Chapter 24


     Heath shook his head and smiled as he looked up at the sign hanging over the cafe’s entrance.  A Little Bit Of Heaven.


     The cowboy held the screen door open for Randall.  The boy stopped just as he crossed the threshold. Heath sensed the child’s nervousness and understood the reasons behind it.  When you grow up poor so many things others take for granted, like dining in a cafe, are beyond your every day experiences.  When given the opportunity to partake in some of life’s simple pleasures you’re not always certain how to act or what to say, which can cause your stomach to churn as you pray you don’t embarrass yourself or those around you.


     Because it was just a few minutes past twelve the cafe was full save for one table.  When all eyes turned to Heath and Randall, Heath didn’t give it a second thought.  He was the stranger Doctor Wallace had brought in four days ago, no doubt everyone was curious as to who he was and where he’d come from. When Randall leaned into Heath’s legs as if unnerved by all the attention the cowboy reached down and

took the boy’s hand.


     “Come on, Randall.  We’ll go sit at that table back there.”


     “Maybe I shouldn’t be in here, Morgan.  I...I ain’t never been in a cafe before and I’m not wearing shoes.”


     “And exactly what does wearing shoes have to do with being hungry?”


     “Well...nothin’ I guess.  Only maybe it ain’t proper like.”


     “Randall, you’re too young to be frettin’ over what is and isn’t proper.  We’re hard working men and we need to eat.  Right?”


     Randall couldn’t help but return Heath’s grin. 




     Heath led the boy to the empty table.  As he passed three men sitting at a table in the center of the room he heard a sneered,  “I didn’t know they were lettin’ bastards eat in here now.”


     Even after all these years the words still cut right to his heart. Heath felt his face burn red.


     How could they know?  How could they know anything about me?  I left that all behind.  I left everything about myself behind the day I rode off the ranch.


     Before Heath could start the first fistfight that A Little Bit Of Heaven had ever witnessed, one of the man’s buddies spoke up.


     “Maybe that’s Randall’s daddy, comin’ back to give him an honest name.  Say, if a bastard’s daddy shows up outta the blue, does that not make him a bastard anymore?”
     Heath saw Randall’s head drop to his chest.  By the tight set of the boy’s shoulders he knew the child was trying hard not to cry.  Just as Heath was about to pounce on the men a frying pan slammed in the center of their table.  The troublemakers and Heath looked up to see Tess.


     “This here cafe is called A Little Bit Of Heaven for a reason, gentlemen. Like God’s house, all who enter are welcome.  Even the likes of you three, though Lord knows ya’all would try the patience of a saint.  You should be ashamed of yourselves and your cruel words.  The Bible says God loves fools and little children, though with fools like you a woman would have to wonder why. Now you git.  Go on...git your hides right on outta here.”


     “Aw, Tess, we didn’t mean nothin’ by it.   We was just funnin’ with the boy is all.”


     “Well the next time you wanna ‘fun’ with someone, Harry, you see old Tess first and she’ll hit you right up side the head with this here fryin’ pan in order to knock some sense in to that empty skull a’ yours.”  Tess pointed to the door.  “Now go!   Git on outta here ‘fore you give me cause to prove I helped Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio hit a home run right outta Yankee Stadium!”


     The men pushed back their chairs and bolted for the door.  They knew Tess well enough to know she didn’t make idle threats.  Randall watched with wide eyes, then beckoned Heath to bend down.  He cupped his hands around Heath’s ear and whispered, “Sometimes Tess says stuff a fella’ just don’t understand, but no one messes with her, that’s for sure.”


     Heath nodded.  “I can see that.”


     Tess glared at the rest of her patrons, daring anyone else to comment about Randall’s presence.  When nothing more was said she turned and smiled.


     “Hello, Randall.  Mr. Morgan Lee.  Now why don’t you boys have a seat right over there.  Ole’ Tess will be right with you.”


     Heath nodded his thanks and led the boy to the empty table that sat two.


     Randall’s eyes never stopped roaming the interior of the cafe, but then neither did Heath’s.  The walls were pale blue with white, fluffy clouds painted on them.  Angels dressed in long, flowing white robes with gold trim floated amongst the clouds.  Some carried harps, some carried Bibles, some carried children, and some seemed to be beckoning to the cafe’s patrons with outstretched hands.  Gold curtains hung at the cafe’s three windows, and every table was fitted with a gold cloth giving one the impression that you were indeed, in a little bit of Heaven.


     Randall pointed to the wall above his head.  “I didn’t know there were black angels.”

     Heath looked up.  Sure enough some of the angels were black, while others were white, while some looked to be Mexican, others American Indian, and others oriental. 


     “I reckon angels come in all colors, Randall.”


     “They sure do,” Tess said as she came to take their order. “Every color you can think of, Randall.”


     “I’m glad to hear that, Tess, ‘cause I’m pretty sure my friend Orra would like to be an angel someday.  She sure does cotton to singin’ hymns and quotin’ the Bible all the day-long.  I guess that would make her a good angel, huh?”


Tess cupped the boy’s chin and looked into his eyes. “It sure will, baby.  It surely will.” 


     The woman started scribbling on her pad.  “All right, boys, Tess is gonna start you both off with a nice tall glass of cold milk.  Then she’ll bring you each a bowl of her homemade chicken dumpling soup.  Then--”


     “Uh...Tess,”  Heath interrupted.



     “Would you mind if we take a look at some menus?”


     “Menus?  Why, Mr. Morgan Lee, you don’t need no menu.  You’ll eat what Tess puts in front of you.  Have you forgotten you’re supposed to be home in bed as it is?”


     “No, ma’am, but--”


     “I don’t wanna hear no buts.  You just sit here and keep Randall company until I get back.”  The woman walked away muttering, “Menus.  Don’t that beat all?  Menus. Hummmf!  He must think I’m runnin’ some kinda help-yourself, all-you-can-eat, fish-fry-on-Friday-nights smorgasbord here.”


     Randall hunkered low to the table and giggled.  “See what I mean?  Tess says some down right funny things.”


     “Yeah, Randall, I’m beginning to see that more and more.”


     Heath sat there with the boy and waited for Tess to return.  He was a bit put out by the whole thing.  After all, if he was paying for his meal he preferred to make his own food choices.  Lordy, but did this woman remind him of Victoria Barkley. 


     Within five minutes time a feast was carried out to Heath and his helper.  Cold glasses of milk, hot chicken soup, and plates piled high with roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, and dinner rolls were set before them.  Randall’s eyes could barely take in all the food.


     “Is it a holiday or something, Tess?”

     “No, baby, no holiday.  Just a special day now that Mr. Morgan Lee brought you in here to eat some of Tess’s good home cookin’.  Now you boys clean your plates till there ain’t a morsel left, then Tess will bring you both dessert.”


     “Do I get to chose that?”  Heath asked with a hint of teasing to his tone.


     “No,” Tess replied.  “But don’t you worry none, Mr. Morgan Lee.  You’ll like the dessert just fine.”


     Heath didn’t doubt that he would.  He was amazed that once again, the woman had managed to put all of his favorite foods in front of him.  Her roast beef was as tender as Silas’s, and her potatoes were light and fluffy, too, just like the ones Silas whipped for Sunday dinner.


     Randall and Heath were too busy eating to exchange any words. Tess praised them both for cleaning their plates when she came back to pick up the dirty dishes.


     “Randall, I’m glad to see you liked Tess’s cookin’.”


     “Yes, ma’am.  It was wonderful!”


     “And, Mr. Morgan Lee, I’m glad to see you finished every bite.  We’ll fatten you up yet before you leave Heaven.  You’re too skinny.  Just skin and bones is all there is to ya’.  And Tess would know ‘cause she helped give you a bath.”


     Heath felt the color rise to his cheeks.  Tess threw back her head and laughed as she put a dish of apple pie in front of him.


“Oh, but you are a shy one.  The ladies find that attractive in a man, you know.”


     Heath wouldn’t meet Tess’s eyes as he took his first bite of dessert.


     “No, ma’am, I wouldn’t know.”


     “No special woman in your life, Mr. Morgan Lee?”


     “Not right now.”


     “Hummmf.  Well, ole’ Tess will have to do something about that.  Yes, she surely will.  You look like the kinda man who needs a good woman to take care of him.”


     Heath didn’t deem that comment worthy of an answer and was glad when Tess walked away.  He wasn’t too pleased to hear her mumbling women’s names, but decided not to fret over it.  He wasn’t going to be in Heaven long enough for any matchmaking to take place on his behalf.


     The apple pie tasted exactly like the pie Heath’s mother had made. Heath didn’t protest when Tess brought him a second piece as well as a cup of black coffee.  She didn’t ask him if he took his coffee black, but like a lot of other things about him, she just seemed to know.  


     Or more than likely she doesn’t care, Heath thought, with a good dose of humor as the formidable woman walked away.


     Randall sat quietly staring at the table cloth while Heath finished his dessert. Now that the meal was coming to an end the boy’s excitement over eating in a cafe appeared to have left him. 


     “Penny for your thoughts?”


     Randall looked up.  “Huh?”

     “I said, penny for your thoughts.”


     “What’s that mean?”

     “Well, whenever I get real quiet like you are now my moth...someone will say ‘penny for your thoughts.’  It’s an expression.  It’s a way of one person inviting another person to share what’s on their mind.”




     When the boy said no more Heath let the subject drop.   If anyone had respect for the comfort of long silences it was Heath Barkley.


     Heath had just eaten his last bite of pie when Randall spoke.  The boy looked at him through thick blond lashes with his head half bent toward the table.





     “I...well...I understand if you don’t want to be my friend no more.”

     “And just why wouldn’t I want to be your friend?”

     “Because...because of what Harry and the others said.  Because...because of what they called me.”

     “I don’t put any stock in what a man like Harry says.”


     “But it’s true.  I am what he called me.  A...” the boy dropped his voice to a whisper.  “A bastard.”


     Once again Heath felt the old anger and shame rise within him. 


     “Randall, when I look at you all I see is a hard working young man who I’m proud to call my friend.”


     “But do you know what that word means?”






     “Yes, I know what it means.  Nonetheless, I don’t pick my friends based on who their father is or where he’s at.  Makes no difference to me one way or the other.”


     Randall grinned with delight.  And in that grin Heath saw the boy he had been reflected back at him.  He knew the pleased look on Randall’s face came from not being rejected, from not being told his new friend wanted no part of him.  When you’re the town bastard you get used to having friendships pulled out from under you as soon as your buddy’s parents find out your mother’s an unwed woman.


