Heath got to the post office long before Abraham the next morning. In the tiny town of Heaven the postmaster also served as the telegraph operator. It came as no surprise to Heath that this person was none other than Tess.
Through convoluted channels that traveled from east, to south, to north, to west, Heath sent a wire to the head teller in Stockton. The young woman was the bank president’s daughter and the only female he employed. Heath had dated Laura Doyle on a number of occasions, and though both had mutually agreed a marriage between them wasn’t in their future, they remained good friends. Heath knew he could count on the woman to keep his confidence. When Jake Sheridan arrived to pick up the money for the quinine she wouldn’t reveal whose account it had been withdrawn from.
As Tess wrote down Heath’s instructions she peered at him over the Ben Franklin glasses she had perched on the end of her nose. “If I was a betting woman I’d say you’re not wantin’ Miss Laura Doyle to know where this wire is coming from.”
difference does it make?”
“None to me. But if you want my opinion it’s a foolish waste of your money to send it to Boston, then to St. Louis, then to Houston, then to Chicago, and finally to Stockton. Why it’s bouncin’ around more than a ping pong ball hit by Hulk Hogan.”
Heath had no idea what a ping pong ball was, nor who Hulk Hogan was, but he didn’t really care either. Just another one of Tess’s odd expressions most likely.
“Didn’t ask for your opinion. And it’s my money, I’ll spend it any way I see fit.”
“Mr. Morgan Lee, you are stubborn, there’s no doubt about that. But hiding from whatever is your trying to escape will do you no good.”
“No, it won’t. ‘Cause no matter how far you go, baby, God will always know where you’re at.”
Heath made no reply the woman as he picked his hat up off the counter and walked into the morning sunshine. Nonetheless, he couldn’t stop his thoughts.
Believe me, Tess, if I’ve learned anything since coming to Heaven, it’s that there’s no hiding from God.
Burton Hughs and John McClafferty met behind the livery stable after the sun set. The two men who had tried to prevent Heath from bringing Josie Becker into the church kept their voices low despite the fact that Heaven’s streets were deserted.
“What’d you drag me all the way out here for?” McClafferty asked.
Burton peered into the darkness. When he could detect no movement from anywhere close by he spoke.
“I heard Doc Wallace and that Lee guy talkin’. Seems Mr. Lee is gonna be meeting a stagecoach out by Miller’s Pass Tuesday afternoon.”
“He’s gonna be picking up a shipment of quinine.”
God. Now maybe my girls will have a
“Yeah, maybe. But then again, maybe not.”
“Whatta ya’ mean?”
“You know how Doc Wallace operates; share and share alike. Well, if you want my opinion someone needs to change that motto of his.”
“Look, Johnny, your kids are sick, right?”
so are mine. Right?”
“And so are the children of a lot of other law abiding Christian citizens of this town. But then there’s those like that Becker woman, and them Cooper kids, and the Widow Hawkins, and them Injuns out on the reservation. You know damn good and well Wallace is gonna insist all them no-good-for-nothin’ yahoos get some of that quinine, too. And the next thing you know, we’ll be runnin’ low on it again and good people will have died.”
John nodded his head at Burton’s words. Josie Becker had been an unwed mother at sixteen and had never corrected her sin by marrying her son’s father. Stace Cooper was a bank robber who was serving time in the state penitentiary, and who had no doubt passed his thieving ways onto his eleven children. The Widow Hawkins wasn’t really a widow at all, but rather a forty-year old single woman who earned her living by inviting men to spend the night in her bed. And as far as the Indians went on the Paiute Reservation, Burton was correct. Abraham Wallace was offering them medical care during this epidemic as well. There was no way John McClafferty was going to stand by and watch his little girls die just so some blood thirsty Injun could be saved.
“So what do we do?” John asked his friend.
“We let Lee pick up that quinine, but after the stagecoach leaves we arrange a little ambush. Once we’ve got the medicine we’ll be in charge of who gets it.” Burton smiled. “We might even turn ourselves a bit of a profit.”
“Well, once our families are better we can sell what’s left over to those who can pay our price. And, Johnny old pal, our price just might be kinda high.”
“But what about Doc Wallace and the sheriff?”
“What are ya’, some kinda chicken? Everyone knows Doc Wallace is as mellow as a little lamb. The old guy don’t even own a gun. And the sheriff...come on, Johnny, don’t tell me you’re afraid of a fat old nigger woman.”
John mulled over Burton’s words, then a slow grin spread across his freckled face. He put an arm around his buddy’s shoulders as they walked back to the church.
“Burton Hughs, I like your style. I do like your style.”
On Tuesday afternoon Heath hitched two horses to a wagon at Thurmond’s Livery Stable. Jasper and Abraham laid a well-padded mattress in the wagon’s bed, then added three blankets.
“This should make the ride less bumpy,” Abraham said.
Heath glanced into the bed and nodded his approval as he stored a rope under the wagon’s seat. He knew the quinine bottles would arrive in wooden crates, but how well they’d be packed he couldn’t guess. The last thing he wanted to do was arrive back in Heaven only to find spilled medicine dotting a trail behind him.
The blond man climbed up on the wagon’s seat. He’d be making this trip alone. Abraham was needed at the church and Jasper was needed by his family, as was every able-bodied man in Heaven. That didn’t bother Heath. He knew where he was going and besides, Jasper was a bit too talkative for his liking, and Abraham...well Abraham seemed to know his deepest thoughts and feelings without even trying. Better to be alone than to have the old doctor bombarding him with fatherly advice as though he had that right.
Abraham and Jasper watched until Heath disappeared around the corner at the end of Main Street. Heath was so lost in his own thoughts that he never felt the slight dip of the wagon’s bed, nor was he aware of the boy who slithered under the blankets.
When Heath reached Miller’s Pass he parked the wagon under two trees so the horses could get some relief from the late afternoon sun. He retrieved a canteen from beneath the wagon’s seat and allowed the horses to drink, then took a long swallow himself. He choked and grabbed for his gun when a blond head popped up from the bed.
“Randall! Randall, what the hel...heck are you doing here?” Heath slid his gun back in the holster and walked around to the side of the wagon. He held out one arm and lifted the red-faced boy to the ground.
“I came to help you.”
Heath would allow the child to speak further he made him drink some water, then
led him over to the shade of the trees.
He sat in the sand and pulled Randall down next to him, then made him
drink again. When Heath was satisfied
the boy wasn’t overheated he said, “All right.
What’s this about you comin’ to help me?”
“I had to, Morgan. I just had to.”
“Because my ma needs that medicine and there’s nothing else I can do for her. Nothing. Ma’s so sick, and Orra said all I can do now is pray, but I gotta do more than pray, Morgan. I just got to!”
Heath nodded his understanding. He knew how helpless the child must be feeling. And he knew from personal experience when a person felt helpless they sometimes did desperate things in order to appease their conscience whether that was justified or not.
just how do you plan on helping me?”
“I heard Doc Wallace and Mr. Thurmond say you have to be careful so none of the bottles of medicine get broken. I figured if I ride in the back of the wagon and hang onto the crates we’ll get every one of them bottles back to Heaven without a drop being spilled.”
Heath couldn’t argue with the boy on that point. As a matter of fact it was good thinking on the eight year old’s part.
“But what about Orra? Won’t she be wondering where you’re at?”
“Naw. She’ll just think I’m workin’ at the livery.”
“Then what about Mr. Thurmond?”
“Naw. He’ll just think I’m with my ma and Orra.”
smiled. “So I guess that means you’ve
got it all figured out, huh?”
“Yep. I guess that’s what it means. But you can whip me for this later if you want to, Morgan. After we get back to Heaven. If you want to tan my hide you can.”
Heath thought it was strange that Randall was actually volunteering for a whipping. And that he seemed light hearted about the subject.
“No. I don’t plan on doing that. If your ma thinks punishment is necessary for this stunt then she’ll have to dish it out once she’s well again.”
“Okay. But you know if you decide you need to do it in her place I understand. ‘Cause see...” Randall leaned into Heath’s chest and played with the button on the cuff of his shirt. “Well, it’s kinda like what a father might have to do to his son. So it would be fine with me if you had to whip me...to teach me a lesson and all.”
Heath placed two fingers under Randall’s chin and forced the boy to make eye contact with him. Gently he said, “Randall, I’m not your father.”
“I know, but--”
Before the child could finish his sentence a stagecoach thundered over the horizon. The subject of Randall’s paternity was forgotten as both man and boy jumped to their feet.
Heath didn’t know the stagecoach driver for which he was grateful. And since Jarrod and Nick didn’t hop out of the stage, or come riding up behind it, he knew Laura Doyle kept his secret and hadn’t revealed to Jake who was paying for the quinine.
Four wooden crates were transferred from the stagecoach to Jasper Thurmond’s wagon. Heath placed the crates on the mattress and packed them together as tight as he could with the aid of the blankets. He reached for the rope he’d thrown under the wagon’s seat. When his hand encountered more rope than he thought possible he bent and took a look. Instead of one rope, there were three. Heath thought a moment then shrugged his shoulders. Maybe Jasper had added the additional ropes without Heath being aware of it.
Better safe than sorry I guess.
The cowboy took just one rope for the time being and went about securing the crates in place. When he finished he lifted Randall into the bed. The boy got on his knees and put his arms around the crates as though he was cradling a baby.
Heath waved his thanks to the stagecoach driver then climbed onto the wagon seat. He slapped the horses lightly with the reins. The animals moved forward, keeping a slow and gentle pace as dictated by their driver.
As he headed back toward Heaven Heath would turn around every few minutes to make certain Randall was doing all right. The perpetual smile on the boy’s face told Heath all he needed to know. The sun was starting to paint the western sky pale pink, and the oppressive heat of the day beginning to recede when they reached the halfway point. Heath stopped the wagon to rest the horses and allow Randall to get out and stretch. He lifted the boy to the ground and once again gave him water. When Randall had his fill Heath watered the horses, then took a drink himself.
Heath smiled as Randall scampered for a large group of boulders far taller and wider than Heath himself with an, “I gotta pee!” tossed over his shoulder. The boy disappeared behind the rocks while Heath moved to the wagon’s bed. He stored the canteen then checked his cargo. The crates were tightly packed and the rope still secure. The blond man nodded, satisfied that the quinine would arrive in Heaven unscathed.
The pounding of horses hooves brought Heath’s head up. He started to reach for his revolver, but stopped when he recognized the riders.
Wonder what Hughs and McClafferty are doin’ out here? Doc Wallace must have sent them to meet me and see if I need any help. Or maybe by now someone noticed Randall was missing and they’re out lookin’ for him. But why would these two volunteer for the job? They’ve made it no secret that they think Randall’s nothing but the town bastard, certainly not worth their time or effort. And they’ve hated my guts since the day I carried Josie into the church.
Before Heath had time to further ponder the men’s arrival they were climbing off their horses. The pair smiled as they approached the cowboy.
“Hey there, Mr. Lee.”
“Hughs,” Heath nodded. “McClafferty. What brings you two out this way?”
The two men exchanged smiles as Burton spoke.
“Well, see here, Morgan, it’s like this.” With that the fat man drew his gun. His partner did the same.
Burton held his left hand out. “Give me that there fancy revolver nice and slow like.”
Heath’s eyes danced from one man to the other. Neither one of them was a match for him physically, but of course their ability with their fists made little difference when they had the advantage of holding loaded weapons in their hands.
“Come on, Lee, the revolver! Now!”
Heath didn’t dare look toward the rocks no more than six feet away that concealed Randall. He prayed the boy had the good sense to stay hidden. As Burton jutted his gun toward Heath’s belly the blond man slowly removed from his holster the revolver Jarrod had given him as a birthday gift and handed it to the pudgy man.
“Good,” Hughs praised while sticking the gun in the waistband of his pants. “That’s real cooperative of you.”
“Look, fellas, if it’s cash you’re lookin’ for you’re plumb outta luck ‘cause I’m not carrying any.”
“Now that’s just too darn bad, ‘cause a little spendin’ money woulda’ sweetened this here deal, but no, Lee, it ain’t exactly cash we’re after,” Burton said. “Or at least not yet. Now step away from that wagon.”
“You heard me. Step away from that wagon.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Mr. Good Samaritan. You’ve gotta get this medicine back to Heaven.”
“Then if you know that why are you trying to stop me?”
Hughs looked at his accomplice. “So, Johnny, ya’ think we should fill the man in.”
“Okay.” Hughs turned to Heath. “See, Mr. Lee, it’s like this. You’re a stranger to Heaven, and me and Johnny here just plain don’t cotton to ya’. Ya’ don’t understand how things are done in our town and you think you can just ride in and change the rules. Well, you can’t. There’s folks who is deserving of this medicine, and there’s folks who ain’t. And me and Johnny will be the ones who decide who is and who isn’t, not you.”
“At what price?”
“Price, Hughs. I asked at what price?”
The robbers exchanged looks that clearly spoke of their shock at Heath’s insight.
“So that’s it? You plan on taking whatever amount of medicine you need for your own families, then selling the rest to those who can afford to pay whatever outrageous price you set for it, while at the same time keeping it from anyone you deem unworthy of it, or from anyone who can’t afford what you’re demanding.”
Burton smiled. “I’ll give ya’ this, Mr. Lee, ya’ ain’t no dummy. And hell, why should we hide our intentions from you anyway. After all, this is a free country. The United States of America. And ‘cause we live in these here United States, The Declaration Of Independence says we can do what we want.”
“I don’t recall The Declaration Of Independence stating that stealing is a legal act.”
“A legal act, huh? Gosh darn it, Mr. Lee, but don’t you sound like one of them there Boston lawyers. Yes, sir, you surely do. But since you ain’t my lawyer I don’t give a flyin’ fig about your opinion one way or another.” Burton waved his gun at Heath. “Now git. Git over there by them rocks and sit your butt down.” Hughs didn’t take his eyes off Heath as he said to his partner, “Git the ropes outta your saddle bags, Johnny.”
Heath didn’t have to be told to know he was going to be hog tied and left in the desert for whatever fates awaited him.
