr. Thurmond hired me to do carpentry work and you helped me. He’s not payin’ you for the work you did with me this morning, so it seems to me as if I owe you something for that, and for the good care you’re giving Charger.”
Heath could see the boy was mulling over his words. The child glanced down at his apple one last time, then looked up at Heath and smiled.
“I guess that sounds fair. After all, I did work pretty hard.”
“That you did.” Heath held out his hand. “Now come on. Put your lunch bucket away and let’s go see what that cafe has to offer.”
“I hear the food’s wonderful,” Randall said as he and Heath walked hand in hand into the noontime sun. “But then everyone says Tess is the best cook in Heaven.”
“Yeah. Didn’t you know?”
“She owns the cafe.”
Heath rolled his eyes.
“No, I didn’t know. But somehow, Randall, I shoulda’ guessed.”
The man pushed himself to his feet. It seemed this body was too old to be perching on the edge of low cots. He placed a hand at the small of his back. He’d forgotten what sore muscles felt like.
Abraham Wallace looked around the interior of the makeshift infirmary. The pastor of the United Christian Church had been the first to come forward and donate the use of his building when it became apparent the diphtheria epidemic would be wide-spread.
Pews had been carried to the basement along with the pulpit. Now the large room that had just last week been used to hold church services was filled with cots. Forty very ill people of all ages lay on those cots coughing and burning with fever. Doctor Wallace had at least forty more sick patients that were being cared for in their homes. You could double that number when you considered those who’d fallen ill on area ranches that bordered the town, and the Paiute Indian Reservation beyond it.
Doctor Wallace weaved his way through the cots until he came to a small back room the pastor used as his office. Abraham dipped his hands in a basin of cold water and scrubbed them over his face. This was another thing he’d forgotten since leaving behind his earthly form upon his death - how it felt to be tired.
The doctor reached for the towel hanging on the rack. As he patted his face dry he looked into the mirror mounted on the wall above the washstand. He smiled a little at the face that was reflected back at him. As faces went, it wasn’t all bad he supposed, though didn’t resemble the man he had been in the slightest. The hair on his head was thick and completely white, as were his eyebrows. The body was lean, though not in the way that spoke of hours of physical labor, but rather in a way that spoke of a man too busy to eat a proper meal on most days. This body was also shorter than he’d been by a couple of inches. He guessed that in his current form he was no more than five foot seven, and didn’t weigh over one hundred and forty pounds. Fine lines were etched around the thin mouth and hazel eyes, and his hands were wrinkled and age spotted leading him to believe that ‘Doctor Wallace’ was in his mid to late sixties. You wouldn’t exactly call the clean-shaven face handsome, but the term friendly came to mind. Friendly in an almost paternal sort of way. The kind of man others turned to for fatherly advice. That last thought made the angel smile. After all, what did the name Abraham mean but ‘father of many.’
This was his first assignment, and Abraham had to admit he was a bit nervous. Prior to his earthly life coming to an end he’d never given heaven much thought. He assumed a person’s soul led a carefree existence from the moment it entered the Pearly Gates, and that time passed with little structure and no real awareness. But he’d found heaven wasn’t like that at all. Oh, it was just as beautiful and pure as the Bible said, and your soul soared free of the worries and trivial concerns that had plagued you on earth, but there was work to be done in heaven, too, and everyone had a job. That was okay with Abraham. He was used to hard work and ready to take on whatever was asked of him. He’d been surprised; however, when he was promoted to Angels On Earth. Usually one didn’t get this far without being part of Search and Rescue first. The crews that made up Search and Rescue were guardian angels. That was straight forward enough and easy to understand. Guardian angels saved people, whose time on earth wasn’t over yet, from all sorts of plights. Drownings, fires, falls, you name it; the guardian angels covered it. But those who were part of Angels On Earth didn’t always know the specifics of their assignments. As events unfolded the meanings behind them were often revealed as they happened, or so Monica had explained.
Abraham shrugged his shoulders as he pondered this. So far nothing had been revealed to him that he was aware of. But then he hadn’t been a doctor in his past life, so maybe these new skills he suddenly possessed without even having to think about them were meant to be put to good use. Maybe he was meant to save those whom God was not ready for, and maybe he was meant to ease the pain of death for those who would ultimately be called home.
He looked up when the pastor stepped in the room. The young man’s blond hair was entirely too long to be a member of the cleric as far as Abraham was concerned, but then he supposed that mattered little as Andrew, too, was simply playing out an assigned role.
“Pastor,” Abraham greeted as he stepped away from the washstand.
Abraham could read both the sorrow and joy in Andrew’s eyes. He knew what that meant. The sorrow was for the family that would be left behind to grieve, the joy was for the soul that would soon be embraced in the arms of the loving Father.
“Another one?” Abraham asked the Angel Of Death, suddenly feeling like a failure, yet not really knowing why. After all, he was simply playing a role, too.
“Yes. Another one. I thought you might like to be there to help the family.”
Abraham nodded as he followed the young man out of the office.
I hope it isn’t a child this time. I know I shouldn’t feel this way considering the beauty and love in heaven, but I hate it when it’s a child, Lord. I just hate it when it’s a child.
Abraham thought briefly of his own children, all grown now, all healthy and strong as far as he knew. Three handsome sons and one lovely daughter. No...no, make that four sons. Four sons and one daughter. Yes, sometimes he had to keep reminding himself.
Four sons. He had four sons.