     The boy played with his fork, relaxed now that he knew Heath wasn’t going to judge him for something beyond his control.


     “My father’s a great man, you know.  Real brave.  My ma says so.  I think he fought in the Indian Wars with General  Custer. That’s why he can’t be here with me now.  He’s in the Army. Works as a scout.  But someday...someday when he can, he’ll come back and live with me and Ma.”


     “I’m sure he will, son,” Heath said. 


     The blond man sat there mulling over the Randall’s words.  How odd it was that they echoed his own words when he was about the same age.  His father was a great man.  His father was a brave man who couldn’t be with them because he was off doing something far more important than providing for his son.  But someday...someday his father would come back to him.


     Well, for Heath Barkley that day had never come, and he doubted it would come for Randall Becker either.  But better to leave the boy with his dreams.  In a few more years Randall would come to realize that’s all they were, dreams.  Dreams of a man he’d never meet.  Dreams of a man who wasn’t nearly as noble and brave as an eight year old child wanted him to be.


     Heath shook the dark thoughts from his mind.  So far being Morgan Lee wasn’t much different from being Heath Barkley.  Boy howdy, would he be glad when the day came that he could ride out of Heaven.


     “Come on, Randall.”  The cowboy stood. “It’s almost one and time for us to get back to work.  I’ll pay Tess for our meal, then we’ll be on our way.”


     Tess looked up from behind the counter where she was tallying figures in a ledger book.


     “Pay?  You ain’t gonna pay, Mr. Morgan Lee.”




     “I promised Doctor Wallace I’d look after you.  You shoulda’ been takin’ that meal in bed today. So you don’t owe me nothin.’  You and Randall just get on outta here now.”


     “Look, Tess, I don’t take charity.”


     “And I ain’t offerin’ you charity.  I’m offerin’ you three square meals a day like the doctor said I should.  Whether you eat them at the doctor’s home, or here at A Little Bit Of Heaven, don’t make no difference to me.  Tess’s only job is to get you strong and healthy again.  Now go on with you, Mr. Morgan Lee, and don’t be arguin’ with me.  If you don’t do as I say I’ll put a needle in your arm and feed you through a tube.”


     Heath looked at Randall who shrugged his shoulders.  Evidently this was another one of Tess’s odd sayings.  Heath couldn’t imagine how such a thing would work, but by the look in the woman’s eyes he knew he didn’t want to give her reason to carry out that threat.


     “All right, Tess, Randall and I will be on our way.  Thanks for the meal.”


     “You’re welcome.  And I expect to see your skinny hide at the dinner table tonight, you got that?”


     “Yes, ma’am.  I got it.”


     Randall took Heath’s hand again as the two walked back to the livery stable.  “Ain’t Tess a corker, Morgan?”

     “Boy howdy, Randall, I’d have to say she is.”  Heath shook his head and mumbled,  “Feeding a person through a tube.  Whoever heard of such a thing?”


     Before the cowboy had time to contemplate that further he and Randall were hard at work.




     At four o’clock that afternoon Jasper Thurmond returned to the livery stable.  He eyed Heath’s work, then whistled with appreciation.


     “Mr. Lee, I’d say I’m getting more than my money’s worth out of you.  You’re hired.”


     “Thank you, sir.”

     Randall ran over and took Jasper’s hand.  “How’s Mrs. Thurmond feelin’?”


Heath could see the fear behind the old man’s smile.  “She’s fine, son. Just fine. Thank you for askin’.”

     “And what about Benji and Paul?  How are they?”


     Jasper looked at Heath.  “Benji and Paul are two of my grandsons.”


     “They’re my best friends, Morgan.  Well, them and you.  They’re like my brothers.   Do you have any brothers?”

     Pushing all thoughts of his siblings aside Heath answered, “No.  No, Randall, I don’t.


     “Me either.  Or sisters.  So I pretend Benji and Paul are my brothers.  They don’t mind, do they, Mr. Thurmond?”


     “No, Randall, I don’t reckon they mind a bit.”


     “So how are they?”

     “They’re sick, son.  They’re...sick.”


     “But they’ll get better, won’t they?”


     “Sure, Randall.”  The old man refused to meet the boy’s trusting gaze.  “Sure. They’ll get better.”


     Mr. Thurmond handed Heath the three dollars he owed him.  “You come back tomorrow morning, Mr. Lee.  Things aren’t...things aren’t so good at home so I’d be much obliged if you’d do the work we agreed upon until the worst of this epidemic has passed.”


     “I’ll be happy, too.  Thank you.”


     After Mr. Thurmond left Heath picked up his tools while Randall saw to Charger’s needs.  When both boy and man declared their working day over Heath took Randall’s hand and led him down the street.


     “Where we goin’, Morgan?”

     “To the general store.”


     “How come?”


     “I told you earlier that I owed you something for the good care you’ve been giving Charger, and for helping me today.  Since Tess wouldn’t let me buy you lunch I still have an obligation to you.”

     The child looked up with puzzlement etching his features, but when Heath said nothing further Randall kept his questions to himself.


     The visit to the general store lasted thirty minutes.  Heath was relieved to find this was one establishment Tess didn’t own.  The last thing he needed was her hovering over him while he saw to Randall’s needs.  When the pair left the store Randall was wearing new trousers, a new shirt, and a pair of tan boots almost identical to Heath’s.  The boy carried a wrapped package under one arm that held an additional shirt and pair of trousers.  In Heath’s arms was a wooden crate filled with everything from flour, to sugar, to coffee, to fruit, to canned goods, to penny candies.  On his head was the only thing he’d purchased for himself, a new cowboy hat exactly like the one he’d lost in the desert.


     “Seems like I didn’t do enough work for all you bought, Morgan,” Randall commented as he led Heath toward his home.


     “Well now, I don’t see it quite that way.”


     “My ma might not like it.  We don’t take charity, you know.”

     “I know.  And don’t you worry about your ma.  I’ll make it right with her.”


     Randall ran ahead of Heath, chewing on a licorice stick.  When he came to a tiny, run down house with weathered boards in bad need of paint he burst in the front door.    


     “Ma!  Ma!  You’ll never guess what!”


     Heath followed the boy. The front room was both living room and kitchen. The place was tidy, but small.  He could see a door that led out to the backyard, and another door that led to a bedroom.


     A young woman barely out of her teens lay on a cot in the center of the room.  Her pale orange hair fell in thick waves to the middle of her back; random strands were stuck to the sheen of perspiration dotting her forehead.  A black woman who had to be to seventy if she was a day was tending the ill woman.


     The sick woman’s waxy face was stained ruby with fever, making her freckles hard to see.  When she coughed Heath cringed.  He knew exactly what was wrong with her.  As memories of the Stockton graveyard came to the front of his mind all he wanted to do was set the crate down and flee.


     Randall didn’t seem to sense the severity of his mother’s illness.  He walked over to her cot and bent to kiss her.


“Hi, Ma.”


     The woman’s smile broadcast her enormous love for her child.  When she spoke her voice was raspy and harsh, just like Heath recalled his being only a few weeks ago.


     “Hi, sweetheart.  How was your day?”

     “Just dandy.  I made me a new friend.”


     “You did?”

     “Yep.”  Randall beckoned Heath in from the shadow of the front door. “This here’s Morgan Lee. And a’ fore you ask him, no, he ain’t related to the General Robert E. Lee that Tess knew. But he’s stayin’ with Tess at Doc Wallace’s.”


     Randall’s mother tried to sit up straighter against her pillows.  “You must be the man Doc Wallace found a few days back.”


     “Yes, ma’am.”


     “Morgan, this is my ma, Josie Becker. Her real name is Josette.  Josie’s just her nickname. Don’t you think Josette is about the prettiest name you ever heard?”

     “Oh, Randall, don’t put our guest on the spot like that.”


     “That’s okay, ma’am.  The boy’s right.  It is a pretty name.”

     “Well thank you, Mr. Lee.”


     “Morgan.  Please call me Morgan.”


     “Only if you’ll call me Josie.”

     “All right.  Josie it is.”


     Randall ran over to the black woman who was filling a pan with fresh water from the pump.  To all intents and purposes the old woman acted as though she wasn’t even aware Randall and Heath were in the room.


     “And this here’s Orra.  She’s Ma’s friend from ages and ages ago.”


     The skinny old black woman turned to greet Heath.  “I be happy to meet you, Mr. Lee.  Mighty happy.”


     “Nice to meet you, too, Miss Orra.”


      Josie took notice of her son’s apparel for the first time since he’d walked in the door.


“Randall, where’d you get those clothes?”


     “Morgan bought ‘em for me, Ma.”  The boy held up the package he still had tucked under his arm.  “And he bought me an extra set, too.  And food.  He bought food.”


     At the mention of food Heath walked the crate into the kitchen area and set it on the counter.  Josie gathered all her strength and tried to sound firm.  Fire flashed from the twenty-two year old’s blue eyes.


     “I don’t know what Randall’s told you about us, Mr. Lee, but we don’t need your sympathy, or your charity.”


     “But, Ma--”


     “Randall, that’s enough.  I won’t have any back talk.”


     The boy hung his head; embarrassed to be bawled out in front of his new friend.  “Yes, Ma.”


     “Look, mMa’am--”

     “My name’s not ma’am.  It’s Josie Becker. Miss Josie Becker,” the sick woman emphasized as though to test Heath’s character.  The cowboy didn’t even blink.


     “Look, Miss Becker, I didn’t buy Randall the clothes or bring the food out of sympathy or charity either one.  Truth of the matter is Randall’s been taking excellent care of my horse while I’ve been laid up, and then today Mr. Thurmond hired me on at the livery to do some carpentry work.  Randall worked with me all day and I felt it was my obligation to pay him for the hours he put in.”


     The woman turned to her son.    “Is that true, Randall?  Did you work with Mr. Lee today?”

     “Yes, Ma. All day long.  And you know what?”




     “We even ate lunch at Tess’s place.  At A Little Bit Of Heaven.  Oh, Ma, it was wonderful.  The only thing that woulda’ made it better was if you and Orra could have eatin’ there with us.”


     The black woman looked at Randall from where she was unpacking the crate.  Her words made Heath think of Hannah.


     “Oh go on with you, boy, talkin’ foolishness like that.  Go on with you now.”


     “No, really, Orra, we did eat there.  Didn’t we, Morgan?”

     “We sure did.”

     “And Ma, Morgan said it was okay if I call him by his first name.  Is that all right with you?”


     Heath could see the woman was quickly tiring.  She fell back into her pillows.


“Sure, son.  That’s fine with me as long as Mr. Lee said it’s okay.”