“You’ll never get away with this,” Heath warned as he walked toward the rocks. “Someone’s bound to come lookin’ for me.”
Hughs laughed. “Mr. Lee, you really give yourself too much credit. You’re a stranger in Heaven, remember? And we’re in the middle of an epidemic. Do you honestly think anyone’s got the time to worry about your behind? Besides, thanks to Johnny’s quick thinkin’ we got that covered.”
“We’re just gonna say we rode out here to meet you, ya’ know, to be helpful like, and all we found was an abandoned wagon loaded down with medicine. How are me and Johnny supposed to know what happened to ya’? Maybe you decided to head on back to wherever it was ya’ came from. Or maybe the law is lookin’ for you so ya’ hightailed it while the gettin’ was good. Or maybe you ran across some bandits who done ya’ in and hid your body. Me and Johnny, we got lots of ideas about what might have happened to you. By the time we finish tellin’ the folks our theories ain’t no one gonna worry about puttin’ out the effort to look for you.”
“It hasn’t crossed your mind that some of your fellow town’s people, like Doctor Wallace for instance, will put two and two together and realize what you and McClafferty had planned all along when you start selling the quinine?”
“I can’t say I’m frettin’ over it if that’s what you’re askin’. What’s that old coot gonna do about it - have that fat nigger woman sheriff-housekeeper of his arrest me?”
Hughs broke into hysterical laughter at that thought as McClafferty trotted over with the rope. When the portly man regained control of himself he ordered Heath to turn around and cross his wrists behind his back. Heath felt the rough horsehair rope against his skin, and out of the corner of his eye saw John walking toward the wagon. If he had a chance to gain his freedom it would have to be taken now.
Randall Becker’s thoughts mirrored Heath’s as he crept up the back of a boulder. The boy had just been rebuttoning his pants when Mr. Hughs and Mr. McClafferty arrived. Mr. Hughs was always so mean to Randall and his mother. He’s always said nasty things to them whenever he passed them on the street, which was why Randall chose to remain behind the rocks. He’d let Mr. Hughs and Mr. McClafferty discuss whatever business they needed to with Morgan, then come out after they rode away. Only they didn’t ride away, and soon Randall realized they were out to cause trouble for not only Morgan, but for everyone in Heaven.
Randall’s palms were sweating so bad he was afraid he’d lose his grip. As he stayed in a low crouch like a panther and climbed ever higher he sent up a silent prayer.
Please, God, let me be brave. Let me be brave like Morgan.
When the boy got to the top of the rock he was eight feet above Burton Hughs. He saw Mr. Hughs moving to wrap a rope around Morgan’s wrists, and saw that Mr. McClafferty’s back was to them as he walked toward the wagon.
Now’s my chance! Please, God, please.
Randall let out a blood curdling war cry like he thought an Indian might do as he jumped onto Burton Hughs back. He covered the fat man’s eyes with his hands and hung on for dear life.
Heath dived for the gun Burton dropped as the man spun around in blind circles. McClafferty swiveled and pointed his pistol at Heath’s head. At that moment Heath thought his life was over. He’d never get to Burton’s gun before a bullet seared a path through his brain. He saw McClafferty squeeze the trigger, but heard no sound and felt no impact of hot lead. McClafferty pulled the trigger again and again, but still nothing happened.
Heath scrambled to his feet and rammed his right shoulder into John’s mid-section. As Heath suspected the man was no match for him when it came to a fistfight. Three well-placed punches had McClafferty on his knees clutching his stomach. An upper cut to his jaw left him toppled in the sand, groaning and dazed.
If Heath wasn’t so concerned for Randall’s safety he would have laughed at the spectacle going on behind him. Burton Hughs flapped his arms in the air like a fat chicken, causing his and McClafferty’s horses to bolt in the direction of Heaven. The big man cussed and hollered as he turned wild circles while trying to toss Randall from his back.
Just as the man lost his balance Heath was at his side. He plucked Randall from Burton’s back and set him on his feet. Like he’d done with McClafferty, Heath quickly incapacitated the doughy Burton Hughs.
Heath retrieved his revolver from Hughs’ waistband and pointed it at the fat man while keeping one eye on McClafferty.
“On your feet, Hughs. Head for the wagon and be quick about it!”
Burton groaned as he staggered to his feet. The world was still spinning in crazy circles as he weaved toward the wagon.
Heath kept his attention on his captives as he said, “Randall, pick up that rope Mr. Hughs dropped, then run over to the wagon. You’ll find more rope underneath the seat.”
The boy scrambled to do what Heath asked of him. As Heath and Burton came abreast of McClafferty Heath gave him a poke in the stomach with the toe of his right boot.
“Get up, John.”
McClafferty rolled to his knees and cradled his stomach. He moaned and whined, “I can’t.”
Heath had no sympathy for these two. “Then crawl,” he ordered.
Randall had to bite back his laughter as he watched Mr. McClafferty crawl to the rear of the wagon. Heath made Hughs climb in while John McClafferty collapsed face down in the sand. The blond man took the rope from Randall while handing his gun to his young friend.
“You keep that pointed at these two criminals while I tie ‘em up. If they make one wrong move, shoot ‘em.”
Randall’s mouth hung open in awe of the responsibility Heath had given him. He straightened his shoulders and jutted his chest forward while aiming Heath’s revolver at Hughs and McClafferty.
“Yes, sir! I’ll do that, sir.”
Heath hid his smile while he bound Burton’s hands and feet. He had no concern about Randall needing to use the gun. These two out-of-shape shopkeepers weren’t going anywhere.
Once Heath had Hughs trussed up in the back of the wagon he turned his attention to McClafferty. The man moaned and remained doubled over in the middle as Heath hauled him to his feet. In a minute’s time John was in the same hog-tied condition as his friend.
Heath dragged both men forward until their bodies rested against the crates of quinine.
“Well, gentlemen, I didn’t figure on being able to give the medicine quite this secure of a ride, but I sure do appreciate you offerin’ to help like this.”
Hughs spouted a string of expletives at Heath while McClafferty simply groaned. Heath laughed as he jumped off the back of the wagon. He allowed Randall to keep his gun while they walked to the wagon’s seat. He swung the boy up.
“Now, Randall, you sit sideways and keep an eye on those two. If they do anything fishy--”
“I know. Shoot ‘em.”
Heath winked at the boy as he climbed up beside him. “That’s right. Shoot ‘em.”
Heath used the reins to urge the impatient horses into motion. With four crates of quinine, one eight-year old boy, and two bumbling robbers in tow, he headed for Heaven.
It seemed to Heath as though every healthy man, woman, and child was gathered outside Heaven’s church when he reined the horses to a halt. Questions were shouted from all directions as one by one the citizens took notice of the trussed up Burton Hughs and John McClafferty. Randall was quickly caught up in the town’s excitement. Before Heath could stop him the tale of their adventure poured from the eight year old’s mouth. Everyone listened with rapt attention as the boy told of how he snuck onto the wagon, and how he and Morgan carefully loaded the quinine, and how when they were halfway home Mr. Hughs and Mr. McClafferty showed up and tried to take the quinine for themselves.
“And they were going to sell it,” Randall told his audience. “They were going to use it for their own families, and not give it to some others who need it like my ma just ‘cause they don’t like her, and then they were gonna sell what was left over to whoever could pay their price. But I jumped on Mr. Hughs back, and Morgan fought Mr. McClafferty. Mr. McClafferty tried to shoot Morgan, but there wasn’t no bullets in his gun.”
Tess winked at Monica as they stood with Abraham on the very fringe of the crowd. “That old ‘takin’ the bullets outta of the bad guy’s gun’ trick works every time, Angel Girl.”
“And stowing the extra rope under the wagon seat wasn’t a bad idea either,” Monica said as she and Tess focused back on Randall’s words.
“So Morgan rammed his shoulder into Mr. McClafferty and punched him over and over until Mr. McClafferty was rollin’ in the sand and cryin’ like a baby. Then Morgan fought Mr. Hughs while I hung onto Mr. Hughs’ back. By the time it was all over Morgan had both of ‘em tied up in the wagon and I rode home just like this, pointin’ Morgan’s gun right at ‘em.”
With that Heath reached out and carefully slid his gun from Randall’s hands. He holstered it as animated conversation filled the air.
“Hang those two, that’s what I say!” One man shouted.
“Hanging’s too good for them!” Another man cried. “They were going to keep that medicine from our families! Medicine that Doc Wallace says Mr. Lee bought with his own money for all of us to use.”
“Tar and feather ‘em, then run ‘em out of town!” Came another suggestion.
“I know one thing,” a woman declared, “no quinine should be given to the families of either one of these two scoundrels. They were going to keep it from us, so now let’s keep it from them!”
A united cry rose from the crowd as everyone shouted their agreement to the woman’s words.
Before Abraham and Tess could intervene to talk sense into the enraged mob Heath rose. He stood up on the wagon seat so his voice would carry to those surrounding him. When the crowd quieted he spoke at the volume that was normal for him, just as if he was talking to his family in the Barkley parlor.
“Though I had no intention of Doctor Wallace telling any of you I purchased the quinine, that’s a fact. I didn’t buy it to be thanked, or to be repaid, or to be called a hero. I bought it because you need it. I bought it because you have sick children, husbands, wives, parents, sisters, brothers, and friends. In order for them to have a chance at getting well quinine is a necessity. I’m a stranger to Heaven so I don’t know you folks. How you live, who you are, who your parents are, what good or bad any of you has done means nothing to me. Mr. Hughs and Mr. McClafferty thought they could regulate who received this medicine. Now you all think you can do the same thing by denying their children use of it. Well, you can’t. At least not and live with yourselves a week or two on down the road. Don’t punish innocent children for the sins of their fathers. Don’t punish Randall’s mother because she doesn’t have a husband. Don’t punish anyone simply because their ways differ from yours, or because their skin color isn’t the same as yours, or because they don’t speak the same language you do. That’s not how God wants people in a place called Heaven to conduct themselves. I reckon since I bought this medicine it’s mine. And if it’s mine it’s up to me to say how it’s gonna be used. But I’m not going to do that. I don’t need it. I’m not sick, nor do I have a sick wife or children. Like I said before, I’m just a stranger passin’ through. It’s up to you folks to decide how this quinine will be distributed. I hope, for all of your sakes, you make the right choices.”
Heath wasn’t accustomed to public speaking, and as all eyes continued to gaze upon him long after he was done talking he felt his face begin to flush. In an effort to hide the feeling of self-consciousness that threatened to overwhelm him, Heath jumped from the wagon. That act caused the crowd to shift its focus as he hoped it would. While two men untied Heath’s captives and led them to the jail, two others began to unload the quinine. Heath lifted Randall to the ground. The boy hugged Heath’s waist for a long moment, then ran into the church to check on his mother.
All Heath could think of was how good it would feel to wash up with cool water, put on a clean shirt, eat whatever meal Tess had waiting for him, and then collapse into bed. He walked away from the crowd and headed toward Doctor Wallace’s house. He stopped and turned when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“That was quite a speech you just gave,” Abraham said.
Heath shrugged. “Just said what those people needed to hear. What they do now is up to them.”
I have a feeling they’ll do the right thing.
Thanks to you that is.”
“No need to thank me,” Heath replied as he resumed his journey to the house.
Abraham fell in step beside him. When they came to the front gate the old man put a hand on it and held it closed, thus preventing Heath from going any farther.
“Heath, whether you think so or not, there is a need to thank you. As you said, you’re a stranger here. You don’t owe this town or its people anything. Yet you spent your own money, and risked your life, to get medicine to them.”
Heath started to speak but Abraham held up an age-spotted hand. He straightened the shoulders slumped with fatigue and looked the cowboy in the eyes.
“I have a strong feeling that if your father was alive he’d tell you you’re a good man, Heath Barkley. He’d tell you he’s proud of you. He’d tell you how sorry he is that you’ve been forced to bear the burden of his mistakes. But most of all, I have a feeling your father would tell you he loves you.”
Heath stared at the old man a long time. He finally lifted one shoulder in an indifferent shrug.
“Yeah, I reckon he might say all those things. But then again, he might not say any of ‘em. And since he’s dead I guess I’ll never know, will I?”
Heath removed Abraham’s hand from the gate. He walked the flower-lined path to the house and disappeared inside.
Abraham remained on the sidewalk long after darkness enveloped him. As he turned to follow his son he whispered, “I wish you could know, Heath. Oh, son, how I wish you could know.”
Based on his own recent experiences, Heath was well aware that quinine didn’t bring with it a guarantee that every sick person in Heaven would recover.
Within twenty-four hours of Heath’s return from Miller’s Pass a dozen people died. Heath was helping Orra and Randall tend to Josie when Martin Crawford passed away in his father’s arms, and was still present eight hours later when the only remaining Crawford child, Abigail, succumbed to the deadly diphtheria.
Heath wouldn’t allow himself to dwell on the soul-wrenching pain he knew Della and Frank must be feeling as he focused on tending to Josie with a renewed vengeance. Randall sat by his mother’s side holding her hand. The boy’s face was pale and drawn. Each time another death occurred he looked to Heath for comfort. When Abigail died Randall released his mother and crawled into Heath’s lap. Though he shed no tears, the eight year old buried his face in Heath’s chest and stayed wrapped within the comfort of the man’s arms until he finally fell into a fitful sleep.
It was four-thirty on Thursday morning when Heath had no choice but to wake Randall who was slumbering on his pallet next to Josie’s cot. Heath gave the boy’s shoulder a gentle shake.
“Randall...Randall, wake up.”
The child opened his eyes. It took him a moment to get his bearings, but when he remembered where he was and why he hiked himself up on one elbow.
“Randall...son...” Heath was forced to swallow the lump in his throat before he could continue, “Randall, it’s time...it’s time for you to say goodbye to your mother.”
Tears took away some of the bright blue of Randall’s eyes. His lower lip quivered as he attempted to protest the finality of Heath’s words. “But the quinine is here. Just give her more of it, Morgan. She’ll be fine if she gets more. I know she will.”