     When Josie was wracked by a coughing spasm that left Randall wide-eyed with fear.   Orra shoved a dishpan into his hands.


     “Randall, you git on outside and pick the beans for supper, then fill the wood box.  Go on, now.  Hurry along.”




     Heath placed a hand on the boy’s back.  “Come on, Randall.  Let Orra tend to your ma.  I’ll help you with your chores.”


     Josie flashed Heath as much of a grateful smile as she could muster.  To the sounds of her harsh coughs Heath and Randall left the house.


     A healthy garden sprouted in Josie’s back yard just like the garden Heath’s mother had in Strawberry.  The vegetables they’d harvested during the summer months got them through many a long lean winter, just like Heath was certain this garden did for Josie Becker and her boy.


     Randall and Heath were sitting on the back steps snapping beans when they heard Orra’s cry.   


     “Miss Josie!  Miss Josie!  Oh, Miss Josie, you gots to breathe!  You gots to breathe!”


     Heath threw the beans in his hand aside and raced for the house, Randall at his heels.  As soon as Heath entered the kitchen he could tell Josie was much worse than she had been just a short time ago.  He recalled one of the first days of his illness and how one minute it seemed like Victoria was leaving his room to get him lunch, and the next minute Jarrod and Nick were restraining him while trying to feed him.  He’d later been told his fever had climbed dangerously high with a speed Victoria had never seen before in all her years of tending sick children.


     Josie’s body twisted and withered on the small cot as she tried to draw in air.  Her face burned Heath’s hand.  He leaned her over his knees like he vaguely remembered his brothers doing to him and used his palm to thrust between her shoulder blades.  Heath blocked out Orra’s hysterical screams of, “Miss Josie!  Miss Josie!”  and Randall’s frightened cries of “Ma!  Ma!”  as he worked to get the woman air.  She finally coughed hard three times, then drew in a deep breath before collapsing against Heath’s legs.  He turned Josie and scooped the unconscious woman up in his arms as easily as if she was Randall.


     “Where’s the doctor working out of?”

     “The church,” Orra answered. “He’s got most a’ the sick people there.  But you just leave Miss Josie be.  She won’t be welcome.”


     “Welcome or not, that’s where she’s goin’.”


     As Heath started for the door the black woman grabbed his arm.


“Mr. Lee, you can’ts take her there.  You can’ts!  They’ll just make you bring her on back, they will.  They say she’s not a good woman ‘cause she ain’t got no husband.  Orra knows that’s not true, Miss Josie is a good woman, but no one cares what Orra say and they’ll make you bring her back.” 


     “I don’t mean any disrespect, Miss Orra, but no, they won’t make me bring her back.  She’ll get the care she needs if I have to stay there all night and give it to her myself.”


     Randall ran along behind Heath clinging to his belt as the cowboy’s long strides headed for the church. 


     Everyone looked up when Heath burst in the front doors with Josie.  He moved for the first empty cot he saw, but was stopped by two men who blocked his path.


     “You just take her right on outta here, Mister!”


     “That’s right.  Git her out!  If she’d spent more time in church long before she beget that there boy, she wouldn’t be in need of the Lord’s help today.  Now go on! Git!”


     Heath glared at the men.  How he hated their ignorance.  A spiteful ignorance born of cruelty he’d known his whole life.


     “I’m not going anywhere.  Now get out of my way.”


     “Evidently you don’t know how things is done in Heaven, stranger.  I hear tell you already had the boy in the cafe, like you can waltz around bendin’ the rules to please yourself.  Well, you can’t, and I ain’t got no problem in teachin’ you that.”


     Heath’s jaw clenched in a way that his brothers would have recognized signaled the end of his patience. 


     “I’ve never punched a man in a church before, but if you don’t move out of my way you’ll be the first.”


     “Oh yeah?  Well, let’s just see you--”


     Before the fight could escalate further Doctor Wallace appeared. 


     “Gentlemen, that’s enough.  We’ve don’t need anymore trouble than we already have.  Now, Burton...John, move out of the way and let this man pass.”


     “But, Doc,....”


     “I said move!”


     Burton Hughs and John McClafferty stared at the doctor a moment longer, then reluctantly did as he ordered.


     “I bet you’re cut from the same cloth,” pudgy Burton Hughs sneered as Heath passed.  “Probably somebody’s bastard yourself.  I suppose you all stick together.”


     Abraham saw the muscles in the stranger’s back tighten, but the young man didn’t say another word to his tormentors.  The doctor was ashamed of these people who lived in a place called Heaven while he watched as one after another, those who were healthy sat on empty cots to prevent Heath from placing Josie near their loved ones.  Finally, a woman stood and beckoned from the last row. 


     “Sir, please!  Bring her back here.”


     Heath walked a straight line to the woman.  He placed Josie on the cot nearest the wall.  He glanced to his right and saw six children lying on cots of their own.  The oldest couldn’t have been more than eight, the youngest a baby of twelve months.  They all had varying shades of brown hair and just by looking at their features Heath knew they were brothers and sisters.


     “I’m Della Crawford,” the woman introduced.  “This is my husband Frank.”  A man who had been tending two of the children looked up and gave Heath a tired nod.  “And these...these are our children.”


     “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.  I thank you for your kindness.”


     “Don’t thank me for offering Miss Becker the common decency she deserves.”


     Heath moved aside while Doctor Wallace examined Josie.  He placed a hand on Randall’s back. 


     “This is Randall.  Miss Becker’s son.”


     Della smiled.  “It’s nice to meet you, Randall.’


     Randall could barely take his worried eyes off his mother long enough to acknowledge Mrs. Crawford. 


“Nice to meet you, too, Ma’am.”


     Doctor Wallace stood in short order.  “She’s a very sick young woman.  We can only offer her what we’ve offered the others.  A clean bed, warm broth, cold cloths in an attempt to reduce the fever, and quinine.”


     “Quinine!”  Came a cry from the front of the room.  “Not for the likes of her!  You’re not taking quinine away from my family in order to--”


     Heath drew his gun as he whipped around to face the speaker.   Men stood in stunned surprise and women cried out with fright while covering their children with their bodies.


     Heath ignored the upset he’d caused.  “She’ll get what she needs just like everyone else in this town!  If you try to keep it from her you’ll answer to me.”


     “Son.”  Abraham reached out and placed a hand on Heath’s wrist.  “Son, now that won’t be necessary.  You just put the gun away and I’ll handle things from here.”


     Heath glared at the doctor until he dropped his hand. 


“Don’t assume it won’t be necessary just because you’ve never experienced the ugly side of people. I been a lotta places and seen a lotta things, and people are people no matter where you go.  Miss Becker needs help, that’s all that matters to me.  Who she is or what she’s done shouldn’t make a difference when she’s in need of medical care.”


     “And it doesn’t.  At least not to me.”  Abraham cocked an eyebrow at the stranger that he just now recognized as being the man he’d found in the dessert outside of town.  “After all, I stopped to help you, didn’t I?  A man I know nothing about.”


     Heath stared at the doctor a long moment, then slowly reholstered his gun.


“Yeah.   Yeah, I guess you did.  Or so I’ve been told.”


     Monica arrived on the heels of the excitement carrying a pan of cold water and a cloth.  She sat down on the edge of Josie’s cot and began sponging the woman’s face.


     “And you were told right,” the nurse said to Heath. “Doctor Wallace, this is Morgan Lee.  Mr. Lee, this is Doctor Abraham Wallace.”


     “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Lee. I’m glad to see you’re up and about.  Monica told me you were doing better.”


     “I am.”


     “You don’t seem very pleased about that fact.”


     Heath simply shrugged under the doctor’s scrutiny. 


“Maybe I just don’t like being in a church full of sick people.”

“Ah...I see.  Scared of getting the disease I take it?”


     “No, I’m not scared. Got no reason to be.  Already had it.”


     “Oh, then maybe--”


     “Doctor, just take care of Miss Becker please.”


     Monica looked up at Abraham and stage-whispered,  “Mr. Lee’s not much for talking about himself, Doctor.”


     “Well now, I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with a man who keeps his own counsel.”


     The doctor turned to his patient, forgetting all about the stranger behind him with the fast gun.



Chapter 25


     At seven o’clock that night Monica urged Doctor Wallace and Heath to go home.


     “I’ll be stayin’ here tonight, Doctor.  You need to rest.”




     “Now, now.  No protesting from you.  I’ve got plenty of help.  I don’t need another pair of hands just getting in my way. Besides, Tess will have supper waiting, and you know how crabby she gets when her cooking isn’t given proper attention by two hungry men.”


     Abraham smiled at Monica’s words, then looked around the church.  She was right, plenty of the town’s people who were healthy were on hand to help those who weren’t. 


     Heath had taken Randall home so Orra could feed him supper, then walked back to the church with both the woman and the boy.  Orra was now tending to Josie while Randall sat on the floor beside her.  Monica saw Heath’s eyes travel to the blond child.


     “I’ll take care of Randall, Mr. Lee.  I’ll make him a pallet right here beside his mama.”


     “Thank you.  I appreciate it.”


     When Randall realized his friend was leaving he jumped to his feet and wrapped his arms around Heath’s waist. 


“Thank you for fightin’ for my ma, Morgan.  No one’s ever spoke up for her before ‘cept me.”


     Heath knelt down and ran a hand through Randall’s hair.


“You’re a good boy, Randall.  Don’t you ever let anyone tell you different now, ya’ hear.  Speakin’ up for your ma is the right thing to do.  I spoke up for my mama many a time when I was no bigger than you.  Earned a few black eyes for it, but that never mattered none to me.”


     As Heath stood Josie beckoned him over with a weak hand.


“Thank you, Mr. Lee.  I appreciate all you’ve done for us today.  The clothes for Randall, the food, bringing me here, being a friend to my son, looking past...looking past who I am.”


     “There’s no need to thank me, ma’am.  And I don’t need to look past anything.  When I look at you all I see is a hard working woman who loves her son very much and is doing the best job she possibly can to raise him right.  That’s nothing to be ashamed of, Josie.”


     “Lots of others won’t agree with you on that.”


     Heath smiled.  “There have been a number of people who haven’t agreed with my view on things over the years, a few more don’t make much difference to me one way or another.”


     Josie coughed as she grasped Heath’s hand.  “Thank you.  Thank you so much.”


     Doctor Wallace stood by silently observing this unusual exchange.  When Heath stood the older man walked with him through the church and out the front doors.  As they made their way to Abraham’s house the doctor said, “So I take it you’re not Randall’s father?”

     “What makes you ask that?”


     “Well, from the rumors I heard today some of the town’s folks are speculating on it.”


     Heath’s disgust shown from his eyes.  “Just because I gave Randall and his mama the respect they deserve simply for being the good people they are, doesn’t make me the boy’s father, or his mother’s lover.”


     “I know that, it’s just--”


     “Doctor, if you had to ask then you don’t know a damn thing.”  And with that Heath stalked off. 


     Abraham shook his head and smiled.  “For a quiet one he’s sure not afraid to speak his mind when riled.”


     By the time Abraham had washed his hands and changed in to a fresh white shirt Heath was already seated at the table.  Tess and the doctor sat down together.  Heath stared at his plate as Tess said grace, then accepted the platter of fried chicken she passed him.


     “You don’t believe in thanking the Lord for your food, Mr. Morgan Lee?  And don’t give me that look. I saw you sittin’ there with your eyes wide open scowlin’ at the table all angry like as though you got a bone to pick with God.  So do you?”


     “Do you have a bone to pick with God?”

     “No, ma’am.”


     “Hummmf.  I know a lie when I hear one, Mr. Morgan Lee.  What about you, Doctor?  Do you think Mr. Morgan Lee just might have himself all upset over something he’s blaming God for?”

     “Don’t know, Tess,” Abraham said as he dug into the fried chicken.  This was one benefit to being in human form again, reaping enjoyment from good cooking.  “If Mr. Lee says no, then I suppose he means no.”


     “Well, that’s just like you men.  You always stick together.  And say, Doctor, take a long hard look at Mr. Morgan Lee for me.”


     Abraham glanced at Tess.  “What?”

     “Look at Mr. Morgan Lee.  Go on, do it.”


     Heath wondered what the woman was up to.  He was feeling pretty good for a change.  He hoped he didn’t look like he was running a fever or something.  The last thing he wanted was to be put back in bed.


     Abraham did as Tess instructed and studied Heath from across the table. 


     “So?  What do you see?”


     “Well, now...I guess I see a young man who’s a bit on the thin side, who’s been sick recently, and by sick I mean long before he came to us, so he probably had no business being on the trail to begin with, who might be in need of a shave and hair cut unless, of course, this is what his normally favors.  If so, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Kinda makes a person think of George Custer, doesn’t it, Tess?”


     Heath resisted the urge to roll his eyes.


Great.  Here we go again.


     “No, no, no,” Tess scolded.  “That’s not what I mean.  Take a goooood look at our guest.  Does he look like a Morgan to you?  Or a Lee?”


     “Tess, he looks like he looks.  Sure, I suppose he looks like a Morgan Lee about as much as I look like an Abraham Wallace.  Why the fuss?”


     Tess gave a heavy sigh and tilted her face heavenward.  Lord how she hated having to guide new employees through their first assignments.


     “Never mind,” Tess dismissed with disgust that was plain to hear. “Just eat your supper.”


     “That’s what I aim to do.  This is good, Tess.  Very good. Reminds me of the Southern food another cook I had used to make.”

     Heath was grateful the doctor was more interested in eating than carrying on a conversation with him.  But just by looking at the man Heath could tell he was exhausted.  No doubt the long hours tending to the sick were taking their toll on him.  As he watched Abraham reach for his fourth piece of chicken and third helping of mashed potatoes Heath was amazed that someone so slight of build could eat so much.   The man’s appetite made him think of Nick, though Heath didn’t allow himself to dwell on the comparison for long.


     When supper was over Tess shooed the men from her kitchen. Before either one of them had time to decide what part of the house they wanted to retreat to, she placed a hand in the center of their backs and pushed them toward the front porch.


     “You both go on out there and sit a spell.  The sun’s goin’ down now and the night air has a cool breeze to it.”


     “But, Tess,” the doctor protested,  “I was thinking of just going right on to bed.  I’m worn out and could really use a good night’s...”


     “Doctor, you know as well as I do that there’s nothin’ more ornery to the digestion than goin’ to bed on a full stomach.  I ain’t gonna have either of you comin’ to me in two hours and tellin’ me my good cookin’ is churnin’ around in your bellies.  No, now you and Mr. Morgan Lee visit for a while.”


     Doctor Wallace couldn’t imagine having much to visit about with this quiet stranger whom he’d managed to get angry without intending to, anymore than Heath could imagine having much to say to the small town doctor he shared nothing in common with.  But because it was wiser to comply with Tess’s orders rather than defy her, the men stepped onto the front porch and sat in the rocking chairs.  They could vaguely hear Tess humming What A Friend We Have In Jesus as she went about washing dishes.


     Doctor Wallace pulled a pipe out of the front pocket of his shirt.  He struck a match against a leg of his chair and lit the bowl.  He took three longs puffs, then pulled the pipe out of his mouth.


     “That woman never stops her humming.  She knows more hymns than I think I’ve learned in a life time.”


     Heath said nothing as he slowly pushed the rocker back and forth with his feet.  His mind drifted in odd directions, first to Hannah.  Tess’s humming and the sounds of the dishes clattering in the background made him think of Hannah. He pictured Jarrod’s face next.  It took him a moment to figure out why his oldest brother came to mind, but then he knew.  The pipe tobacco Doctor Wallace favored. It was the exact same tobacco Jarrod favored. Heath was willing to bet on it.


     “What kinda tobacco is that?”


     The doctor took his pipe out of his mouth and looked at his companion. “Pardon me?”


     “Tobacco?  What kind are you using?”


     “Dunstan Vanilla.”


     A slight smile touched the corners of Heath’s mouth.  He was right.  Dunstan Vanilla.  Just what Jarrod always used.  Just what Jarrod had at one time told him Tom Barkley always used.


     “Why?”  The doctor asked. “Do you smoke?”


     “No.  Not the pipe.  Cigars every so often.  A cigarette now and again, though more when I was in the army than anything else.”


     “Where’d you serve?”

     “Spent most of my time as a sharp shooter with the 17th Regiment in Tennessee during the war.”


     “The war?”




     “If you don’t mind me saying, you look a little young to have served in the war.”


     “I reckon I was.  Or at least in years.  Fifteen when I enlisted.”


     “Young in years?  What do you mean by that?  Fifteen’s young no matter how you look at it.”


     Heath glanced at the doctor.  “I started working when I was six years old.  Did a lot of different jobs, met a lot of different people.  When you start that young by the time you’re fifteen you’re practically an old man.”


     “I suppose.  What had you working at such a tender age?  If you don’t mind my asking that is.”


     Heath gave the man a vague answer as was typical for him.  “We needed the money.”        


     Again Heath thought of Jarrod when the doctor wouldn’t let the subject drop without probing further.


     “What did your father do?  Was he laid up?”

     Heath gave a mirthless laugh.  “Yeah, he was laid up all right.  In another town.  With his wife and children.”


     “Oh.  Oh, I see.  I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have asked.”


     “No.  Not if you couldn’t handle the answer.”


     “What makes you think I can’t handle the answer?”

     “Doctor, I’ve been judged all my life based on the sins of my father.  Like little Randall Becker, I wasn’t welcome most places when I was a kid.  You see, like Randall, I was the town bastard.  But my father...well you can bet your last dollar on the fact that he was welcomed everywhere he went.  You can bet your last dollar on the fact that he never had to crawl in a mine when he was six years old, or sixty years old for that matter, in order to set explosives just so he could bring home a dollar a day to his mama.”


     Doctor Wallace shook his head.  He thought of his past life and how that was one thing he’d expressively forbid.  He’d never allowed anyone under the age of sixteen to work for any of his operations.  A six-year old child.  Six years old and crawling down a mineshaft with dynamite in his small hands.  The doctor thought of his own sons at that same age and could hardly imagine such thing.


     “I can see you don’t approve.”


     Abraham looked at the man sitting kitty-corner to him.  “No, I don’t approve.  A child that young going into a mine for what...a dollar a day?  Of course I don’t approve.”


     “Doctor, sometimes that one dollar a day made the difference between whether or not we had food in the house.”


      Abraham mulled over Heath’s words, then gave a thoughtful nod.  “Yes.  Yes, I suppose it did.”


     The two men kept their peace for a few minutes, Abraham puffing on his pipe and Heath silently berating himself for bringing up his past.  The first gray haze of darkness had begun to fall when Abraham spoke again.


     “And your mother?”

     Heath was startled out of his own thoughts.  “What?”


     “Your mother?  What did she do to earn a living?”

     “Near about anything she had to.  Cooked at a cafe, washed clothes for miners, did their mending, cleaned houses for rich people, whatever earned us a few bucks.”


     “And school?  Did you go to school?”


     “Why do you ask?  Are you assuming just ‘cause I was the town bastard. I was also the town idiot?”

     Abraham threw his head back and laughed. 


     Heath scowled.  “What’s so funny?”

     “Mr. Lee, for a quiet man you’ve got a temper, no doubt about it.  And you also tend to jump to unwarranted conclusions. You remind me of one of my sons in that regard.  But to answer your question, no, of course I don’t think you were the town idiot.  I’m simply asking if you were able to go to school because you mentioned working when you were just six.”


     Heath looked down at his boots; embarrassed he’d let his temper get the best of him.  That was usually Nick’s department, though occasionally Heath was an even match for his brother in that area.


     “Yeah, I went to school.  My mama was big on education.  Or at least I went until I was thirteen.  Not long after that I dropped out.”


     “And your mother?”

     “What about her?”


     “Is she--”


     “She’s dead.”


     “I’m sorry.”


     “No need to be.  People die.  You’re a doctor.  No doubt you know that better than anyone.  She had a hard life.  Mama..she had a hard life.”


     “How long ago?”

     “Be five years in October.”


     “So that’s why you identify so strongly with Josie Becker and her son.”


     Heath felt the anger rise again. 


“I don’t identify with anyone.  Miss Becker needed someone in Heaven to stand up for her.  It’s too bad it took a stranger to do just that.”


     “Yes,” Abraham nodded, his stock in this unusual young man rising another notch.  “Yes, you’re right.  It is.”


     Abraham shifted in his chair.  He studied his companion in the fading light.  Morgan Lee’s face revealed little, but his eyes...the doctor thought of his long-deceased father.  Like Abraham’s father, Mr. Lee’s pale blue eyes held so many thoughts, and words, and feelings left unspoken.  The old man changed the subject.


     “What I said in the kitchen earlier is true, isn’t it?  You’ve been sick recently.”


     Heath looked at Abraham but refused to say anything.


     “Oh, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I already know.  The fever you had, the congestion in your chest, the cough, the fact that your clothes were hanging off of’re recovering from diphtheria, aren’t you?”