“Randall, we talked about this after Abigail died. Remember, I told you the quinine helps reduce the fever, but it’s not a cure for the disease. There is no cure, son. You know that. I...I’m sorry. If I could change any of this for you I would. If I could do anything to save your ma I would. But, Randall, I don’t have that power and neither do you. Last night Pastor Andrew helped you ask God to do what was best for your mother. This morning God has made His decision. He wants your mother with Him, Randall. But He’s giving you time to say goodbye and to tell her you love her. God gave me that time with my mama when she died, and all these years later it’s a memory I still carry in my heart. You have to be brave now for your ma and let her know that you’ll be all right. Let her know you’ll always love her and that she’ll always be a part of you. She needs to hear that, son, before she starts her journey to God.”
Later Heath would wonder where his words came from. This was the second time in two days the normally reserved man spoke eloquently and from the depths of his soul, and in so doing influenced the actions of others. Nick would never believe it possible. Heath doubted the rest of his family would either.
Heath helped Randall climb out from beneath his blanket and get on his feet. The boy kept a tight grip on Heath’s hand as they walked together to Josie’s bed. The eight year old seemed unsure of himself as he approached his mother’s side. Heath was forced to pry Randall’s fingers from his hand, then encouraged the boy to sit on the side of the cot.
Though Della and Frank Crawford now had no reason to spend their days in the church-turned-infirmary, they had come back shortly after burying Abigail and stayed through the night to offer whatever help they could. Della moved away from Josie to allow Randall to take her place. Orra sat on the other side of her friend, humming a quiet hymn while wiping Josie’s forehead with a cold cloth.
When she sensed the presence of her child Josie’s red-rimmed eyes slowly opened. She lifted a weak hand and cupped the left side of Randall’s face. Repeated coughing spasms made it hard for the woman to talk. With shallow, gasping breaths she told her son how strong she needed him to be, what a good, honest man she expected him to become, how she’d always be with him no matter how far away she was, and then over and over again, she told him how much she loved him.
Silent tears ran down Randall’s cheeks. When his mother was too sick to talk any more he rested his head on her collarbone. He stroked her face with his fingertips while he said his good-byes.
“I promise I’ll be the man you want me to, Ma. I’ll never forget you. Not ever. Morgan told me...he told me you’ll always be a part of me and I know that’s true. No matter where I go, I’ll be thinking of you. I’ll always do the kinds of things that I know would make you proud of me. I love you so much, Mama. I love you so much.”
Tears prevented Randall from saying anything else. Josie’s glazed eyes traveled to those around her. She smiled at her friend Orra, the old black woman who had been a mother to her and a grandmother to her son. She then looked to those who had helped her in recent days without passing judgment; Monica, Pastor Andrew, Doctor Wallace, Della and Frank Crawford. Her gaze finally stopped on the man she knew as Morgan Lee.
“Please, Mr. Lee,” Josie whispered, “please take care of Randall for me. You’re his friend. Please...please see to it that he has a good future. A family. I...I know it’s a lot to ask...and this is going to sound strange, but right now...at this very moment...God is telling me you’re the man for the job.”
Heath didn’t think twice before making his reply.
“I’ll take care of him. I promise.”
The smile that formed on Josie’s pale face at Heath’s words could only be described as one of utter peace and contentment. She said no more. She turned her head so she and Randall were face to face. She kissed her son’s brow and told him one last time that she loved him. She lapsed into unconsciousness the moment the words left her lips. For the next fifteen minutes the only sounds Josie Becker made were those of desperate gasps for air. When she died Randall was still resting his head between the hollow of her neck and shoulder, while Orra held her hand. Randall appeared to accept his mother’s death with an inner calm far beyond his years until he was gently lifted from her body by Pastor Andrew and given to Heath. The boy wrapped his arms around Heath’s neck and his legs around Heath’s waist. He buried his face in the cowboy’s shirt collar and gave into his grief with heavy sobs he couldn’t control or abate.
Heath didn’t say anything as he carried Randall out of the building and into the dampness of the early morning dawn. He walked back and forth in the churchyard with the crying boy while rubbing one hand up and down Randall’s back. He said no more than, “I know, son, I know” in reply to all the grief-stricken thoughts Randall voiced.
“I miss her so much, Morgan.”
“I’m all alone now, Morgan. I ain’t got no one.”
“I loved her, Morgan. I loved her more than I ever loved anyone in my whole life.”
“I don’t want her to be dead, Morgan. I wish I would have made her better.”
And Heath did know, because these were the same things he’d felt when his own mother died. He then thought of how that tragedy paved a path to a new life and family. Could his mother, while on her deathbed, instinctively have known that by directing him to the newspaper article about Tom Barkley he would begin a sorrow-driven anger-filled quest that would ultimately end with joy? Could she have somehow known he’d come to be embraced by his father’s family in every sense of the word, and with their love and acceptance blossom to the man he was today? Could Leah Thomson have known those things the same way Josie Becker claimed to know that Heath was the man to find Randall a family? Could God have spoken to Leah? Is that why she revealed to Heath who his father was just moments before she passed away?
Heath pondered these things as he walked with Randall until long after the sun came up. When he could tell the boy had fallen asleep on his shoulder Heath carried him to Doctor Wallace’s house. Heath laid Randall on the bed he used without waking him, then crossed to the dresser. Why he’d never returned the Barkley family photo to his saddlebags Heath didn’t know. This was where Doctor Wallace had set it the morning Heath stormed from the house, and this was where it had remained.
Heath stood studying each face in the photograph as though committing them to memory. He turned when Tess entered the room and poured fresh water into the bowl on the washstand. In deference to the sleeping Randall she kept her voice low as she spoke.
“You clean up now, Mr. Morgan Lee. Breakfast is ready.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Heath replied as he walked to the washstand.
Tess pointed to the picture. “That’s a fine looking family you got there. Mighty fine. I imagine they’re beside themselves with worry, wonderin’ where you’re at and all.”
Heath did nothing more than shrug one shoulder as he began to wash his hands and face.
“I wouldn’t be shruggin’ my shoulders like that if I was you, Mr. Morgan Lee, as though you ain’t got a care in the world. Tess knows better, she does. You don’t look like the kinda man who takes a loving family for granted. As a matter of fact your eyes have told me nothin’ but a sorrowful story since the day you came here. Only I can’t help you work through your heartache, baby, ‘cause I ain’t your mama. Or your sister. Or one of your brothers. But those people...well old Tess has a feeling those people can.” The woman’s eyes shifted to Randall. She studied the dried tears she saw on his face. “Here you are, runnin’ away from the exact same thing little Randall wants most in this world. People to call his own. A place to call home. A woman...a woman who might not be his mother by birth, but who he can grow to love and respect in the same way he loved and respected Josie.”
Tess watched as Heath began trimming his beard. He refused to meet her eyes, just like he refused to reply to her words. She finally shook her head and turned for the kitchen.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re a stubborn man, Mr. Morgan Lee. You refuse to see what’s yours for the taking, while at the same time hurting so much inside because you no longer have it.”
Tess’s words echoed in Heath’s head long after she left the room. Before he joined her at the breakfast table he removed the picture from the dresser and put it back where it belonged, deep inside his saddlebags.
Josette Nadine Becker was laid to rest in Heaven’s cemetery at eleven o’clock on Friday morning. Aside from Heath and Randall, those in attendance included Monica, Tess, Doctor Wallace, Frank and Della Crawford, Orra, and Jasper Thurmond. Pastor Andrew preached the service that didn’t dwell on death, but rather spoke of everlasting life and the joyous home Josie now had with God. Though Heath wasn’t exactly certain what opinions he held regarding life after death, he was grateful to the minister for his positive words. If nothing else an eight-year old boy could walk away from his mother’s grave with the hope of one day being reunited with her.
Upon saying his final good-byes to Josie, Randall walked hand in hand with Heath out of the graveyard. Heath stopped their progress when he was hailed from behind. Frank and Della hurried to catch up to him.
“Mr. Lee, my wife and I would like to take you and Randall to lunch.”
Heath looked at the pair with clear puzzlement on his face.
“We’d like to speak with both of you if we may,” Della said. She paused, then added, “About Randall’s future.”
Heath felt the grip Randall had on his hand tighten. He smiled down at the boy in an attempt to assure him no decisions would be made Randall himself didn’t approve of.
“That’s all right with me if it’s all right with Randall.”
Randall looked from one adult to the other. He hadn’t known the Crawfords prior to the epidemic hitting. They rented a small ranch at the far outskirts of town. Their children hadn’t attended Heaven’s schoolhouse, but rather the Cross Junction School, which was nearer to their home.
The boy thought a long time before finally nodding his consent. Despite their own worries, Mr. and Mrs. Crawford had been kind to Randall from the day Morgan had carried his mother into the church. Mrs. Crawford was always asking him if he’d eaten, and if he’d gotten enough sleep, and once, when he’d woken up in the middle of the night scared from a bad dream, Mr. Crawford had lifted him from his pallet and rocked him back and forth in his lap until the memories of the bad dream faded. Randall wasn’t sure what the Crawfords were going to say, but he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to hear them out.
Frank and Della led the way to A Little Bit Of Heaven. Heath shook his head in amazement when he saw Tess working behind the counter. Just minutes before she’d been at Josie’s funeral. How the woman could have changed clothes so quickly and gotten the cafe open was beyond him.
No other patrons were in the restaurant as Frank led the entourage to a table that sat four. As usual for Heath and Randall when they visited A Little Bit Of Heaven, they didn’t receive menus, though Heath noticed Frank and Della did. By now; however, Heath knew better than to argue this point with Tess. She wasted no time in taking the Crawfords’ orders then scribbled something down she intended to be for her remaining two guests.
Frank and Della attempted to make small talk until the food arrived. The conversation was painfully one-sided as the normally exuberant Randall suddenly turned shy. As for Heath, well he never had excelled at small talk so their efforts were lost on him, too. He supposed they were wondering what had happened to the man who could influence the thinking of an entire town with a few well-spoken words.
Fortunately the Crawfords didn’t have to wonder for long. The hot food Tess brought caused everyone to relax and focus on their lunch. It wasn’t until dessert was served that Frank Crawford brought up the reason for this invitation. He waited until everyone had taken a bite of blueberry pie, then began.
“Mr. Lee, my wife and I heard what Miss Becker asked of you yesterday morning in regards to finding a home for Randall.”
Heath eyed the couple, then nodded his head.
“Well, we’d like to be the people who provide him with that home.”
Della glanced at her husband, then took over the conversation. “We won’t lie to you or Randall and say this decision isn’t partly based on the fact that we’ve so recently lost...lost our own children. We...ever since the day we married all Frank and I really wanted was a family. A house filled with little ones. For a time...well for a time we had that.”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit soon to be deciding to take another child into your home?” Heath asked. “I don’t mean to sound cruel, but Randall won’t be a replacement for the children you lost. Randall can be no one other than who he is. If your invitation is based on nothing more than trying to mold him into being Samuel, or Martin, or Clarence, or Warren, then I’ll have to say no. That’s not fair to either one of you, or to the memories of your deceased children. But most of all it’s not fair to Randall.”
“Oh, no. No,” Della assured with tears in her eyes, “that’s not our intention at all. In the past week we’ve come to know and love Randall for the boy he is. We love him for the sweet, good-hearted child he is, and for how hard he worked to make a life for himself and his mother. For the devotion he showed towards her and those he loved. Randall...” Della smiled at the boy before turning her attention back to Heath. “Randall has no parents now, just like Frank and I have no children. We just thought...well perhaps you’re correct, Mr. Lee, and we have been somewhat impulsive, but we thought this would be a fitting arrangement...a happy arrangement, for all concerned.”
When Heath made no comment Frank spoke.
“We’re going back to Illinois as soon as we can pack up our home.”
“Illinois?” Heath questioned.
“Where Della and I are from. A small town in the north central part of the state called Dixon. It’s a beautiful little place. Absolutely beautiful. Right in the heart of farming country and built on the Rock River. Our families still live there. If Randall agrees to join us he’ll have more aunts, uncles and cousins than he’ll be able to keep track of.”
all good and well, but what about the boy’s future?” Heath asked.
“After my father received my wire about our children’s...passing, he wired back begging me and Della to return home. He owns the hardware store in Dixon, but he’s reaching an age where running the business is too much for him on his own. I have six sisters, but no brothers. It was always my father’s dream that I’d take over the business when the time came. Unfortunately for him it was my dream to come west and try my hand at ranching. But Della and I have talked it over. After what’s happened here in Heaven...well you’ll understand when I say we need a fresh start. The store has a nice-sized house attached to the back of it that’s been empty for years. My parents are going to give it a good cleaning and some fresh paint so it’ll be ready for Della and me to move into the day we arrive. And ready for Randall, too, if he’d like to come with us that is. He’ll have his own bedroom and attend school with his cousins. Once we’re settled we’ll start adoption procedures so that legally Randall will be ours and we’ll be his.”
Randall looked from the Crawfords to Heath. Heath could tell the boy was far from ready to make a decision. Not that Heath could blame him. He was far from ready to make a decision either.
Della and Frank seemed to sense there was nothing more they could say one way or another that would influence the final outcome of their proposal. The remainder of their dessert was eaten in silence. Frank insisted on paying for everyone’s food when the meal drew to a close. The Crawfords walked outside with Heath and Randall.
“Della and I will be staying here in town until the quarantine’s lifted. We’ll be over at the church, helping out in any way we can.” Frank looked down at Randall and smiled. “We’d feel blessed if you’d join us on our trip to Illinois, Randall. We’d feel blessed if you decide to become a member of our family. But if you don’t both Della and I understand. There will be no hard feelings, but rather we’ll wish you the best of luck in whatever it is you choose to do.”
Randall’s, “Thank you, sir,” was spoken so softly the adults had to strain to hear it.
Della reached out and ran a hand down the boy’s cheek.
“Your mother did a wonderful job of raising you for the first eight years of your life. Now I’d like to finish that job if you’d let me. But as Frank said, if you make another choice that you think will be better for yourself I’ll rejoice in your decision, for only you know what’s in your heart.”
Randall and Heath watched the Crawfords walk to the church. Randall didn’t say anything when he turned and headed for Mr. Thurmond’s livery. Heath followed him, not at all surprised that this was where the boy would choose to go to do his thinking.
The eight year old didn’t stop until he came to the corral that held Charger. He climbed up on the fence and sat down on the top rail. Heath followed suit. They both petted Charger when he came over to nuzzle Heath’s neck. When the horse grew weary of their undivided attention, and complete silence, he wandered away as if to say, “If the two of you can’t carry on a decent conversation I’ll go look for amusement elsewhere.”
Ten more minutes passed before Randall let out a heavy sigh. He squinted into the afternoon sun and stared across the corral at Charger.
“I’m not sure what I should do, Morgan.”
“No, I don’t reckon you are. Decisions that involve a lot of uncertainty, like the one you’re faced with, are never easy to make.”
“I don’t know any other place but Heaven. This is my home.”
“That’s true. But in time, home can become a place that right now seems distant and scary.”
“I suppose. Ever since Ma died I’ve been thinking a lot about who I might live with.”
“Well, there’s really only a few people in Heaven who have ever been nice to me and might be willing to take me in.”
“Who would that be?”
“Orra for one. ‘Ceptin’ she’s old and has a hard time makin’ ends meet just for herself. She works for Mrs. Michelson, the dressmaker, but she doesn’t earn a lot of money. I guess she and I could get along okay together just like me and my ma did, but...”
Randall let his sentence end there, nonetheless Heath could guess at his unspoken thoughts. It was quite likely Orra wouldn’t live long enough to raise him to adulthood and then where would that leave him?
“Mr. Thurmond...he might take me in. Especially if I work for my keep. But he’s been busy helpin’ to raise his grandkids ever since his son-in-law died so maybe he won’t want another mouth to feed.”
Heath had already mulled over the possibility of Randall staying with Jasper Thurmond. The boy made a point Heath hadn’t thought of, that Jasper had his hands full playing the part of father to his daughter’s children. The one thing Heath had thought of was that like Orra, Jasper was pushing seventy years old. If he passed away before Randall was grown then what would happen to the boy?
The pair sat in silence for a long time before Randall voiced another idea. “I...there was one other person I was thinking of who might take me in.”
Heath looked down at the boy. “Who?”
Morgan. Maybe I could live with you,
Heath saw the hope in the child’s eyes. A hope he didn’t want to dash because he’d had the exact same thought himself. If he were returning to the Barkley ranch the decision to take Randall with him would be an easy one. He knew his family would welcome the child with open arms. Victoria and Audra would provide the maternal influences Randall needed; Jarrod and Nick would grow to become cherished uncles, while Heath himself took on the role of father. Yes, if he were returning to the ranch it would be so simple and straightforward. But he wasn’t returning to the ranch, at least not to the Barkley ranch. Instead he would be leaving Heaven to look for a job. Heath had worked as a wrangler for too many years not to have seen what happens to children of single fathers who are forced to move every six months when the work runs low and the head of the household is once again unemployed. He had also seen first-hand the negative effects of a single father working fourteen hours a day while his children were left alone in a rented house in town. Invariably the children got into trouble because the home was without adult supervision and the guiding hand of a mother. That was no life for Randall. His life had already been hard enough. He deserved a family and a place to call home.
Heath put an arm around Randall and pulled him close.
“Randall, there’s nothing I’d like more than to bring you with me when I leave Heaven. But the fact of the matter is, I’m not a married man. I can’t provide you with the kind of love and guidance Frank and Della can simply because with them, you’ll have both a father and a mother.”
“But Ma raised me by herself and she did okay.”
right, son, she did. She did a fine job
of raising you by herself. But it
wasn’t an easy job, was it?”
Randall thought of how many times he’d heard his mother crying because they didn’t have enough money to buy food, or because Randall needed new shoes and she couldn’t afford the expense, or because someone had called her or her son a nasty name.
“No. No, I guess it wasn’t easy.”
“That’s because raising a child is hard work. It takes the combined efforts of two parents. Of course, not all of us are lucky enough to have a father in our lives, and that doesn’t make us bad people. But it does mean that the job left to our mothers is that much more difficult.”
looked up at Heath. “You mean you were like me when you were a boy,
Morgan? You didn’t have a pa?”
“No, Randall, I didn’t have a pa. Or at least not in the sense that I ever got to meet the man.”
after your ma died you had no one, just like I got no one?”
“That’s right. Or so I thought anyway. But like you, after my mama died I did get a chance at having a new family. A chance I took.”
“Did someone adopt you, like Mr. and Mrs. Crawford want to adopt me?”
Heath smiled. He supposed that in many ways, someone had adopted him. Certainly he’d felt that way the day his legal name change had gone through and he was henceforth known as Heath Morgan Thomson Barkley.
“Yes, someone adopted me.”
“And were you happy living with your new family?”
why’d you leave?”
“Because it...it was time for me to move on. But keep in mind I was considerably older than eight when I made that decision. I was a grown man. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a wonderful family, or that I don’t love them very much. They were good to me, Randall. Real good. I wouldn’t trade them, or the times I had with them, for all the money in the world.”
“So you think I should live with Mr. and Mrs. Crawford? Let them adopt me and become their boy?”
“That’s your decision, son. I can’t make it for you. All I’m saying is that sometimes we gotta take a chance in order for our lives to get better.”
Randall gave his head a slow nod. “I’d like to think about it for a while. I have to talk to Orra first, then...well after that maybe I’ll know what to do.”
“I understand. And I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Crawford will, too. Besides, until the quarantine is lifted no one’s leaving Heaven.”
Randall jumped off the fence and went over to Charger. As he petted the horse’s nose he looked at Heath.
“Morgan, can I tell you something even if you’re not gonna like what I have to say?”
“If you have such a good family, and you love them so much, and they love you, then I think when you can leave Heaven you should go back to them. It don’t seem right somehow, a person not being with his family. I’d give anything to be with my ma again, and here you just up and walked away from the folks that was yours.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“Orra says life is only as complicated as we make it.”
Heath sighed. He knew from his experiences with Hannah there was no use arguing with the logic of an old black woman who could quote scriptures from sun up to sun set.
The cowboy climbed off the fence and headed for the stable. “I’ve got work to do. I still don’t have all those stalls rebuilt for Mr. Thurmond.”
Within minutes Randall joined Heath. They passed the afternoon in silence, each lost in their own thoughts about what the future held.
Four days later the epidemic had run its course and Doctor Wallace lifted the quarantine. By that time Randall had made his decision. He’d spent a good portion of each day with Della and Frank Crawford. As he got to know them better he became increasingly comfortable with the thought of leaving Heaven for a place called Dixon, Illinois. He spoke with Orra at length about the choices he faced. As much as the old woman loved Randall and wanted to keep him with her, like Heath she realized her age would quite likely prevent her from raising the boy to manhood. Besides, a child needed both a mother and a father. The Bible said it was so, therefore in Orra’s mind the decision was an easy one.
It took Frank and Della two days to pack their belongings in a covered wagon. The man they rented their ranch from was buying their livestock. Other than a few mementos the couple wanted as reminders of Abigail, Clarence, Warren, Martin, Penelope, and Samuel, they packed their children’s toys and clothes into crates and asked Doctor Wallace to give the items to the boys and girls on the Indian reservation.
Heath helped Randall pack his own belongings for the trip. The boy didn’t have much, just a few sets of pants and shirts, socks, and underclothes. Heath had a feeling Della Crawford would quickly remedy that meager situation. Like the Crawfords were doing, Orra was going to donate Josie’s clothes and kitchen utensils to the Indian reservation. Randall’s keepsakes of Josette Becker were limited to a cameo broach, a picture of his mother and himself that had been taken when Randall was five, and a book of fairy tales he recalled Josie reading to him each evening when he was a small boy. As Heath helped the boy pack Randall hung his head to hide his tears.
“I wish I had more things of my ma’s to take with me, Morgan. But we were poor. This is all we had besides our clothes and pots and pans.”
Heath sat down on the bed in Randall’s tiny room and lifted the boy to his lap.
“There’s no shame in being poor, Randall. You and your ma lived an honorable life. That’s all anyone can ask of themselves no matter how much or how little money they have. I don’t have any more than you do in terms of keepsakes that belonged to my mama. But what I do have is her memory. And I know that much of who I am today is because of her and what I learned at her knee. That’s something that can’t ever get lost, or stolen, or be taken away from me. Just like your memories of your ma can’t ever be taken from you. And some day, when you have children of your own, you’ll tell them about your ma, and let them hold her broach, and read them stories from the same book she used to read to you, and show them this picture of the two of you together. It’s through these things that they’ll come to know their grandmother.”
Randall wiped his tears with the sleeve of his shirt. “If I ever have a daughter I’m gonna name her Josette.”
Heath nodded his understanding. “And if I ever have a daughter I’m gonna name her Leah.”
that your ma’s name?”
“Yes, it was.”
“It’s pretty. Just as pretty as Josette.”
“I reckon you’re right about that.” Heath lifted the boy to the floor. “Now come on, let’s finish up here so you’re ready when Frank and Della come to get you.”
By the time the covered wagon stopped in front of Josie Becker’s home a small crowd had gathered to say goodbye to Randall.
Mr. Thurmond was there with his daughter and her children. Though Mrs. Thurmond and Benji had been taken by the deadly diphtheria, Jasper knew how fortunate he was that Eunice and her eight remaining children had been spared. Paul, Jasper’s ten-year old grandson, and Randall tried hard to act like men as they said goodbye. With lots of promises to write they parted with a firm handshake.
A handshake wouldn’t do for Jasper. He hugged Randall and told the boy he’d never find another stable hand as skilled or as dedicated.
Tess, Monica, Doctor Wallace, and Pastor Andrew took their turns at saying goodbye to Randall next. When the boy stepped into Orra’s arms it’s all the old woman could do not to snatch him up and run away with him. She kept her tears in check while bending to hug him.
“You be a good boy for Mr. and Mrs. Crawford now, you hear? You write to Orra every chance you get. Mrs. Michelson said she’d read your letters to me and write you back the words I say. You make your ma proud, Randall.”
“I will, Orra,” Randall promised through his tears. He hugged the frail old lady as tight as he dared. “I’ll never forget you. I’ll tell my children all about you.”
Orra laughed. “Let’s hope that day be some ways in the future. But you do that, honey. You tell your childrens about Orra when the time comes.” The black woman broke their embrace. She cupped Randall’s face in her hands and looked into his tear-filled eyes. “May the Lord bless you and keep you all the days of your life, Randall Owen Becker.”
The last goodbye was the hardest. Without a moment’s hesitation Randall launched himself at Heath. The cowboy picked the child up, and just like Randall had done the day his mother died, he wrapped his arms and legs around his friend as though he couldn’t bear for them to be separated. In a quiet voice Randall said through his tears, “I’m scared, Morgan. I wanna go with you.”
Heath walked far enough away from everyone so they couldn’t overhear his conversation with the boy. “I know you’re scared, but remember what I said a few days back. Decisions that involve uncertainty are scary, but that’s normal. You’ve gotta be willing to take a chance on something good.”
you were when you joined your new family and they adopted you?”
“Yes. Just like I was.”
“And were you scared?”
“Very scared. But it turned out I had no reason to be. And somehow, I gotta feeling you don’t have a reason to be scared either. I think Frank and Della are gonna be a good parents to you, Randall, and you a good son to them. I truly believe you’ll be happy once you get settled in your new home. Frank gave me the address you’ll be livin’ at in Dixon. As soon as I’ve got a job and an address of my own I’ll write to you. If you ever need me, no matter what the reason, you’ll be able to get in contact with me and I’ll come to you.”
lifted his head from Heath’s shoulder so he could look him in the eye. “Really?
You’ll travel all the way to Illinois for me if I ask you to?”
“Yes. I’ll travel all the way to Illinois if you ask me to. But I want you to make me a promise.”
“You give yourself a chance to adjust to your new life. Speaking from experience I can tell you it won’t always be easy at first. You’ll have to get used to new traditions, new customs, new rules, and you’ll forever be forgettin’ some cousin’s name.”
Randall giggled at that remark.
“But it’s worth the effort, son. It’s worth every ounce of effort you can give if the trade-off is living with folks who love you and care about you as if you were their own.”
“Like you do, Morgan? Or at least like you did before you left your family?”
“Yeah. Yeah...just like I did.”
Randall gave Heath one final, long hug. He hid his face in Heath’s neck as he whispered, “I love you, Morgan.”
Heath held the boy close. “I love you, too, Randall.” Heath loosened Randall’s grip and stood him on his feet. Hand in hand they walked to the covered wagon.
One last round of good-byes was said. Frank Crawford shook Heath’s hand.
“We’ll take good care of Randall, Mr. Lee. Della and I already think of him as our son.”
“I can see that. Just be patient with him and keep in mind what’s old habit to you is new to him.”
“You sound like the voice of experience.”
Heath smiled, but said no more than, “I am.”
Della stepped forward to give Heath a hug. “Thank you, Mr. Lee. For everything. I won’t let you down in regards to your promise to Josie.”
“Be a good mother to him,” Heath said softly, while thinking of Victoria Barkley and all she’d come to mean to him. “All I ask is that you love Randall as if he were your own child.”
“I will. I promise.”
Frank helped Della climb on the wagon’s seat, then swung Randall up next to her. Frank joined his family and picked up the horses’ reins. Good-byes were called back and forth as the wagon headed down Heaven’s main street. Randall scrambled behind Della to peer around the wagon’s cover. He continued to wave until Frank turned east and the wagon could no longer be seen as it headed out of Heaven toward Illinois.