     Abraham wasn’t surprised when his visitor didn’t answer again.  He allowed the man his silence while smiling his triumph to himself.


     Ah...I’ve finally figured it out.  I finally know the purpose of this assignment.  I bet this poor young man lost a wife and children to the epidemic.  God wants me to help him see that though the pain and loss are fresh right now, life does go on.  That there’s more for him out there in the years to come.  I know that as well as anyone. I buried a child. My marriage suffered a rocky road or two.  I had my share of business failures. Did things...did something I was ashamed of later. Because of all that I started over several times in my life.


     Feeling every bit like Abraham, the wise father of many, Doctor Wallace leaned forward and patted Heath’s knee. 


     “Son, I’m sorry for your loss.”




     “By the looks of you I can tell you’re grieving.  I know a diphtheria epidemic costs many lives.  Who did you lose?”


     Heath was furious at this nosy old man and his patronizing manner.  He stood so abruptly his rocking chair flew into the wall of the house.


     “Who did I lose?  I lost a good portion of a town, Doctor!  One hundred and thirty-five people are dead because of me!”


     “Because of you?”

     “Yes, because of me.  Because I infected them!”


     “Oh now, son, you can’t blame yourself--”


     “Quit calling me that!  I’m not your son!  I’m Tom Barkley’s bastard, that’s who I am!  And believe me, the people of Stockton, California don’t ever plan on letting me forget it!”


     The screen door slammed as Heath stomped into the house.  Abraham’s chair stopped rocking as his pipe slipped from his hand.  It landed with a soft ‘thump’ on the floor of the porch.


     Tess walked out of the house with one last backward glance at the angry man who’d flown by. 


     “Land sakes, you look like you’ve seen a ghost, Abraham.  What’s got Mr. Morgan Lee so riled that he grabbed a clean shirt and high tailed it out the back door?”

     “I...”  the doctor swallowed hard before regaining his composure.  “I don’t know, Tess.  But you were right about one thing.  Our visitor isn’t a Morgan, or a Lee.”


     “Who is he then?”


     “Barkley.”  Abraham looked out over his rose garden, refusing to meet Tess’s eyes for fear his sins were written all over his face.  “His name is Heath Barkley.”


     Tess already knew that, of course, but all she said as she walked back into the house was, “I told you he didn’t look like no Morgan Lee.  Didn’t I tell you that?  No siree, I knew he wasn’t no Morgan, nor no Lee either.”


     And now Abraham knew it, too.




Chapter 26



     Heath passed a restless night in the livery stable’s haymow.  He’d slept worse places so the accommodations weren’t what kept him awake, but rather it was his past.  The past he couldn’t seem to get away from even in a place called Heaven. All it took was one epidemic in a small Nevada town, an unwed woman and her son, and one nosy old doctor to enable all Heath was trying to run from to catch up with him.


     Heath sat on a bale of hay and exchanged his green shirt for a brown one.


     This is exactly why I didn’t want to be in a town. This is exactly why I wanted to work on a ranch.  On a ranch everyone’s too busy to be worryin’ about where the new guy came from.  As long as you do your job no one cares who you are.  On a ranch I can be anyone I want to be. The minute the quarantine is lifted from this town I’m gonna get on Charger and ride outta here.  I’ll head farther north.  Maybe into Idaho territory like I was thinkin’ the other day. 


     A voice from below broke into Heath’s thoughts.

     “Hey up there!  Hey, Mr. Morgan Lee, breakfast is ready!”


     Heath looked down the ladder to see Tess. 


     “Well, come on with you.  I ain’t got all day.  Gotta open the cafe at eleven, you know.”


     “Tess, never mind about breakfast.  I’m fine.”


     “Don’t you be tellin’ Tess never mind ‘bout no breakfast.  Get yourself down here and get over to my kitchen ‘fore I take my wooden spoon to your skinny behind.”




     “Now, Mr. Morgan Lee, I’ve just about had me enough of your back talk.”


     Heath sighed and climbed down the ladder carrying his dirty shirt.  For goodness sake, but would this old black woman give Victoria a run for her money.  As Heath passed Tess he said,  “I imagine you heard from Doctor Wallace that my name isn’t Morgan Lee.  It’s Barkley.  Heath Barkley.”


     Tess grinned.  “Yes, the doctor did mention you’re one of them California Barkleys, but I been callin’ you Mr. Morgan Lee for so long now it’s kinda grown on me.”


     Heath sighed as he allowed the woman to lead him to the doctor’s house.  Well, his mama always did say no good came from lying.  And now he supposed he was going to have to pay for that misdeed by having Tess call him Mr. Morgan Lee for the rest of his stay in Heaven.


     Tess seemed to sense Heath’s need for silence that morning.  She said not a word when she put a plate of eggs and bacon in front of him, nor did she make any comments while he went about eating them.


     When he was finished he thanked her for the meal like he had the previous day.


     “No need to thank me.  I enjoy cookin’ for a hungry man.  And I just want you to know I don’t plan on holdin’ my tongue like this through every meal I serve you.  But this morning...well this morning I could tell you needed to be alone with your thoughts, Mr. Morgan Lee.”


     Heath gave the woman the endearing half smile his family was so familiar with. “Yes, Ma’am.  Thank you for respecting that.”


     The cowboy walked to the back bedroom to clean up.  He got his saddlebags from the closet and laid them on the bed that had been his.  He dug for his razor and shaving cream.  He had no intention of shaving his beard off, but he was going to trim it up a little so it stayed neat and didn’t grow past his chin thereby making him look like an old mountain man. As Heath pulled out the razor his hand encountered something else.  He knew what it was long before he brought it into view. 


     The previous September Eugene and his English bride, Anna, came to the States so Anna could meet the Barkley family.  Victoria had hosted a lavish reception for the couple, and it was prior to the start of that party that this photo had been taken.


     Heath smiled a little as he looked at it.  Victoria sat in a chair with Anna and Audra seated on either side of her.  The four men were lined up behind the women and turned slightly to the right for the benefit of the camera.  Heath remembered that day well.  Nick complained loudly about having to be in a suit a full hour before the party was to start, while Audra ran between Heath and Nick fixing their ties.  It took her a few minutes to realize that she’d no more than get Heath presentable than Nick would purposely knock his tie askew.  Heath did the same to his brother meaning that poor Audra was in tither over what the two of them could possibly be doing that left their ties hanging crooked at their necks.  It wasn’t until she caught Nick with his fingers on the string of Heath’s tie that she discovered she was once again being teased by the two pranksters.  She’d tried to sound stern while giving them a lecture, but they were laughing so hard that she finally threw her hands up and called, “Mother!  I know of two boys who need a tanning with your wooden spoon.”


     “Good memories?”

     Heath swiveled, startled by the voice behind him.  Since he hadn’t seen   Doctor Wallace at the breakfast table he assumed the man was at the church tending to the sick. 


     The old man was leaning against the doorframe watching Heath.  Heath tossed the picture on the bed, picked up his razor and shaving cream, and walked over to the washstand.


     Abraham waited for Heath to speak.  When he didn’t the doctor entered the room and crossed to the bed.  He picked up the photograph. 


     “You mind if I look at it?”

     Using the mirror, Heath eyed the man without turning as he went about trimming his beard.


     “Guess not.”


     Abraham studied the picture a long time.  “Who are these people?”

     “I said I didn’t mind you lookin’ at it, I didn’t say I was gonna answer any questions.”


     The ever-persistent doctor carried the picture to Heath’s side.  He pointed at Heath’s image.


     “This must be you.”

     Heath’s eyes slid to the photograph as he lifted his face to shave his neck.     “Yep.”


     “Without all that hair on your face you’re quite a handsome fellow.”


     Heath didn’t deem the doctor’s comment worth a response.


     “Looks like this was some type of family celebration.”


     “My younger brother’s wedding reception.”


     Abraham cocked an eyebrow.  “Younger brother?”


     “Okay.  Half brother.”


     “That’s not what I meant.  It’s just that based on our conversation last night I assumed you didn’t know your father’s family.  But that is who these people are, am I correct?”




     Abraham pointed to Jarrod’s face.  “So who’s this?”

     Heath sighed.  He could tell the man wasn’t going to leave until his questions were answered.  Did old age give people the right to be rude and inquire about things that were none of their business?


     “My oldest brother Jarrod.”


     “Ah.  Jarrod Barkley.  I’ve heard of him.  Supposed to be a crackerjack attorney they say.”


     Heath couldn’t keep the pride out of his voice when he said,  “The best there is.”


     “And this?”  Abraham said as he pointed to Eugene. 


     “That’s Eugene.  The woman in front of him is his wife Anna.”


     “What’s he do?”

     “He’s a professor at a college in London among other things.”


     “Smart young man then I take it.”


     “Mighty smart.”


     “And this?”

     Heath glanced down as he used a towel to wipe his face dry.  “Audra.  My little sister.”


     “Pretty lady.”




     “She’s got a twinkle in her eye that tells me she might be a handful at times.”


     Heath thought of the impulsive nineteen-year old girl who had come to his Stockton hotel room three years earlier with the intention of making a pass at him in order to test his claim that he was Tom Barkley’s son.


     “Oh, she can be a handful when she sets her mind to it, there’s no doubt about that. But she’s fun, too.”


     “Oh?  Are you two close?”

     “We like a lotta the same things.  Horses, riding, card games, checkers--”


     “So that means yes?”

     “Yeah.  I reckon it does.”


     Abraham pointed to the picture again.  “And this strapping fellow?”


     “That’s Nick.  He runs the ranch.”


     “And what do you do?”




     “Yes.  What’s your job on the Barkley ranch?”


     “I’m in charge of mine operations, timber operations,

and horse breeding.”


     “Sounds like a lot of responsibility.  Do you and this Nick get along well?”

     Heath wanted to say, “What difference does it make to you?”  but remembering that he did owe this man something for the care and shelter he’d given him forced Heath to hold his tongue.


     “Yeah.  We get along fine.”


     “Good friends?”


     Yeah.  Yeah...real good friends.”


     Abraham’s finger pointed to Victoria last.  If Heath noticed the tremor to the old man’s hand he didn’t comment on it.


     “That’s Victoria Barkley,” Heath said as if everyone should know a fine woman when they set eyes on her.  “She’s my stepmother.”


     “You started to say mother.  Is that what you call her?”

     “Why do you ask?”  Heath’s eyes flashed as he grabbed the picture from Abraham’s hands and laid it face down on the washstand.  “Don’t you think I have the right?”


     Heath’s anger didn’t bother the doctor in the slightest.


“I think what you call Victoria Barkley is between you and she.  I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business.”