An odd feeling of tranquility washed over Heath as he stood amongst these people who had loved Randall, and were now shedding silent tears over his departure. For some reason he knew he was making the right decision by sending the boy with the Crawfords. Heath had no doubt now that God had spoken to his mother on her deathbed and through Leah, had pointed him in the direction of the Barkley ranch. He had no doubt, either, that God had spoken to Josie Becker when He told her Heath was the right man for the job of finding Randall a home. If Randall grew to be half as content and happy with his new family as Heath was when he lived with the Barkleys, then the boy was bound to have the good life he so richly deserved.
Now it was time for those gathered around to say goodbye to Heath. Charger was saddled and tied to a hitching post. Everything belonging to Heath that had been in Doctor Wallace’s house was packed in the cowboy’s saddlebags. His canteens were full of fresh water and Tess had made him enough food to last for a week.
Jasper shook Heath’s hand and thanked him for his hard work.
“Sure you don’t wanna consider stayin’ in Heaven and workin’ at the livery for me? With Randall gone I can sure use the help. Especially come Saturday nights.”
“Thanks for the offer, Mr. Thurmond, but no. It’s time I move on.”
Orra gave Heath a hug and thanked him for his kindness to both Josie and Randall. As she’d done with the boy, she took Heath’s face between her wrinkled hands and said, “May the Lord bless you and keep you all the days of your life, Mr. Lee.”
Pastor Andrew said his good-byes, then Monica stepped up to hug her patient.
“I don’t know where it is you’re going, Mr. Lee, but I hope you find what you’re looking for when you get there.” She tugged on the sleeve of his brown shirt. “And that color looks quite dapper on you if I do say so myself. Especially with that fine tan vest you’re wearing.”
Heath didn’t have time to blush before Tess was standing in front of him with her hands firmly planted on her hips.
“Mr. Morgan Lee, if you want Tess’s advice you won’t be goin’ nowhere but right back to wherever it was you came from. But you never were one for takin’ my advice so I’ll just keep my big old mouth shut and say goodbye. You take care of yourself, Mr. Morgan Lee. And the next time you pass through Heaven you stop and have a piece of Tess’s apple pie.”
“I’ll do that, Tess. Thank you.”
When Tess moved aside to make room for the doctor Heath reached into his wallet. He retrieved twenty-five dollars and held it out to the man.
“Room and board, plus the new clothes and medical care. I appreciate all you did for me.”
Abraham refused the cash. “Put that away. You don’t owe me anything though I thank you for the offer.”
“No, I want you to have it. I don’t take charity, Doctor Wallace.”
Abraham thought a moment, then said, “I’ll tell you what, let’s call it even. You purchased the quinine, and in trade I gave you a place to stay, food to eat, and clean clothes to wear.”
By now Heath had come to realize Abraham Wallace had a stubborn streak as strong as his own. He knew there was no point in arguing with the man, and with a nod of his head acknowledged his agreement to Abraham’s proposal.
Heath was shocked when the doctor grabbed him and pulled him to his chest. For a small man the old guy possessed a powerful hug. Abraham held onto Heath until the cowboy had no choice but to hug him back. Right before the doctor released him Heath heard the man whisper, “Your father would be so proud of you, Heath Barkley, and don’t you ever think any different.”
Abraham turned away from Heath when their hug came to an end. Heath shook his head at what he deemed to be the sentimental ways of an old man who was missing his long-grown and far-scattered children.
Heath settled his cowboy hat more firmly on his long curls then swung up to Charger’s back. He paid no attention to the fact that Abraham never turned to join with the others in waving goodbye to him.
Heath urged Charger to follow the same path the Crawfords had taken minutes before. Rather than turn east, however, he kept heading north with Idaho Territory in mind.
When Heath was too far away to clearly see Abraham’s face, the doctor turned around. He wiped at the tears streaming down his cheeks. He watched his son ride out of Heaven, surprised to discover once again that angels cry.
Heath made camp that night twelve miles outside of Heaven. He woke with the sun. He built up the fire, started the coffee, then saw to Charger’s needs. As he bent to grab the handle of the coffee pot he heard something rattle in his vest pocket. He sat his cup down on a nearby boulder and fished into the small pocket with his fingers. Heath’s brow knit in puzzlement as he pulled into view two gold cufflinks and a folded piece of paper. His confusion grew when he realized the links formed the shape of the capital letter B, and had a slash running through them that mirrored the Barkley brand.
Heath turned the cufflinks over and over in his palm. These were no cheap pieces of jewelry. By their weight alone he knew they were solid gold and had to have been custom made.
Heath unfolded the paper next, assuming this was the only way he would find an answer to the origin behind the items he held. The answer was there, but what it revealed left the man in stunned shock.
* * * * *
My Precious Son;
I do not know how to say this other than by arriving right at the point. The man you knew in Heaven as Abraham Wallace was your father, Thomas Barkley. I am that man. Or at least I was when I walked this earth in human form. There are many things I cannot explain, and are only for you to understand when the day comes your life reaches its natural end and you join me in God’s house. Suffice it to say angels must earn their keep, too, and when I was sent to Heaven, Nevada I did not know my mission would bring me face to face with the son I had never met. Once that event occurred, I naively assumed my job was to help you face all you were running away from, and to direct you back to your brothers, sister, and the wonderful woman you so lovingly think of as Mother. Instead; however, I found I really didn’t have a job at all, other than that of getting to know my boy Heath. It’s a mission I will forever be grateful to God for.
I told you that if your father was given the opportunity, he’d have some important things to say to you. Though the opportunity is only allowed in the form of this letter, I want you to know the sentiments come directly from my heart.
You’re a good man, Heath Barkley.
I’m so very proud of you.
I wish words could convey how sorry I am that, since childhood, you’ve been forced to bear the burden of my transgressions. If I could change that in any way believe me, Heath, I would.
I love you.
Until we meet again, take care of yourself. Allow yourself the pleasure of the long, happy life you so justly deserve. If I have the right to ask anything of you, it’s that you return to the ranch where you are needed, wanted, and loved. Let your family help you through all the pain you hide deep within your soul. There is no other way, son. There never will be.
Like all my children, Heath, you will forever be in my heart and on my mind.
Your Father, Thomas Barkley
* * * * *
Heath never recalled breaking camp as fast as he did that morning. He shoved the cufflinks and letter back in his pocket, doused the fire, packed up his gear and jumped on Charger. If the horse wondered why they were headed back in the direction from which they’d just come he didn’t show it. He simply ran at the full gallop Heath urged from him, racing for that dusty desert town called Heaven.
Heaven’s streets were quiet as Heath halted Charger in front of Doctor Wallace’s house. He looped the reins over the picket fence and ran through the gate. He didn’t stop until he’d burst through the front door and was standing in the middle of the desolate parlor. Where there had once been furniture there was now nothing but empty space. Heath flew to the bedroom he’d shared with the doctor and found it in the same condition. A quick examination of the kitchen and the back bedroom Monica and Tess had used also found them void of anything that would indicate just one day earlier four people had resided here.
Heath charged into the afternoon sunshine and ran for the doctor’s office next door. He’d never been in this building before, but he assumed it was the next logical place to look for the old man. And when Heath found him, well when he found Abraham Wallace he was going to smash his head for pulling such a cruel joke as easily as he’d smash a rotten pumpkin.
The medical office was set up like almost every other medical office Heath had ever visited in his lifetime. He entered into an outer room that, like the doctor’s house, was empty of the chairs and sofa it must have held at one time. It took the cowboy’s eyes a moment to adjust to his dim surroundings. The shades had been pulled at all the windows and were doing an effective job of keeping out any light.
Heath swung open the door that led to the examination room. Again, it was empty. No table, no glass medicine cabinet, no sink, no bed, no nothing.
He can run, but he can’t hide.
Heath stomped back to the outer room. If he had to search all of Heaven for Abraham Wallace he would.
A powerful light glowing from a far corner of the office caused Heath to throw his arm up over his eyes. It took a moment for him to adjust to its brightness. At first he thought someone must have come in behind him and raised one of the shades. Perhaps Tess was here to do some cleaning.
Tess. Good. If anyone knows where Wallace is it’ll be her.
When the blond man dropped his arm he did, in fact, see Tess. Only not in quite the form he expected.
The black woman was dressed in a long white robe. Her salt and pepper hair was no longer pulled up under a gingham scarf, but rather hung loosely past her shoulders. The golden light Heath had seen wasn’t coming from an open window shade, but appeared to be coming from Tess herself. And rather than standing with her feet on the floor, she hung suspended halfway up the wall.
Heath blinked twice. If he didn’t known better he would have sworn his fever had returned and that he was hallucinating. Tess smiled at him in a maternal sort of way. Her words alone indicated that she somehow knew just what he was thinking.
“No, Mr. Morgan Lee, you’re not hallucinating.”
Tess spread her arms. The sleeves of her gown hung long and full as though they were a part of the robe itself. “I’m an angel, sent by God.”
When Heath made no reply Tess laughed. “Well now, I can’t say your silence surprises me. Ever since you were a little boy you’ve used silence to face what you don’t understand or what hurts you. But silence isn’t always your friend, baby, and I think you know that. So now, ask Tess whatever questions come to mind.”
Heath thought a moment before speaking. He supposed if he had a lick of sense he’d be afraid of this strange apparition that looked like Tess, but for some reason he wasn’t.
“What is this place?”
“Just what you think it is. Heaven, Nevada.”
“Of course it’s real, as is everything you experienced while staying here. You were sick when the doctor found you. The town was in the middle of a diphtheria epidemic. When all was said and done you played a large and important role in helping Heaven’s citizens get well, and in finding little Randall Becker a home.”
“What about the angels?”
“Of all the people I encountered which ones were like you?”
“You mean a grumpy old black woman?”
At any other time Heath might have smiled at Tess’s remark, but right now he was too intent on getting answers.
“No. I mean who else was an angel?”
“Oh. Well, let’s see, the list is a short one this mission. There was me, and Monica, and Andrew...and I believe you know who else.”
“Yes, Doctor Wallace.”
“Can I see him? The doctor?”
“No, baby, I’m afraid not. It’s against the rules.”
“What’s against the rules?”
“For angels to tell their earthly family members who they are should they encounter them. That’s what made this mission especially difficult for Thomas once he discovered who you were. He wanted to tell you, - to speak with you about your relationship as father and son, but it wasn’t allowed.”
Heath thought of the letter in his pocket. He wondered if his father would be in trouble for having written it. Again, Tess seemed to read his thoughts. She smiled.
“Don’t you worry none about your daddy. He’s a Barkley through and through, which means he’s willing to take a risk if he thinks the end result is worth it. And believe me, Mr. Morgan Lee, he more than thinks the end result is worth it.”
Heath stood there a long time before finally giving a slow nod of his head.
“You go now,” Tess ordered.
“Home. Back to the place you treasure, and to the people who love you. You can go on being Morgan Lee on the outside if you want to, but no matter how far you run, on the inside you’ll always be Heath Barkley. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, or to apologize for. God loves all his children, Heath, regardless of what circumstances brought them into this world. Just like Thomas Barkley loves all his children. Keep that love in your heart for all the rest of your days. You’ve been given a great gift that isn’t revealed to many.”
“You mean the knowledge that there’s life after death?”
“Yes. That and the fact that a man you never met while he walked this earth was able to tell you all you needed to hear. Now be at peace with yourself once and for all. If you continue to try to run from your past then you’re like a dog chasin’ after its own tail. Your past will always be a part of you. There’s nothing you, or anyone else, can do to change that. Therefore; take Tess’s advice and search for your future. Start that search on the Barkley Ranch. That’s where your future is, Mr. Morgan Lee. That’s where you’ll find it.”
Heath studied the angel for what seemed like minutes, then smiled. “Barkley. The name is Heath Barkley.”
don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to hear you say that. Now go on with you. Git.
There’s a woman who remembers you in her prayers every night, thinks of
you every minute of every day, and anxiously awaits your return. You don’t want to disappoint her, do you?”
“No, I reckon I don’t. Thanks, Tess. For everything.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank God, baby. Thank God.”
nodded, then turned for the door. He
paused when his hand touched the knob.
He looked over at Tess and said,
“Can you do me one favor?”
“Sure, baby. What?”
“Can you tell my father...can you tell him that I love him?”
“I surely can, Mr. Heath Barkley. I surely can.”
And with that promise Tess disappeared.
A few minutes later Heath rode out of Heaven. This time instead of heading north, he turned Charger west toward Stockton. And he also did what Tess told him to. He thanked God.
It was three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-August when Heath rode through the front gates of the Barkley Ranch. He pulled back on Charger’s reins causing the horse to obey his master’s signal and halt.
Heath sat perched in the saddle, taking a silent minute to study all that lay before him. The beauty of this ranch never ceased to amaze him, but it had been a long time since he’d stopped to appreciate it. A wave of homesickness washed over him as his eyes slowly took in the bright red buildings, immaculate yard, and the big white house with its tall pillars. He recalled how imposing and intimidating that house had seemed when he’d first arrived. It had been a good many years since he’d felt nervous at the thought of approaching the mansion, but today that uneasiness was back as strong as it had been almost four years ago. He had no idea whether he’d be welcomed with open arms or told to get the hell off Barkley land. Heath couldn’t say he’d blame anyone if the latter won out over the former. After all, an ungrateful man had ridden away from here two months ago when his family had committed no other crime but rally together to save his life and then protect his health while he recovered. He had no right to expect his siblings or stepmother to forgive him, especially when you took into account all they’d done just to keep him alive when he was so ill.
For a brief second Heath almost turned Charger around and fled the ranch for points unknown. But then he thought of the letter in his vest pocket. He’d read that missive many times on the trip home. By memory Heath replayed Tom Barkley’s words in his mind.
Until we meet again, take care of yourself. Allow yourself the pleasure of the long, happy life you so justly deserve. If I have the right to ask anything of you, it’s that you return to the ranch where you are needed, wanted, and loved. Let your family help you through all the pain you hide deep within your soul. There is no other way, son. There never will be.
Heath wasn’t certain if any of Tom’s words would prove to be correct, but for his father’s sake he had to try. Tom told Heath he was proud of him. Heath had dreamed of hearing those words from his father ever since he was small boy. There was no way he’d disappoint the man now. Yes, Tom Barkley was dead. But somehow Heath knew his father would be watching this drama unfold. If Heath was told to leave the Barkley ranch he’d at least be able to say he’d done what his father had asked of him by returning home.
The cowboy wiped his damp palms on his tan jeans. He took a deep breath and plunked his heels into Charger’s sides. The horse moved forward, following the familiar path to the barn.
At first Heath thought it was odd that he didn’t encounter anyone; not a family member, not a hired hand, not Silas, not even the faithful Border collie Lucy. But then he recalled what time of the month it was and knew all the men save for Ciego and two others were out on round-up in preparation for the September cattle drive to San Diego. Even Jarrod would be participating. Each August the lawyer cleared his docket so he could spend this two week time period working along side his brothers. And Audra would be absent from the house, too, if tradition held true. Ever since she was fifteen, and tried to insist that she also get to participate in the round-up, she went to Denver during this event. The trip had been Victoria’s idea in an effort to keep the then teenage Audra out of harm’s way. Though Heath had been told Audra vehemently protested that first visit to Victoria’s sister’s home, and had to be put on the train with a resounding swat to her rear end, she’d grown to look forward to those two weeks in Denver each year while cherishing the time she spent with her cousins, Patricia and Loretta.
“When I’m with Patricia and Loretta it’s just like being with the sisters I never had,” Heath had heard Audra say on more than one occasion.
While thinking of his sister yet, the cowboy dismounted Charger and led the animal into the barn. He wasn’t surprised to see the buckboard missing. Even with Audra away Silas would still deliver supplies to the Mission Orphanage just like he did each Tuesday. Only this time Jessybell would be riding beside Silas, something she did whenever Audra wasn’t available to take her usual spot on the wagon seat next to the old black house servant.
Heath took the halter, saddle and blanket off Charger. He hung the halter from a hook outside Charger’s stall and hoisted the saddle and blanket over a railing. Heath placed his bedroll, canteen, rifle, and saddlebags on the barn floor by his feet, then wiped Charger down before getting out a curry brush. Even if Heath was asked to leave, Charger needed a chance to rest and eat before they started on another long journey.
The thirty minutes Heath spent in the barn went by without interruption. That fact didn’t surprise him now that he knew neither Nick nor Audra were on the premises. No doubt Ciego was using Nick’s absence to his advantage and was taking a nice long nap under a secluded shade tree. As far as the other two unnamed hired hands went who most likely remained behind to keep an eye on the ranch, Heath assumed they were off somewhere completing chores Nick had left on a list for them. That could involve anything from fixing fences, to rebuilding a line shack, to running errands in Stockton. The only requirement would be that they return to the ranch prior to nightfall.
When Charger’s needs had been met Heath bent down and picked up his gear. He put his canteen and saddlebags over his left shoulder while carrying his bedroll under his right arm and his rifle in his hand. The cowboy paused as he stepped out of the barn and faced the house. He took a deep breath, then started walking in that familiar gait that always reminded his siblings and stepmother of Tom Barkley.
Heath entered the house without making a sound. Just as silently he shut the front door. He paused in the foyer, taking in the sights and smells that told his heart he was home.
The man risked a glance into the parlor. There was no sign of Victoria, nor any sign that she’d been in there recently in the form of a book left behind on a table. He stuck his head in the study. It was empty as well.
Heath crossed the foyer and looked in the sewing room. Again, there was no sign of life. Though he didn’t expect to find his mother in the gunroom, he searched there, too, but to no avail.
The dusty cowboy retraced his steps to the foyer and climbed the stairs. He paused in the doorway of his room. The neatly made bed, the open curtains, the chair angled outward in the far corner, all spoke of a comfortable haven awaiting his return. Even the cougar statue still sat on his dresser.
If nothing else it doesn’t look like anyone is stayin’ in here. God knows the first thing a person with a lick of sense would do is shove that statue in the closet.
Heath entered the room, setting his bedroll and rifle on the table. He hung his saddlebags, canteen, gun belt and hat on the rack behind the door. He felt funny doing all these things after having been away for two months, as though he was a rude visitor who just assumed he should go ahead and make himself at home without being invited to do so first. Heath gave a small shrug of his shoulders.
Well, I suppose if I’m no longer welcome I’ll find out soon enough. I’ll have to come back here anyway to pack up the rest of my clothes and grab my winter coat from the closet. From what I hear the weather up Idaho way can get pretty cold come January.
The cowboy ran a nervous hand through his tangle of curly red-gold hair, then stepped into the hallway. He headed for Victoria’s room. Since she wasn’t downstairs maybe he’d find her napping.
The door was open that led to the master bedroom. Heath had a clear view of the bed and could see it was devoid of an occupant. He reached a hand in and knocked on the door. When he received no answer he called softly, “Mother? Mother?”
Again, there was no answer prompting Heath to move on. Each bedroom he came to was empty, as was the big attic. The man kept his footsteps light as he walked down the stairs that led to the kitchen. If Victoria was in there he didn’t want to scare her. Nor did he want to get shot if she heard his boots on the wood and assumed an intruder was in the house.
In the end the caution Heath exercised wasn’t necessary. The kitchen was as empty and lonesome as every other room in the house.
Heath did a quick check of the back hall that held Silas and Jessybell’s quarters, then headed for the dining room. Once again there was no sign of Victoria. Since he had seen his mother’s horse Misty Girl, stabled in the barn he could only think of two possibilities regarding her whereabouts.
She either went with Silas and Jessybell to the orphanage, or she went with Audra to Denver. I might as well go outside and see what chores need doing. If nothing else I can start makin’ up for the work I haven’t been around to do until someone comes home and tells me to hightail it outta here.
It was when Heath walked through the parlor that he finally caught sight of her. Through the big French doors that faced the rose garden he spotted Victoria on her knees amongst the roses with her back to the house.
Only the faint sound of the latch catching could be heard when Heath opened and closed the French doors. He walked across the veranda as quietly as he’d traversed the back stairs just minutes earlier. His boots made no sound in the soft grass.
Victoria wiped her hands on the thighs of her navy dungarees, then pulled another weed. She supposed not many women of her standing would be found on their knees, wearing what most considered to be men’s clothing while getting their hands dirty digging in a flower garden, but she didn’t care. As all of her children were well-aware of, Victoria Barkley didn’t worry about the opinions of others. She loved toiling in the many gardens that surrounded the house she and Tom built. She doubted anything would ever change that, or at least not change it until the day came she was too old and feeble to push herself off her knees. She allowed a small smile to play on her lips.
Ah, but by then perhaps I’ll have a passel of grandchildren who will help Grandma get up.
The sun warmed Victoria’s back in the same sort of comforting way the thought of grandchildren warmed her heart. Her thoughts were so distant she didn’t realize she had company until the man’s shadow fell across her.
Victoria jumped to her feet and swiveled all in one motion. Her heart hammered in her chest as she looked up at the tall stranger with the red beard and long hair.
Why was I so foolish as to be out here alone without a gun? Silas and Jessybell are at the orphanage and won’t be back for hours. Dan and Mike are off somewhere doing some chore for Nick, and who knows where Ciego is.
The afternoon sun glared in Victoria’s eyes, obscuring her visitor’s face. She squinted while calling forth her firmest tone.
“We’re not hiring right now, young man. Our crews are full.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I was hopin’ you’d hold my job open for me.”
That voice! That voice only belonged to one person! A mother knew her child’s voice no matter how long they’d been separated.
“Heath! Oh, Heath!”
Victoria’s reaction caught Heath by such surprise he almost didn’t catch her when she threw herself into his arms. He’d been expecting a number of possible responses to his sudden appearance ranging from stone-cold indifference to outright fury. He had to admit this was one response he hadn’t pondered, though not because he hadn’t thought it possible, but rather because he knew he couldn’t stand the gut-wrenching hurt he’d feel if a welcome of some sort didn’t come to pass.
Heath didn’t think he’d ever hugged anyone for as long as he hugged Victoria Barkley that afternoon. He couldn’t put all he was feeling into words, but then with this woman he’d never had to. Like his own mother, she always seemed to know.
The range of Victoria’s emotions astounded them both. As she clung to Heath she laughed, then cried, then laughed, then cried again. When she was finally able to stand without his support she took a step back. She reached up and cupped his face, running her hand over his full beard, then over the soft curls of the hair that almost rested on his shoulders.
“It’s red,” was all she could think to say which sounded pitiful to her ears. She should be saying, “I love you,” or “I’ve missed you,” or “I’m so happy you’re home,” but instead the only comment she could force out of her tight throat was about his hair.
Heath seemed to understand because he pulled her to his chest again. She felt his strong arms encircled her, and felt the kiss he placed on top of her head. She thought she heard tears in his voice when he whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t, sweetheart,” she said as she hugged him back. “Please don’t apologize. It’s not necessary. I understand. We all understand. I’m just so happy you came back.”
Victoria had to listen hard to hear his quiet words.
“I’m happy I came back, too, Mother. And that you were here waiting.”
She squeezed him around his lean middle one last time, then looked up into his face.
“Where have you been?”
Heath smiled that half-grin she loved so much, and saw his eyes twinkle in a teasing sort of way.
Victoria cocked an eyebrow. It was all she could do to keep from placing her hand on Heath’s forehead to see if he was running a temperature.
“Where did you say you’ve been?”
“In Heaven. Heaven, Nevada.” He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out the cufflinks and letter. He grasped her right hand and placed them within her palm. He took her other hand and led her toward the swing that hung on the veranda.
“It’s a long story. One that I think is best told with both of us sitting down.”
Victoria gasped as she looked down at the cufflinks. The cufflinks she’d given to Tom the Christmas prior to his death. The cufflinks he’d been buried wearing.
“Yes, Heath,” she whispered. “Yes. I believe we need to sit down.” She turned her gaze back to her son. “These were your father’s.”
Victoria wasn’t certain if she was shocked or not when Heath merely nodded and said, “I know.”
Victoria was surprised to see the light coming from Heath’s room at eleven o’clock that night. She knew he’d had a long day of travel, and then a long homecoming with first her, and later with Silas and Jessybell. When he finally went up to take a hot bath at nine-thirty and then go to bed, she assumed he’d be asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
The woman knocked softly on the closed door. She heard the quiet, “Come in, Mother,” through the thick wood.
Victoria smiled as she entered the room to see Heath sitting barefoot on the side of the bed, dressed in clean jeans and wearing a brown shirt that he hadn’t bothered to button. His wooden treasure box was sitting open on the bed beside him.
did you know it was me?”
Heath tossed his mother a grin. “Who else would it be?”
Victoria gathered her pink robe close to her body and sat down next to her son. She wasn’t surprised to see him rereading the letter she’d given him hours earlier.
* * * * *
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 far more than he’ll ever admit. 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 eye 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 thought back to the afternoon hours she and Heath had spent on the porch swing. His story had started in a place called Heaven with a woman named Monica, and a woman named Tess, a little boy named Randall, and a man who called himself Abraham Wallace. Heath had left nothing out as he chronicled the events that happened during his stay. He’d occasionally pause in an effort to gauge Victoria’s reaction to some of the more outlandish parts of his tale, but each time that happened all she did was pat his arm and say, “Continue, please. Tell me the rest.”
By the time Heath reached the point that he encountered Tess in Doctor Wallace’s office he half expected Victoria to declare he needed to spend some time in a home for the feeble minded. But to his amazement she never even blinked.
It wasn’t until the end of Heath’s story that Victoria read the letter he’d given her. She then excused herself, saying she’d be right back. When she returned she had a letter of her own that she handed to him.
“Go ahead,” she encouraged. “Read it.”
When Heath finished reading the letter Victoria had found on her dresser that morning several weeks in the past, she held up the cufflinks he’d handed her before they sat down.
“I gave these to your father the last Christmas he was alive. They were custom made by a jeweler in San Francisco. Tom was buried wearing them.”
And with that Victoria placed the cufflinks in Heath’s hand and closed his fingers around their expensive gold.
“They’re yours now, son.”
“No...I...I can’t keep them. How they came to be in my possession...well I suppose most people...heck, probably everyone, will think I’m nuts if I even attempt to explain it. But regardless, if they belong to anyone then they belong to Jarrod, or Nick, or Gene. You decide. I don’t care who you give them to.”
“But it’s already been decided.”
“Your father gave them to you, Heath. Therefore, in my mind it’s already been decided who these cufflinks belong to. Whether or not you ever wear them is your choice. Whether or not you ever share this story, and these letters, with your brothers and sister is your choice as well.”
“So you believe me?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
Heath shrugged as he gently pushed the old swing back and forth with nothing more but the force of his boot heels against the surface of the porch.
“I don’t know. Because it sounds crazy I reckon.”
“I reckon it does,” Victoria smiled while adopting her stepson’s speech patterns. “But I’m old enough to know that the Lord works in mysterious ways. And I’m old enough to know that when you rode out of here two months ago, sick in body and sick in spirit, you needed something more than I could give you. You needed something more than your brothers and sister could give you. I prayed every night that someone would help you find your way, that someone would help you come to terms with all that was haunting you, even if that meant I never saw you again. Your story, and these two letters, and the cufflinks, are all the evidence I need to know God does answer a mother’s heartfelt plea for her child’s safety.”
In place of a reply, Heath put an arm around Victoria and pulled her close. They sat together like that on the swing, not exchanging another word, until Silas and Jessybell arrived home at six o’clock.
Victoria watched now as Heath put the cufflinks in his box. He held out to Victoria the letter Tom had written her.
“Sure you don’t want this?”
“No. I gave it to you. I want you to keep it along with the letter your father put in your vest pocket.”
Heath nodded, then put both pieces of paper in the box atop another envelope. Victoria smiled when she recognized her own handwriting.
“Until I read the letter your father left for me, I never realized you kept the letter I wrote you when you were staying at Rex Gardner’s ranch.”