     “All right then.  Yes.  I call her mother.  And that’s a tribute to the wonderful woman she is.  After all, I’m not her son; remember?  I’m her husband’s bastard.”


     “I wish you wouldn’t say that.”


     “Why not?  It’s true.”

     “Why can’t you just call yourself Tom Barkley’s son and leave it at that?”


     “Because he never asked me to.”


     Abraham’s gaze pinned Heath to the wall. 


“Did he even know about you?  Prior to his death...he is dead, isn’t he?  I’m assuming so since he’s not in the picture.”


     “Yeah, he’s dead.  Been dead nine years.”


     “So did he know about you?”

     Heath turned away, but not before Abraham saw him shake his head no.


     “Then how can you blame a dead man for--”


     Heath brushed by the man on his way out the door.


“I can blame a dead man for a lot of things, Doctor Wallace.  A lot of things you’ll never understand unless you know what it’s like to grow up dirt poor, only to find out later that your father’s the richest man in the state of California.”




     The doctor’s voice caused Heath to stop just as he was about to step into the parlor.


     “Son, I can tell you love your family a lot.”


     “How I feel about my family is none of your business.”


     “Do they know where you are?”


     “No.  And don’t go gettin’ any ideas because I don’t want them to.”


     “Don’t you think Victoria Barkley might be worried about you?”




     When Heath didn’t say anymore Abraham knew the answer.


     “You know she’s worried about you. You know she’s worried about you and you know she loves you.  I can see it in your eyes.  You do a good job of hiding your feelings, Heath, unless someone takes the time to look into your eyes.”


     Heath had been told that before on many occasions, but only by one person.  Victoria. 


     The cowboy started out the door.


      “Heath,” the doctor beckoned in a soft, conciliatory tone that made the blond man think of Jarrod.  “Are you trying to run from your past?  Or somewhere, deep inside yourself, does the little boy still live who’s searching for his father?”


     Heath whipped around.  He shoved two fingers into his chest.


“I killed a hundred and thirty-five people, Doctor!  A hundred and thirty-five people that included friends and neighbors.  I’m not running from anything, and I sure as hell ain’t searchin’ for a dead man!  I’m just...I’m starting over.  That’s what I’m doing is starting over.”


     If Heath had stayed in the room long enough Abraham would have told him he sounded like he was trying to convince himself of that last fact.  But Heath didn’t stay in the room, or the house. Abraham heard the front screen door slam, then the front gate do the same seconds later.


     With shaking hands Abraham turned the Barkley family photo over.  He stood there gazing at it a long time.  He wiped at a tear that ran a crooked path down one cheek.  He’d forgotten how it felt to cry.  He’d forgotten how it felt to hurt for one of your children.  He’d forgotten how it felt to want to protect that child from the cruelties the world so readily inflicted. Now something new was added to those feelings.  Guilt.  The feeling of guilt that threatened to drown Abraham because this boy had suffered for his father’s foolish actions.


     The man walked over and sat the picture on top of the dresser.  He reached out two fingers and brushed them over Heath’s smiling image.


     “I’m sorry, son.  I’m so sorry.”


     The doctor turned when he felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder. He looked into a pair of soft brown eyes, and in that moment realized his mentor had known the truth all along.


     “I can’t tell him, can I, Tess?   I can’t tell him who I really am.”

     “You know the rules.  Who we were when we walked this earth in human form can never be revealed.”


     “Then what can I do?  How do I help my son?”


     “You pray for guidance, Abraham.  Angel or not, you do what any man in your situation would.  You pray for guidance.”


     Abraham nodded as Tess left the room. When he exited the house twenty minutes later his joints were stiff from kneeling, but he had prayed.  Oh, how he had prayed.



Chapter 27


     Heath halted his hammer in mid-swing when he felt small arms encircle his waist from behind.  He set his tool on the wide ledge of a horse stall and turned around.  Randall didn’t say anything as he hugged Heath.  He simply clung to the man as though that contact could chase away the sounds of the sick and dying that had filled the church all night long.


     Heath crouched to the dirt floor of the livery stable and returned the hug.  He felt Randall snuggle into his neck.  When the boy showed no signs of wanting to break the embrace Heath gently pulled him away and held him at arm’s length.


     “Randall?  Are you all right?  Is your mother--”


     The boy brushed a shirtsleeve over his eyes.  He didn’t want his friend to see him cry.


     “I’m fine.  Ma...Ma’s real sick but she’s fine, too.  I...I’m just a little scared I guess.  Some people...some people died last night, Morgan.”


     Heath didn’t bother to tell the boy his true name. As a matter of fact, he had no intention of telling anyone else in Heaven who he really was.


     “It’s okay to be scared, Randall.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you it isn’t.  The only time fear is wrong is when it keeps you from doing the right thing.”


     Randall wasn’t sure what his friend meant by that, but it didn’t matter.  He thought maybe this was how a father talked to a son, and it made him feel good inside.

     “I’ll take care of Charger.  Then I’ll come back and help you with your work like I did yesterday.”


     “You sure you don’t want to be with your ma?”

     “Orra’s with her.  She promised me she’d stay with Ma until I’m done here.  We need the money, Morgan.  Especially with Ma being sick.  I can’t afford to have Mr. Thurmond fire me ‘cause I ain’t showin’ up for work.”


     The boy was so young, Heath thought. So young to be shouldering so much responsibility and worry.  He looked into Randall’s face and once again saw his own.  His heart ached for the hard life he knew Randall was destined to have simply because there was no father in his home.


     Heath patted the boy on the back.  “Don’t you be worrying about Mr. Thurmond.  If the time comes that your ma needs you then I want you by her side.”




     “I’ll make it right with Mr. Thurmond if I have to.  Let me take care of a few things for you, son.”


     Randall couldn’t keep from smiling.  Morgan had called him son and told him he’d make things right with Mr. Thurmond.  Though he’d never met his father, Randall knew this was exactly what a man did for a boy he loved.


     “Thanks, Morgan.  I really appreciate it.”


     “No need to thank me.”  Heath tousled the boy’s hair.  “Now you go on.  Charger’s waiting for you in the corral.”


     Heath watched the child scamper through the barn.  He called after him. “Randall?”




     “Did you have breakfast?”

     “Yep!  Monica told me to go by Doc Wallace’s house.  Tess fed me.”


     Heath nodded his satisfaction at hearing his young helper had been provided with a morning meal.  “Good.”


     The blond man didn’t quite understand the smile of pure devotion he saw on Randall’s face right before the boy turned around again and ran for the corral.





     The day passed in similar fashion to the one that preceded it.  Randall worked with Heath all morning, then Heath took the boy to A Little Bit Of Heaven for lunch.  When their work at the livery stable came to an end late that afternoon Heath walked Randall to the church. Heath stopped at the bottom of the steps only to have Randall tug on his hand.


     “Come on, Morgan.  Come inside and say hi to my ma.”

     Heath looked up at the white double doors. He had no desire to visit the inside of this makeshift infirmary again.  As a matter of fact he was happy to isolate himself at the livery stable where very little activity occurred just as Jasper had promised.


     “, I’ve got some other things I need to do.  You tell your ma and Orra hi for me.  I’ll--”


     Before Heath could finish he felt a hand come to rest between his shoulder blades.


     “Ah, just who I was looking for.  Two strong men to be of service this evening.”


     Heath and Randall turned around to see Doctor Wallace behind them.


     “I need buckets of cold water brought in from the well.  And then a kettle of soup needs to be carried from Tess’s cafe.  After that, you can sit with your ma, Randall, and help see to her needs.  And you, Mr. Bark--”


     “The name’s Lee,” Heath said in a voice that dared the old man to challenge him.


     “Yes...well uh, Mr. Lee...and you, Mr. Lee, can speak with Monica regarding what assistance you can give her.”


     “I’m not planning on giving her any--.”


     Heath was interrupted once again as empty buckets were placed in his hands and in Randall’s.


     “Run along now, boys.  Hurry!  We need that water.”


     Randall raced for the well at the far end of the churchyard.


“Come on, Morgan!  I bet I can fill my buckets faster than you can fill yours!”


     Heath scowled at the doctor. 


“Look, Doctor Wallace, I grateful to you for givin’ me a place to stay and food to eat until this quarantine passes.  And believe me, before I leave I’ll pay you whatever room and board you want to charge me.  But I’d appreciate it if you quit interfering in my personal life, and quit trying to manipulate me into doing things I’d rather not.”


     The old man lifted an amused eyebrow.  “Take it from one who knows, Heath Barkley.  Sometimes we all need to be reminded of our ‘personal lives’ as you put it, and sometimes we all need to be manipulated into doing things we’d rather not.”


     Just like a father might do to his son, Abraham patted Heath on the back while giving final instructions.


     “Now go on.  Fill your buckets and bring them inside.  We need that water, and Randall needs a friend.”


     It wasn’t until after Heath was halfway to the well, and Doctor Wallace had disappeared inside the church, that the cowboy wondered what it was about this annoying old man that caused him to so readily follow his orders. 





     The last time Heath could recall a night lasting so long was when his mother died.  Though three different times he thought of fleeing the church by slipping out the side door, before he got the chance Monica was by his side pressing him into service.  Heath tried to block out the harsh coughs that sounded like the bark of a fog horn, the frantic wheezing that made Heath think of a boy he’d served with in the Army who had something called asthma, and the choking; the terrible choking that left its victim exhausted and breathless.


     Heath watched throughout that endless night as people bathed their family members with cold water, or tried to get a sick child to sip some broth. He saw a man bend his brother over his knees and pound on his back, while another brother encouraged the ill sibling to cough up phlegm. At those times Heath thought of his family.  He relived his own diphtheria bout with a clarity that had previously been missing.  No longer were the fragmented images in Heath’s mind dreams brought on by fever, instead he saw Jarrod and Nick working together to try to get him to breathe.  He felt Nick hitting his back and heard Jarrod telling him to cough.


     "Go ahead, Heath, cough.  Cough it up!  No, don't swallow it cough it up.  I've got a towel in my hands.  It's right here by your mouth.  Go ahead and spit everything out, I'll take care of the rest."


     A sister spooning broth into her brother’s mouth brought back memories of Audra crying when he was too delirious to do what she asked of him.  And the fear in a mother’s eyes as she bent over her son, only to offer him a brave smile when he looked up at her, made Heath think of all the times throughout his illness when he’d seen the same fear, and then the same smile, on Victoria’s face.