It took a moment for Heath to form a response. “It meant a lot to me - that letter and the poem. I hadn’t been living here very long then, and I guess I really couldn’t imagine that any of you missed me. Your letter...well your letter helped me see for the first time since I arrived that I had a family. I...I was missing all of you as much as your letter told me all of you were missing me. It was a good feeling to know that...well, to know that I wasn’t just someone you thought you were obligated to take in because I was your husband’s son, but that I was someone you wanted here.”
The tears that formed behind Victoria’s eyes prevented her from saying anything. Like he’d done on the porch swing, Heath pulled her to his side.
“I’m sorry about the things I said before I left. I realize now how much all of you did for me while I was sick. I realize now what a toll those couple weeks took on all of you. I realize now you only had my best interest in mind when you didn’t tell me I had diphtheria, or that I had carried it here, or that Billy, and Jeb, and the others had died. If I could go back and change how I reacted to all that I would. But, I hope you understand when I say I’ve got a feelin’ I just had to go to a place called Heaven in order to come to peace with everything that happened.”
“Based on what you told me this afternoon, Heath, I’ve got a feeling you had to go to a place called Heaven, too. As a matter of fact I don’t think you had a choice. I truly believe God sent you there.”
Victoria felt Heath smile against the top of her head. He gave her a strong squeeze and said, “My father’s right, you know. I am a lucky man for having a place in your heart.”
Victoria placed a hand in the middle of her son’s chest. She doubted she’d ever spoken more truthful words when she replied, “And I’m a lucky woman for having a place in yours. I’m one very lucky woman, Mr. Morgan Lee.”
Heath threw his head back and laughed. Victoria didn’t know when the last time was she’d heard him laugh like that, but she did know it had been far too long.
As Heath’s laughter filled the room Victoria looked to the ceiling. Silently she prayed, Thank you, Lord. And, Tom...thank you as well. Thank you so much for getting your son home to me. I’ll take care of him now, Tom. I promise I’ll take care of him now.
Over the course of the next two weeks Heath’s remaining family members straggled home. Audra was the first to arrive. Heath took the buggy into town to meet her train. It was his first trip to Stockton since his return, and to say he was nervous was an understatement. But he felt this was something he had to face and then put behind him.
The reaction of the people in Stockton who recognized this bearded, curly headed man as Heath Barkley was nothing like Heath expected. Everyone he encountered who had grown to be his friend since he’d first arrived still treated him with nothing but kindness. Those who hadn’t liked him previously simply because he was Tom Barkley’s bastard kid, still treated him with indifference or downright disdain. But not a soul said anything about the epidemic, or those that had passed away because of it, and for that Heath was thankful. He quickly came to the conclusion that his family had told no one he was away, and got the impression from most people who stopped to talk to him that they assumed he’d been on the ranch recuperating from his illness. Based on what Dan, Mike and Ciego had said when they’d greeted him, he knew the ranch hands had been told he’d gone to visit some old friends since Doctor Sheridan wasn’t allowing him to do any work. Whether all the Barkley hired hands fully believed that or not Heath didn’t know, but he was grateful to his family for keeping the reason behind his departure private.
Heath was leaning against the buggy with his cowboy hat pulled low across his brow when the train pulled into the station late that afternoon. He watched the passengers disembark one by one. Through the train’s window he could see Audra moving down the aisle wearing a blue dress and matching hat. He walked forward and stood waiting at the end of metal steps. When he reached out a hand he knew by the look on her face she didn’t recognize him. He dropped his head so all she could see was the top of his hat. His posture muffled his quiet words.
“I’m here to pick you up, Miss Barkley.”
“Oh. You must be new at the ranch,” Audra said as
she took Heath’s hand and stepped off the last stair. “Did my mother hire you?”
“You might say that.” Heath released Audra’s hand and took her valise from her. He walked to the buggy, Audra trailing along behind. “Actually, I used to work for your family, but I’ve been away a couple months.”
Heath put the valise in the back of the buggy, took his hat off and turned around. “Yeah, Sis. I’ve been away.”
“Heath!” Audra’s reaction as recognition dawned was no different than her mother’s had been. She launched herself into Heath’s arms. “Heath! Oh my God, Heath, it’s really you! It’s really you!”
Heath held Audra while she sobbed. He kissed her forehead, told her he was sorry and pleaded with her to stop crying, which only made her cry harder.
By the time she pulled away from Heath the front of his shirt was soaked with her tears. She asked him no questions about where he had been, but only said in a firm voice that sounded like her mother’s, “You’d better be home to stay, Heath Barkley.”
Heath smiled as he put his hat back on. “I am, little sister. I am.”
Heath collected the rest of Audra’s luggage, then helped her climb into the buggy. When he was settled beside Audra she studied him in profile, then ran a hand up and down the sleeve of his green shirt.
“I can’t say for certain I’m overly fond of the beard and long hair, though I do envy you the beautiful curls.”
Heath blushed just like his sister knew he would. She laughed, then looped her arm through his as he slapped the horses with the reins and headed for home with Audra still chatting away beside him.
“But the green shirt looks quite handsome on you. The color brings out the red in your hair and beard. I dare say some woman has had a hand in changing your style, Mr. Barkley.”
Heath thought of his recent days spent in Heaven and the women he’d met there from Monica, to Tess, to Josie Becker, to Orra, to Della Crawford. He looked at his sister and smiled.
“I reckon you’re right, Sis. As a matter of fact several women have probably had a hand in changing my style. You and Mother included.”
“Is it a change for the better, Heath? One that makes you feel good inside?”
Heath saw the worry in Audra’s eyes, as though she feared he’d disappear again. He turned sideways and kissed her temple.
“Yes, Audra, it’s a change that makes me feel good inside.”
Audra leaned into her big brother. “I’m glad. Because those are the best kind.”
Heath spent the rest of the drive listening to Audra tell about her visit in Denver. As much as he normally craved silence, today he treasured his sister’s voice. After all, there had been a time when he never thought he’d hear it again.
A lone rider approached the gates of the Barkley ranch. Jingo trotted through them and headed toward the barn. Jarrod had come in two days ahead of Nick and the rest of the men. He needed to return to his office on Thursday, the same day the wranglers on the round-up were expected to arrive.
Jarrod had just finished seeing to Jingo’s needs when he heard someone come in the barn. He turned around, his eyes widening as he looked into the man’s face. Unlike his mother and sister, there was no lack of recognition on Jarrod’s part. The man standing before him with the red beard and shaggy hair was the spitting image of Tom Barkley’s brother Thor, in his younger and wilder days.
Heath stopped when he was standing in front of Jarrod. His oldest sibling didn’t cry out his name like Victoria and Audra had done, nor did he launch himself into Heath’s arms. He simply stepped forward, laid both of his hands on Heath’s shoulders, looked him right in the eye, smiled and said, “Welcome home, Brother Heath.”
Jarrod’s quiet greeting was so like the lawyer. He didn’t make a fuss, or embarrass Heath with an emotional display, or ask him a million questions about where he’d been. Jarrod simply voiced his feelings in a tone that spoke of nothing but open sincerity. It was the same tone Jarrod had used that January day when he’d welcomed this new younger brother to the Barkley family.
Heath copied Jarrod’s body language. He placed his own hands on his brother’s shoulders and smiled. “Thanks, Jarrod. You don’t know how much that means to me.”
Jarrod cocked a teasing eyebrow. “Oh, I have a feeling I do.” It was then that the lawyer pulled his brother to his chest. “Come here, you.”
The men shared a long hug before walking together to the house. Heath had overcome another hurtle within his family circle, but he wasn’t fooling himself. The most difficult obstacle was yet to come, - he still had to face Nick.
Nick Barkley was one of the last men to enter the ranch yard on Thursday afternoon. Lucy trotted along beside him until she caught sight of the barn. She took off at a run then, headed for her water dish and the bed Audra had long ago fashioned for her using a peach crate and some old blankets.
The cowboy climbed off Coco with an audible groan. The older Nick got the more aches and pains he arrived home with after a few weeks on the range. Nick laid a hand against the small of his back and watched as the tubby Ciego waddled toward him wearing a grin wider than the brim of his sombrero.
“Ah, Senor Nick! Welcome home! Welcome home. Here, let me see to Coco. You go in your fine house, put your tired feet up, smoke a good cigar, take a hot bath--”
Nick frowned at the Mexican. “Ciego, what’s going on?”
“What do you mean, senor, what is going on? Nothing is going on. No, nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Ciego, when you’re this eager to see me relax, and this eager to work, then I know something is wrong.”
“No, no, Senor Nick. Nothing is wrong. Nothing that I know of anyway. Perhaps your mama has a little surprise for you in the house, I am thinking. Yes, perhaps she has something special waiting to welcome you home.”
“Something special to welcome me home? What the hell are you talking about?”
Ciego shrugged his shoulders as he led Coco to the barn.
“I do not know, senor. After all, how could I? I am but a simple stable boy, si`?”
“Simple stable boy my eye,” Nick mumbled as he watched Ciego disappear within the barn. “You’re craftier than an old fox, amigo. That’s why you manage to get away with what you do and still be employed here.”
Nick shook his head over the oddity of Ciego actually volunteering to do some work, then turned for the house. He was halfway there when Silas poked his head out of the chicken coop.
“Hello, Mr. Nick!” The black man gave a huge, prolonged wave. “Welcome back!”
The house servant stood in the doorway of the coop studying Nick and wearing a smile that lit up his entire face. The smile didn’t fade as Nick passed by, causing the cowboy to glance over his shoulder twice before finally smiling back.
I wonder what’s gotten into him? He hates collecting eggs, and now he’s acting like it’s his favorite job.
Nick brushed trail dust from his vest and shirt as he walked toward the house. He took off his hat and thumped it against the legs of pants in an effort to remove the dust from them as well.
“Thaz right,” Jessybell said with broom in hand as Nick climbed the veranda steps. “You git all that there dust off ‘fore you go enterin’ my clean house.”
“Well that’s a fine how-do-you-do for a man who’s been gone almost three weeks,” Nick grumbled.
Jessybell lifted her broom and with hard, swift strokes began sweeping Nick’s pants. “Don’t you be a grumblin’ and a mumblin’ at Jessybell. You be doin’ dat and you won’t be deservin’ of your surprise.”
“Surprise? What surprise?”
black woman circled around Nick with her broom, its bristles brushing over his
clothing from top to bottom.
“Surprise? What you talkin’
“I didn’t say it, you did! Ouch!” Nick jumped forward as a bristle poked him in the rear end.
The woman swatted Nick’s behind with the broom. “Go on with you now, you about as clean as Jessybell can git you.”
turned around. “What surprise?”
With the aid of her broom the black woman shooed Nick across the veranda.
“Go on, now. Git. Git in the house. Your mama and Miz Audra is waitin’.”
“But what sur--”
“I don’t know what you talkin’ about, Mr. Nick. You’re hearin’ must not be so good. I didn’t say nothin’ about no surprise. You just git. Go on, git.”
Nick ran for the house before the broom could swat him again.
They’ve all lost their minds.
The man entered the quiet house and crossed to the foyer table. He tossed his hat on its marble top. His gloves and gun belt quickly followed. If there was some sort of surprise waiting it sure wasn’t evident in the deserted rooms he could see from where he stood.
“Mother! Audra! I’m home! Mother! Audra!”
The Barkley women bustled in from two different directions. Victoria came from the sewing room while Audra entered from the kitchen. Nick accepted the kisses he received on each cheek and returned them in kind.
Once the initial greetings were finished Nick asked, “So what’s new around here?”
The man frowned at the small smiles that passed between the two women. If he wasn’t mistaken there was something conspiratorial in nature about them.
“What?” The man asked. “What’s going on?”
Victoria linked an arm through her son’s right elbow.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Can’t your mother and sister simply be happy that you’re home?”
Audra copied her mother’s body language by slipping her arm through Nick’s left elbow.
“Yes. Can’t we just be happy to see you?”
can be as happy as you want as far as I’m concerned. But something’s going on.”
“Why, Nick dear, whatever do you mean?”
Ciego just about gives himself a heart attack running to my side in order to
take Coco from me, then Silas is standing in the doorway of the chicken coop
grinning like he’s having the time of his life doing a job we all know he
hates, and then Jessybell was talking about a surprise while she chased me
inside with her broom.”
“Maybe they’re just happy to see you, too,” Audra suggested.
“Yes, Nick, I’m sure that’s what it is,” Victoria agreed as she and her daughter steered Nick toward the kitchen. “Now I bet you’d like a sandwich to hold you over until dinner.”
“And a piece of the cherry pie I just took out of the oven,” Audra added.
Nick still thought his mother and sister seemed awfully secretive about something, and awfully happy, but he allowed them to lead him to the kitchen.
Forty-five minutes later the cowboy had all but forgotten how strange he thought everyone had been acting when he first arrived. After three weeks of sleeping on the ground at night and being in the saddle all day he enjoyed the endless pampering his mother and sister freely offered. They sat with him at the kitchen table while he ate. Nick told the women the various highlights of the round up, then listened while Audra spoke about her time in Denver with their aunt and cousins. When his sister was finished Nick looked at the Barkley matriarch.
how about you, Mother? What did you do
while all your children were away?”
Victoria’s answer was vague and void of details.
“A little of this and a little of that.”
suppose you enjoyed having the house to yourself for a few weeks.”
“Oh...I had my share of visitors.”
There it was again. That smile that matched the smile on Audra’s face that told Nick the women were keeping something from him.
“Just...visitors. Neighbors, friends...people such as
that.” Victoria rose and began clearing
Nick’s dirty dishes from the table.
“Now why don’t you go up and get a hot bath, then take a nap if you’d
like one. I expect to see all my
children gathered in the dining room promptly at seven this evening.”
all your children around the table wouldn’t have something to do with the
surprise Jessybell mentioned, would it?”
Victoria refused to turn around and meet Nick’s eyes.
“I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about, Nicholas.”
Nick looked from his mother to Audra. All his sister did was give an innocent shrug of her shoulders.
When the cowboy finally reached the conclusion that the women weren’t going to say anything further on this subject, he pushed his chair back and headed for the stairs.
“I don’t care what the two of you say, something’s going on around here.”