      Heath never quit observing the people around him as they offered never-ending devotion to their sick family members.  In an odd way, it was like seeing what his own family went through for him when he was so ill.  For him. Heath Thomson Barkley.  Their half brother.  Victoria Barkley’s stepson.  Yet you’d never know that by the selfless care they’d given him.  By the sleepless nights they’d endured on his behalf.  By the way they’d rejoiced when he was finally on the road to recovery.  And how had he repaid them for their love?  By riding away from the ranch with no intention of ever returning.


     Just when Heath was certain that decision to leave had been a hasty one, twelve month old Samuel Crawford struggled for a final breath of air, flailed his small fists, and then died in his mother’s arms.  In that moment, while Della Crawford wailed for her baby and Frank Crawford sobbed into Monica’s shoulder, all Heath could think was;


     One hundred and thirty-five people.  One hundred and thirty five people are dead because of me. 


     It was three o’clock in the morning when Heath fled the church. But no matter how far he ran, he could still hear Della’s cries. 


     And Harland Whitcomb’s damning words as spoken in Stockton’s graveyard so many days before.




Chapter 28


     Unbeknownst to Victoria Barkley, there was one other item Heath kept in the wooden box that forever connected him to those he loved.  Aside from Leah’s Bible, the toy train, Rachel’s sonnet, and Grandfather Thomson’s pocket watch, the box also contained a letter Victoria had written Heath the first time he’d had reason to be absent from the Barkley ranch for more than a few days.  He’d been living with his new family for eight months when he went to Texas on an extended horse-buying trip.  The now-cherished letter arrived while he was staying at the home of a wealthy rancher who was an old friend of Tom’s.      


     Heath sat on his bed in Doctor Wallace’s room, reading that letter in the pre-dawn darkness by the soft glow of the kerosene lamp.  The cowboy didn’t allow himself to contemplate why he turned to Victoria’s words for comfort.   Especially now, when he was working so hard to put his past behind him.  He simply knew he needed her near, and this was the only way to satisfy that need.



*     *     *     *     *



Dearest Heath,


           The ranch isn’t the same without you. I look forward to your return with much anticipation, as do your brothers and sister.  Nick says with you away he now has to do the work of three men.  In other words his own work, plus all the work you accomplished in a day’s time. Jarrod misses the quiet conversations you two so often share, and your skill at the billiard table.  He now teases Nick by telling him he’s not a decent match.  And, of course, Audra misses the evening checker games the two of you regularly engage in.  Last night she told Nick he was never to send you on a trip of this length again.  As for me, I simply miss you for all the many reasons a mother misses one of her children when that child is far from home.  Though I’m not a talented poetess by any means, I’m adding a little something to this letter that I hope conveys my feelings regarding your absence from home and hearth.



I Said A Prayer For You Today


              I said a prayer for you today and know God must have heard.

              I felt the answer in my heart although He never spoke a word.


              I didn’t ask for wealth or fame, I knew you wouldn’t mind.

              I asked Him to send treasures of a far more lasting kind.


              I asked that He’d be near you at the start of each new day.

              To grant you health and blessings, and friends to share the way.


              I asked for happiness for you in all things great and small,

              but it was for His loving care I prayed the most of all.




Take care of yourself, son.


All my love,



*     *     *     *     *


     Heath wasn’t sure how long he sat reading and rereading Victoria’s letter on that dark morning of little Samuel Crawford’s death.  Nor was he aware of Abraham Wallace silently observing him from the doorway.  A rooster was crowing somewhere in the distance when Heath finally stretched his weary body out on the bed.  The sleeping cowboy never stirred as Abraham gently slid the letter from his fingers.  The doctor read the letter twice before returning it to Heath’s hands.  He walked out of the room without Heath ever knowing he was there.





     Nothing had really changed on the Barkley ranch since Heath left six weeks earlier, yet so much seemed different.  At least to Victoria and her family.     


     Jarrod was quiet and appeared lost in deep thought each evening.  Victoria had no doubt he was trying to decide if they should begin looking for Heath, and if so, where to start.     


     Nick, on the other hand, was far from quiet.  He had little control over his famous temper on most days, a fact that sent the ranch hands scurrying in every available direction when the jingle of Nick’s spurs signaled his approach.  Victoria knew Nick didn’t mean to take his foul mood out on the men.  She realized that in some ways Nick was mourning the loss of his brother, partner, and friend.  She knew Nick had a lot of mixed emotions about Heath’s departure ranging from understanding, to sorrow, to anger.  She often wondered if Nick would ever be able to reconcile all those feelings should Heath not return.


     Audra was the only one in the household who still spoke openly of Heath on a regular basis. If they were having something for supper that Heath especially liked she’d comment on it.  If a foal was born she knew Heath would want to be there to see, she’d make sure to mention it at the supper table.  When the family Border collie, Lucy, lost a fight with a skunk Audra said, “Do you remember last year when Heath got between Lucy and that skunk she had cornered?  No matter how many baths he took, he stunk for two weeks straight.”


     That was the night Nick brought his sister to tears. He pounded his fist on the dining room table and shouted,   “Would you stop it!  Every single day it’s ‘Heath this!’ and ‘Heath that!’  Heath isn’t here, dammit!  He’s not here so there’s no point in bringing his name up every chance you get.  It won’t bring him back, Audra!  It sure as hell won’t bring him back!”


     Nick threw his napkin down and stomped for the door.  The windows were still rattling from its slam as Audra burst into tears and fled up the back stairs.  


     Jarrod looked from one departing sibling to another, then arched an eyebrow at his mother.  “Which one do you want me to talk to?”

     “Nick.  I have a feeling he needs a brother right now.”


     Jarrod stood and walked to the end of the table.  He kissed his mother on the cheek before heading to the door.


     “Nick it is.  I’ll leave Audra to you.   I imagine she needs a mother right now as much as Nick needs a brother.”


     As Jarrod walked away that night Victoria whispered,  “You’re wrong, son.  Audra needs a brother, too.  Unfortunately, at this particular moment, there’s not enough of you to go around.”


     And that’s how Victoria’s summer progressed.  The only bright spots were the occasional letters from Eugene and Anna.  Victoria had decided not to tell Gene about Heath’s departure for the time being.  If Heath didn’t return, then of course there would come a day when Eugene and Anna had to know what had transpired.  If Heath did return...well, that was one advantage to living on the other side of the ocean.  You were spared the day-to-day family happenings that evoked everything from joy, to stress, to worry, to grief.


     Victoria spent another night in restless sleep.  Her dreams had been littered with fragmented images of Heath.  For some reason, even while asleep, she felt he needed her.  She felt as though he wanted her near.  When Victoria awoke shortly after sunrise she was tired and ill at ease.  She slipped out of bed and crossed to the window that overlooked her rose garden.  She stood staring down at the blooming flowers until she heard the rest of her household begin to stir.  She turned around to retrieve clothes from her closet.  As she passed her dresser she spotted an envelope propped against the mirror.  Her name was written clearly in a compact, slanted print she hadn’t seen in nine years now. But how could that be? With a trembling hand Victoria plucked up the envelope and opened the flap.  She unfolded the letter she found inside, and with pounding heart, began to read.


*     *     *     *     *



     My Victoria,


         Rest assured Heath is safe and in good health.  Though I could not guide him in life, it is my job to guide him now.  I’m sorry, I do not know if he is meant to return to you or not.  But then, I’m not sure anyone knows that but Heath.  I do know he loves his family with all the love his soul has to hold.  I pray that thought brings you peace.  Early this morning I watched as Heath read and reread the letter you sent him while he was staying at Rex Gardner’s ranch.  Only I saw the tear that came to his eyes at your words.  I will do my best to help this precious son of mine, whom I know has grown to become your son, too.  I thank you for the love you have given him.  I, better than anyone, know what a lucky man he is for having a place in your heart.


*     *     *     *     *




     Victoria didn’t have to pull out the stack of Tom’s letters she kept in her nightstand.  She knew without a doubt the handwriting on this letter would match perfectly with the handwriting on every letter Tom had sent her throughout their courtship and marriage.  And he’d never opened those letters with anything other than the greeting, ‘My Victoria.’


     Victoria read the mystery letter through four times before finally tucking it in a far corner of her third dresser drawer beneath a stack of shirts.  She had no logical explanation for the letter or its arrival, but she’d lived long enough to have witnessed a few miracles in her day.  Perhaps this was another one.


     The woman didn’t mention the letter to her children, though they must have noticed something different about her demeanor at the breakfast table that morning.  When the meal ended Jarrod asked her if she was all right.


     “All right?”


     Jarrod’s eyes flicked to his brother and sister before returning to Victoria.


     “You seem...” the lawyer stopped there.  For one of the few times in his adult life Jarrod was at a loss for words.


     “At peace?”  Victoria asked.


     “Yes.  That’s it.  At peace.”


     “I suppose I am at peace, children.”  With that the woman stood and headed for her garden.  “I have it on good authority that we can all be at peace now.”


     Before any of the Barkley offspring could question their mother further, she walked out the French doors and into her garden.




Chapter 29


     The next two days in Heaven, Nevada brought frequent visits from the Angel Of Death.  Try as he might, Heath couldn’t ignore what was happening around him.  He reported to work at Mr. Thurmond’s livery stable each morning at eight.  By eight-thirty Randall arrived to take care of Charger and then help Heath in any way he could.  As things got worse at Jasper’s house Heath and Randall saw less and less of their boss.  On the third afternoon he stopped by to pay Heath the back wages he owed him.  The blond man immediately knew something was wrong.  Jasper’s eyes were bloodshot, and gray beard stubble tracked his face.  His ever-ready smile was missing as he reached into his wallet.


     “Sorry I haven’t been around for a few days, Morgan.  I appreciate the way you’ve been keeping the place going for me.  And the work you’ve done.  You’ve got better carpentry skills than any man I’ve run across.”


     “Thank you for saying so, Sir.”  Heath took the nine dollars Jasper handed him.  “If you don’t mind me asking, are things okay at home?”


     Jasper broke eye contact at Heath’s question and stared off into a far corner of the stable. 


     “ wife...she passed on this morning.  And my grandson...Benji...he died early this afternoon.  I...I...” the man turned so Heath couldn’t see the tears running down his face.  “It’s just been a hard day.”


     It took Heath a moment to find his voice. 


     “I understand.  And I’m sorry.  Very sorry for your losses.”


     “I know you are, son.  Thank you.”


     “Is there anything I can do to help?”

     “  I don’t reckon there’s anything anyone can do.  Death is a part of life.  Or so the preacher tells me.  Problem is, no matter how old we get, we never seem to accept that fact.” 


     Heath watched as Jasper shuffled out the open double doors, his shoulders slumped in defeat.