Nick pretended not to hear the feminine giggles coming from the kitchen as he climbed the back stairs to his room.
The dark headed man looked longingly at his big bed. If his clothes weren’t so dirty he’d simply lay right down on it and take that nap his mother mentioned. But after three weeks with no hot water he knew a bath was the first order of business.
Nick crossed to his closet and pulled out a shirt and pair of pants. It was as he was headed to his dresser for socks and undershorts that he saw it. The cougar statue. It took a moment for the meaning of that statue sitting atop his dresser to register with Nick. But when its meaning did penetrate his brain he felt like he’d been struck by a bolt of lightening.
Heath! Heath is home!
Nick tossed his clothes in the direction of the bed as he shot from the room.
Nick never felt his feet hit the stairs as he flew to the foyer.
The cowboy wasn’t surprised to see his mother and sister waiting for him. Victoria held out his hat while Audra held out his gun belt.
“In the south pasture,” Victoria said as Nick shoved his hat on his head.
“Don’t hurt him,” Audra warned as her brother buckled his gun belt around his waist.
“Hurt him?” Fire flashed from Nick’s eyes. “Oh, I’m gonna hurt him all right. That boy’s gonna get what he has coming.”
With that Nick ran out the door.
Audra turned to Victoria. The worry was plain to see on her young face.
“I was only teasing him, Mother. You don’t think he’ll really hurt Heath, do
“No, sweetheart, I don’t think he’ll really hurt Heath. But in the event they have one of their brotherly scuffles, which just might happen before Nick throws his arms around Heath and hugs the life out of him, we’d better roll some bandages and get out my Godfrey’s liniment.”
Audra nodded as the two women headed up the stairs to the bathroom.
“Good idea, Mother. Good idea.”
Heath didn’t have to turn around to know Nick was home. The pounding of horse’s hooves approaching from behind told the blond man it was now time to pay the piper.
Nick reined Coco to a halt twenty feet from where Heath was working on a section of fence. He climbed off the horse and tied him to one of the railings.
Heath went right on pounding a nail into a loose board as though Nick wasn’t even there.
“Put that hammer down, boy. I wanna talk to you.”
Nick hadn’t called Heath ‘boy’ since the evening three years earlier when Heath had lost his temper at the supper table over that derogatory term. But now Heath allowed his brother to use the phrase freely, knowing that from Nick’s point of view he deserved it and probably worse.
Heath did as his brother requested and put his hammer down. He took his handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his face and beard. He repocketed the handkerchief before turning to face his older sibling.
The blond man didn’t move as the unsmiling Nick advanced on him. He held his ground even when the toes of Nick’s boots were within a half an inch of touching the toes of his own boots.
Heath felt Nick’s eyes rake over him in a way that took him back to the night he’d confronted all three of his brothers about his parentage. When he saw Nick’s right arm begin to raise Heath steeled himself for the punch he was certain would send him sprawling, and resisted the urge to squeeze his eyes shut.
But the punch never came.
Nick grabbed his brother, hooking his arm around Heath’s neck. Like Victoria had predicted, they scuffled like two little boys trying to get the best of one another in a wrestling match. Heath’s hat was knocked off his head as Nick spun him around and around, all the while fending off the harmless punches Heath tossed at his mid-section. When their game was done Nick helped his brother stand upright. He didn’t give Heath a chance to do more than get his footing before throwing his arms around the blond and pulling him to his chest. Heath hugged Nick in return. When the dark headed man was finally able to find his voice he said with a throaty growl, “Don’t you ever do something like this again. Don’t you ever leave me without my partner.”
that a promise?”
“Yeah, Nick. That’s a promise.”
Nick released his brother then, and simply stood drinking in the sight of him as the late afternoon sun bounced off that shock of golden red hair. He reached up and grabbed a handful of curls at the nape of Heath’s neck and propelled him toward Charger.
“Come on. Let’s go home. And the first thing you’re gonna do is get a hair cut if you expect to have a job on this ranch. You look like a riverboat gambler. Or one of them loco wranglers who work for those spreads down Arizona way. Or Custer. Yeah, that’s who you look like is General Custer.”
Nick didn’t understand the laughter his last statement prompted, nor did he understand the meaning behind the comment Heath made as he picked up his hat and swung onto Charger.
“Someone who knows General Custer recently made the same comparison you just did. Except she says the General doesn’t have nearly as much red in his hair as I do.”
“Someone who knows General Custer?” Nick climbed on Coco and waited until Heath reached his side. “How can anyone know Custer as in the present tense? He’s been dead for three years.”
“Oh, let’s just say Tess gets around.”
“A friend of mine I met in Heaven.”
Nick eyed his brother as the two headed their horses toward the house.
“Someday, when I’m good and ready, I’ll tell you all about it, Nick.”
And having said that, Heath urged Charger into a full gallop. Nick did the same with Coco, but not with the intention of riding along beside Heath and forcing him to talk. If Heath said he’d talk about his time away from the ranch when he was ready then that’s what he meant. There was no use in trying to get the story out of him any sooner. Nick had learned a long time ago that no amount of cajoling, pleading, or yelling could make his brother talk. Part of respecting who Heath was as a person meant respecting his privacy and his silences. For the time being Nick was simply thankful that Heath had found a friend in the place he referred to as Heaven.
Victoria couldn’t remember the last time laughter had filled her dining room the way it did that night. The family lingered around the table long after the dishes had been cleared, exchanging news and tossing playful barbs each other’s way. When things quieted down Nick sat back in his chair and studied the bearded brother seated to his right. Heath did his best to ignore Nick’s stare, knowing fully well he was being set up for something he’d rather not partake in. Nick grinned at Jarrod and Audra, then winked at his mother.
“So, Heath, I’ve been wondering about something.”
Heath’s eyes slid to his brother. “Oh, yeah?”
When Heath remained silent Nick spoke again. “Aren’t you gonna ask me what it is I’ve been wonderin’ about?”
“Nope? Why not?”
‘Cause I’ve got a feelin’ I don’t wanna know.”
Everyone but Nick laughed at the comment that was so like Heath. Victoria saw the twinkle in Nick’s eyes as he continued to bait his brother.
“Sure you wanna know. Well...okay, maybe you don’t wanna know. But the rest of us sure do.”
“Well see, Heath, it’s like this. We’re dying to find out who Lupe` is.”
Whoever Lupe` was she caused Heath’s face to turn as red as his beard, which only egged Nick on.
“Now she must be one heck of a woman. As a matter of fact I know she is because you listed several of her more...interesting qualities to me in Spanish one afternoon when your fever had you a bit mixed up as to where you were.” Nick dropped his voice to a stage whisper and leaned toward his brother. “But don’t worry, I didn’t tell Mother and Audra what you said.”
Heath’s dry words dripped with sarcasm. “Thanks. I’m forever in your debt.”
“I’m sure you are. So in that event I think you should come clean and tell us who this Lupe` is and how much she means to you.”
“She’s just a girl I used to know.”
Nick cocked an eyebrow at Jarrod. “Did you hear that, Jarrod? Just a girl he used to know.”
“I heard it, Nick.”
“Now, counselor, wouldn’t you agree that Mr. Barkley here is making a bit of an understatement when he says Lupe` is ‘just a girl I used to know,’ in the same casual way one would recall a person they crossed paths with in the general store?”
have to agree with that, yes.”
Heath didn’t know what was coming next, but by the glee on everyone’s faces he knew he was about to find out.
“I would have to agree as well. Especially since Mr. Barkley, in his delirium, thought I was the aforementioned woman and at that time asked me to marry him.” Amidst his family’s laughter Nick turned to look at his red faced brother. “So, Mr. Barkley, what do you have to say for yourself?”
Heath glanced from one laughing face to another before his eyes settled on Nick.
“What I have to say is this. Boy howdy, Nick, I always told you that after-shave you wear smells like a woman’s perfume. I reckon you smelled so much like Lupe` I just couldn’t tell the two of you apart.”
A new round of laughter was prompted by the indignant look on Nick’s face. When things had calmed down a bit Jarrod said, “He did it to you again, Nick. Heath got the best of you despite your intentions to the contrary.”
“Oh no, he didn’t, because I’ve got one ace to play yet if he doesn’t apologize.”
Heath eyed his brother, then took a sip from his water glass. “You’re bluffin’. And I ain’t apologizing.”
“I’m not bluffing. And you’re going to wish you had apologized.” Nick looked from Jarrod, to Audra, to Victoria, his grin growing wider with each stop until his eyes finally rested on Heath.
“It’s your last chance. Apologize.”
“Okay. But you’ll be sorry.”
Heath shrugged his shoulders as though he didn’t have a care in the world, then took a another long drink from his glass.
Nick leaned back in his chair and allowed a long, dramatic pause to ensue before he announced in full voice, “Mother and Audra saw you naked.”
Heath coughed and sputtered as he choked on his water. No one thought it was possible for him to blush anymore than he already was. But blush he did, and was still doing, long after the laughter died down to an occasional giggle.
Heath stood Nick looked up at him. “Bet you wish you’d apologized, huh?”
Nick shook his head in amazement. “Heath Barkley, you’re stubborn to the core.”
“Yep. Or so I’ve been told on a number of occasions in recent days.”
your friend Tess?”
“Her. And some others. Doesn’t matter ‘cause I already knew it was true.” Heath reached out a hand for Audra. “Come on, little sister. You promised me a hair cut when I was ready. Reckon that time has come.”
stood and walked around the table, taking Heath’s hand. “And then you’ll shave off your beard, too?”
“Reckon so. Without the hair the beard does me no justice.”
“I’m glad. It’s such a shame for you to hide your handsome face behind all that hair.”
Once again Heath felt his face heating up. Audra laughed as she leaned into his side. “And it also hides that cute blush you have.”
“Maybe that’s reason for me to keep it then.”
“Oh, no.” Audra pushed her brother toward the kitchen. “Absolutely not. Let me cut that hair off right now before you back out on me.”
Jarrod and Nick left the table not long after that to engage in a game of billiards. Victoria stood with them, but turned toward the kitchen. She sat on one of the steps and watched as Heath’s curls fell to the floor with each snip of Audra’s scissors. Though none of her children realized what this haircut symbolized, Victoria was well aware of its significance.
Later that evening she passed Heath in the upstairs hallway. He had just come from the bathroom where he’d shaved off his beard. Victoria cupped his smooth face in her hands and stood on tiptoes to kiss him.
“Morgan Lee is gone now, isn’t he?”
“I reckon he is, Mother.”
“He needed to get through today, didn’t he? He needed to be assured that Nick wanted him here.”
“I could have told you long before Nick arrived that he wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I suppose you could have, but I had to find out for myself. I would have respected the choice of any one of you had you asked me to leave.”
“None of us would have, Heath. None of us ever will. I hope you never doubt that again. In this family a brother’s love for his siblings is unconditional. A sister’s love for her siblings is unconditional. A mother’s love for her child is unconditional.”
Heath merely nodded as Victoria gave him a long hug. When she pulled away she smiled.
Morgan Lee is at peace with himself now?
He forgives himself for all those things that weren’t his fault that
caused him to ride off this ranch two months ago?”
“Yes, with help from some angels, a boy named Randall...and his father, Morgan Lee is at peace.”
“I’m glad, Heath. I’m so glad.”
Heath hugged the tiny woman. He didn’t think his words had ever been more sincere when he replied, “So am I, Mother. So am I.”
The house was dark and quiet when Heath slipped into a pair of pants at two o’clock that morning. By feel alone he made his way to his closet and took a shirt off a hanger. He put it on, but didn’t bother with the buttons.
The blond man made his way barefoot down the stairs without disturbing anyone. Quietly, he closed the study door behind him and crossed to the desk. He opened the middle drawer and pulled out a match, then lit the lamp that sat on the corner of the wide structure.
Heath’s inability to sleep wasn’t caused by unsettling dreams or disturbing memories, but rather by the thought that he’d been wrong in what he told Victoria several hours earlier. No, Morgan Lee wasn’t gone. Or at least not quite. There was still one last thing Heath had to do before the fictitious man could rest in peace.
Heath opened the desk drawer on his left and pulled out a tablet of paper. He took the pen from the ink well and began to write.
* * * * *
A person shouldn’t deceive someone he calls his friend; therefore I owe you an apology. Earlier this summer I was very sick with diphtheria. Without knowing it I carried the disease to Stockton, California, where I live, and because of that many people died. I blamed myself for those deaths, and in turn, that blame caused me to run away. But then I met you, and your mother, and Doctor Wallace, and Tess, and Monica. Without realizing it all of you, and your little town, helped me to heal inside.
You told me if a person has a good family he loves, and who loves him, then he should be with them. You were right about that, Randall. So very right.
I’m with my family now, and my name is not Morgan Lee. It’s Heath Barkley. No matter what anyone else says, I’m proud of that fact. It took you, an old doctor, a handful of women, and a place called Heaven to make me see that. And I thank you for that. I thank you very much.
If you ever need me you’ll always be able to find me at this address. Heath Barkley, The Barkley Ranch, Stockton, California. Always.
* * * * *
Heath addressed an envelope then folded the letter and slipped it inside. He blew out the lamp, and with letter in hand, made his way upstairs.
Tess and Monica stood in a corner of the study and exchanged smiles as they watched Heath exit the room.
“I see Mr. Barkley is both healthy and happy, Tess.”
“Yes he is, Angel Girl. Healthy and happy. And no matter what comes Mr. Heath Barkley’s way as he travels life’s road, he will always possess a comforting peace in his heart because he finally knows one very important thing.”
“What thing would that be?”
“That his father loves him, Monica. Heath finally knows that his father loves him.”
Tess looked up at the picture of Tom Barkley hanging over the fireplace. She squeezed Monica’s hand right before they vanished into the darkness. Only the black woman’s voice was left behind as a soft echo in an otherwise quiet house.
“And really, Angel Girl, what more can a man want other than the knowledge of his father’s love?”
The man with that knowledge now slept soundly because Tess was right. Heath Barkley wanted nothing more than he’d been given.
And his father’s love.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~