     Randall raced in from the corral at the sight of his boss.  “Mr. Thurmond!  Mr. Thurmond!”


     Heath snared the boy by his arm.  “Don’t bother Mr. Thurmond now, Randall.”


     “But why?”


     “He...he’s going through a bad time.  He just needs to be left alone for a while.”


     When Randall looked up at Heath all the cowboy saw were two huge blue eyes filled with utter trust.


     “Did something happen to Mrs. Thurmond?  Did she die?”


     Heath swallowed hard then crouched down so he was eye level with the boy.


     “Yes, Randall, Mrs. Thurmond died.”


     At Heath’s words tears flowed down Randall’s cheeks. 


     “She was so nice.  Always so nice to me.  If she knew...knew me and Ma were going through a rough patch, she’d always make sure we had something to eat.  Mrs. Thurmond never told us she was the one havin’ food sent over from the general store, but Ma knew it was her.”


     “Mrs. Thurmond sounds like a good woman.”


     “She was, Morgan.  She was a right fine woman.”


     Heath allowed the boy to mourn his boss’s wife, then reached out and placed his hands on Randall’s shoulders.


     “Son, I have something else to tell you that’s going to be hard for you to hear.”



     “Benji...Randall, Benji died this afternoon, too.”


     Despite the deaths he’d witnessed this week Randall’s young mind couldn’t comprehend the loss of his eight year old friend.  He struggled to break free from Heath’s hold.


     “No, Morgan!  No!  I...I was just playing with him the other day.  Kick-the-can.  We were playing kick-the-can.  And then we played a trick on his little sister Doris.  We told her some cow turds we found were chocolates.  She almost ate ‘em, too, and Benji laughed and laughed.  And me and Benji and Paul were supposed to go fishing this weekend and...and...and...”  Randall wasn’t able to finish his sentence as his tears turned to heaving sobs.  He threw himself into Heath’s chest and cried. 


     The cowboy embraced the child.  Heath had no words to offer, but simply held Randall close until his tears stopped several long minutes later.  The boy swiped a shirtsleeve across his eyes before reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a handkerchief.  He blew his nose, returned the hankie to his pocket, then looked to Heath for answers.  


     “Why, Morgan?  Why does God make life so hard sometimes?”

     Heath picked Randall up and carried him to a hay bale.  The blond man sat down on the bale and rested his young friend sideways on his lap.


     “I wish I knew the answer to that, Randall, but I don’t.  All I can tell you is I’m sorry you’re hurting so badly for Mrs. Thurmond and Benji.  I know you’re not going to believe me when I say this, but as each day goes by the hurt will lessen a little until the good memories you have of Mrs. Thurmond and Benji make you smile instead of cry.”


     “Did that happen to you?  I mean did someone die that you loved, and even though at first it made you cry, now you smile when you think about them?”


     “Yes, that happened to me.”


     “With who?”


     “My mama and my Aunt Rachel.”


     “But at first, right after they died, was it hard to smile?”


     “Yes.  It was very hard to smile right after they died.”


     “How long did it take ‘fore you was smiling again?”


     “I don’t rightly know.  With my mama, it seems like a long, long time.  I guess a person doesn’t really remember when the day comes that the pain isn’t so sharp it feels like a needle piercing your heart.  You just look back on it years later and know that’s what happened.”


     Randall leaned his upper body into Heath’s chest.  He liked the feeling of strength and security he got from being held within the confines of the blond man’s arms.  It wasn’t quite the same feeling as the one he got when his mother held him. That was a softer, gentler feeling.  One that was full of love, but one that also brought out the boy’s need to protect her.   But with Morgan it was different. This time it was Randall who felt protected. 


     “Morgan, can I ask you another question?”


     Heath looked down at the pale blond head snuggled into his shirt collar.


     “I reckon so.”


     “Are you gonna stay around here after the quarantine is lifted?”


     “I wasn’t plannin’ on it.  Why?”

     “I was just wondering.  If my ma...well if she dies...”


     “Randall, don’t talk like that.”


     “But Mrs. Thurmond died, and Benji died, and little Samuel Crawford died, and a lot of other people have died, so it’s possible, isn’t it?  It’s possible my ma could die, too.”


     Heath took a deep breath before answering the boy.  He wanted to lie to the child.  God how he wanted to lie.  But he recalled how his family had lied to him during his illness and how angry it had made him once he discovered the truth.  It was strange, now that the shoe was on the other foot he couldn’t say he blamed them for what they did.  If nothing else, maybe he understood it a little better.  For hope was what humans cling to when the world is full of nothing but dark despair, and to take away someone’s hope is like taking away their reason for living. 


     “Morgan?”  Randall’s soft voice interrupted Heath’s musing.  “Ma could die, too, couldn’t she?”


     Heath tightened his hold on the boy before he answered.


     “Yes, Randall.  Yes. Before this is all over your ma could die, too.”


     Randall didn’t start crying again like Heath fully expected him to.  Instead he lifted his face so he could look into Heath’s eyes. 


     “Can we pray, Morgan?  Can we ask God to spare my ma?”


     Again Heath wondered how many times his own family had prayed, asking God to spare him when he was at his sickest.


     “I’ll tell you what, son, I’m a bit rusty where praying’s concerned.  But while we sit here together let’s each, in our own way, ask God to watch over your ma.”


     Randall nodded.  He closed his eyes, clasped his hands, and bowed his head just as Orra had taught him.  His lips moved with a silent, heart-felt plea he sent straight to heaven.


     Just like he promised Randall he would, Heath prayed, too.  First he asked God to allow Josie Becker to live to raise her boy.  Then he asked God to watch over his family and to somehow let them know that he loved them and that he was safe.


     Five minutes later, when Heath and Randall stood to return to work, Heath had no way of knowing that the latter part of his prayer had already been answered.





     By that night three more of the Crawford children were dead.  Heath could barely stand to see the empty cots as he walked into the church.  The oldest child, a girl by the name of Abigail, was still living, as was a four-year old boy named Martin.  But by looking at them Heath doubted they’d last another two days themselves.


     What’s the purpose to this, Lord?  Why do you allow a man and woman to have a family, only to take that family from them in a few short years?  I don’t understand.  I wish I did, but I don’t.


     Heath was startled by the hand he felt on his shoulder.  He turned to see Abraham behind him.  As though he could read Heath’s mind, the doctor said, “It’s hard to understand, isn’t it?”


     “What’s hard to understand?”


     “Why God takes some and spares others.  Why little children always seem to be the first to go.”


     “Yeah...yeah, it’s real hard to understand.”


     “And you’re angry about that.”


     Heath whipped around so he was facing the man.  “Of course I’m angry about it!”  He lowered his voice when he remembered where he was.  What was it about this old man that he seemed to know all of Heath’s thoughts and feelings as if they were his own?  It was as though they were connected in some spooky way.  Like he’d sometimes imagined he might be connected to his father because of how often he’d been told by Victoria and his siblings that he possessed so many of Tom Barkley’s traits.


     “Look, Doctor Wallace, whenever we get into one of these discussions it always ends in no good so let’s just skip it for tonight.”


     Abraham shot Heath a crooked grin.  “No good, huh?  And here I thought our discussions were quite productive.”


     “How so?”


     “Well, each time we have one I get to know you that much better.”


     “And that’s productive?”


     “To me it is.”


     Heath shook his head at the man.  If the old codger was missing his own children that much then he should contact them.  Heath didn’t plan on being a substitute son just because he was handy.  The blond man changed the subject.

     “How’s Miss Becker doing?”


     Abraham looked past Heath to the cot where the feverish Josie lay.  Orra sat by her side sponging her face with cold water while Randall slept on the floor curled up in a blanket Monica had given him.


     “She’s not doing good.  Not good at all.  But with this disease...well, who knows?  She may pull through just fine, but then again she may not live to see another day.  Even a doctor is hard pressed to be able to make such predictions.  I do know one thing, however.”


     “What’s that?”


     “If we don’t get another shipment of quinine, and get it soon, a lot more people will lose their lives than I originally thought.”


     Heath closed his eyes.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  Ever since he’d come to Heaven it felt like God was forcing him to relive what he’d rather forget.


     “Son?”  Abraham laid a hand on Heath’s arm.  “Heath...Morgan, are you all right?”

     “Yeah.”  Heath opened his eyes.  “Yeah, I’m fine.”


     The blond man tried to block out the coughs and moans that floated to his ears as he mulled over what he’d been told.


     “How much quinine do you need?”


     “As much as I can get.”


     “Wire Stockton.”




     “Stockton, California.  Send a wire to Doctor Jacob Sheridan.  I’m willing to bet he’s got a large supply left.”


     “That’s all good and well, but the people in Heaven aren’t wealthy folks.  And me...I’m by far not a wealthy man either.  You don’t get rich when your patients pay you with eggs or a side of beef.  You eat good, but you don’t get rich.”


     “No, I don’t suppose you do.”


     “So therefore we’d have no way of paying this Doctor Sheridan for the medicine.”


     “I’ll pay for it.  You just have to do me one favor.”


     “What’s that?”


     “You send the wire to Jake, but you don’t tell him who gave you his name.”


     “All right, but what about the payment?  How do I tell him he’ll get paid?”


     “Instruct him to go to the Stockton National Bank as soon as it opens on Monday morning.  The money will be waiting for him there.”




     “You let me worry about that.  Just tell him that as soon as he has the money in hand he can ship the quinine by stagecoach.  I’ll meet the coach outside of town.”


     “All right.  If you say so.  But, son, wouldn’t it be easier if you just wired your family and asked them to get the money to the doctor...”


     “No!  I don’t want my family involved. This is a business deal between you and me.  Just us.  Do you understand that?”


     “Business deal?  I hate to tell you this, Mr.

Barkley. . . or, Mr. Lee, or whatever you prefer to call yourself, but if this is how you do business then you’ll never be a wealthy man.”


     “Wealth means nothing to me, Doctor.  I grew up with no more than Randall Becker has, and somehow I survived.  When I first went out on my own I was lucky on some days to have two dollars to my name.  Yes, money has come my way since I became a member of the Barkley family, but truthfully, if it was all gone tomorrow I could go on without mourning its loss.  The money doesn’t matter in the slightest.”


     Before Abraham could say anymore Heath walked away from him.  He watched as the young man knelt by Josie’s side.  Like he’d told the blond minutes earlier, each time they had a discussion he got to know Heath better and better. 


     And understood him more and more.


     And saw in him a man any father would be proud to call son.






*The poem I Said A Prayer For You Today was not written by the author of this story, but was found in a catalog that specializes in religious items.  No author’s name was given. 


Part 6