A Place To Call Home
*This story is set several months prior to the aired episode: Boots With My Father’s Name. It also disregards the events depicted in the aired episode 40 Rifles. However, I am using the character of Barrett from that episode - the hired hand that was so intent on giving Heath a hard time. As well, in Palms Of Glory the show is set in 1876 with Tom Barkley having died in 1870. When Heath arrives on the ranch in ‘Palms’ he says his mother has been dead a few months. However, in the episode The Lost Treasure, Leah Thomson’s gravestone indicates she died in 1872. There have been many discussions on various Big Valley websites regarding the errors the Big Valley writers made in regards to dates throughout the show’s four-year run. Therefore I have taken the liberty in this story to fictionalize that Leah died in October of 1875, and that Heath arrived on the Barkley ranch in late January of 1876.
Heath opened his bedroom door and stepped into the wide hallway. He crossed to the banister, silently observing the bustling activity below. Silas scurried between the kitchen, dining room, parlor, and foyer. The black man’s voice never raised above its normal, soft pitch as he gave directions to the four young women who had been hired from Stockton to help with the party. Regardless, Heath could sense nervousness about Silas. He attributed the house servant’s uneasiness to the fact Silas felt it was his responsibility to see the night went off without a hitch.
Or maybe it wasn’t even that complicated. Maybe it was that Silas, as one of the few black men within one hundred miles, still felt just as out of place in this home as Heath often did. Maybe, even after the twenty-three years Silas had been employed by the Barkleys, he still felt the need to strive for perfection. To prove he was worthy of the shelter Tom Barkley provided him when he’d arrived here as a runaway slave over two decades ago.
Heath had been living with his father’s family for just three months now. He couldn’t imagine twenty-three years into the future. He was still pretty much taking things as they came, day by day. He had a strong feeling that’s the way his brothers, sister, and Victoria were taking things, too. It was funny. Sometimes he felt like he’d lived on this ranch all his life, and sometimes he felt as out of place as a country bumpkin at a high society wedding. No doubt about it, the luxury the Barkleys lived in was far from anything he’d experienced in his twenty-four years on this earth. The home Heath had grown up in could fit in Victoria Barkley’s foyer. It had contained just one main room that served as both kitchen and living room, plus a tiny bedroom that Leah Thomson insisted Heath have despite the fact that as he grew older he tried to convince her it should be him sleeping on the cot beside the cook stove, not her.
Heath’s beginnings might have been humble, but he never thought of his mother and that little home without warmth kissing his heart first, and then deep, deep sorrow burrowing itself into his soul. Their position in the world was hardly anything to brag about; nonetheless Leah kept her home and son spotlessly clean. Or at least Heath was as spotlessly clean as any boy could be until he got out of his mother’s sight. He rarely failed to come home dirty from a hard day at play, or scuffed up from a fight he’d gotten into because someone had referred to his mother as a whore or called him a bastard. At those times Leah would shake her head and give her boy a stern lecture while gently dabbing the blood from his face.
“Heath, you have to learn to turn away from the ignorant words of others and not let your temper get the best of you. There will come a day when I won’t be here to patch you up.”
Of course as a child, Heath could never imagine his mother not being there to patch him up. Or to offer him comfort and guidance. She had been his whole world, just like he had been hers. Despite the hard life that rough mining town had brought Leah Thomson, Heath never fathomed her death would come just six months earlier at the young age of forty-five. He had a lot of regrets about her passing. So many that he didn’t allow himself to dwell on her final days, or how he had failed her. If he could only have the last year of her life back. If he’d only had then what he had now he could have provided for her in a way that far exceeded the few dollars he’d mailed to Strawberry each week since he’d left home at sixteen. If he could have made his mother’s life easier possibly she would have had years and years left her. As Victoria Barkley came into view from below, Heath thought of what might have been and had to turn away.
Before the young man could escape unnoticed down the back stairs Audra swished through the hall in a sea of emerald taffeta.
“Oh, Heath, your tie,” she moaned with mock long-suffering. “Here, let me fix it.”
Heath stood still, lifting his chin and allowing his sister to undo the black string tie at his neck. Her nimble fingers retied it into a neat, straight bow in a matter of seconds.
“Really, I don’t know what you and Nick would do without me. I just redid his tie not five minutes ago. You’d think a couple of grown men who can lasso a wild stallion would be able to tie a respectable knot.”
Audra fussed over Heath a few more seconds. She straightened the lapels on the royal blue suit coat she’d helped him pick out at a men’s clothing store in Stockton, and brushed imaginary lint from his shoulders. After all these years of being his own man Heath would have thought he’d be annoyed at his sister’s ministrations, but he’d found just the opposite was true. Audra never failed to make him feel like an important member of this family. Never failed to make him feel as though his place as her big brother was just as solid and long-standing as Jarrod’s and Nick’s places were. And though he would never admit it to the nineteen year old, Heath enjoyed being taken care of by her. Had they grown up together he could easily imagine what great playmates they might have been.
Audra always seemed to sense what Heath was feeling, and tonight was no different. It was as if she could read his mind and knew the prospect of this fancy party had him unnerved. She took a step back and flashed him a confident smile while the musicians warmed up in a corner of the parlor.
“There.” She gave one final tug on the hem of his coat. “Now I’ll be telling the truth when I say you’re the handsomest brother I’ve got.”
The young woman crooked her arm, holding her elbow out to Heath.
“You’d better not let Nick hear you say that,” Heath replied.
Another voice joined the pair from behind.
“And you’d better not let Jarrod hear you say it either, little lady.”
There was laughter in Jarrod’s eyes as he joined his two blond siblings. But then it was rare for Heath not to see laughter in Jarrod’s eyes. If Audra was the baby sister he’d dreamed of having as a little boy, then Jarrod was the big brother his imagination had formed. Smart, worldly, kind, charming, and always ready with sound advice free for the taking. Advice that was dispensed gently and tactfully, in that rich speaking voice that had swayed the opinion of many a jury.
Audra held her other arm out for Jarrod.
“What I meant to say is, Heath’s the handsomest blond brother I have. While you, Jarrod, are the handsomest brunette brother I possess.”
Jarrod laughed. “Then I must echo Heath’s words. You’d better not let Nick hear you say that.”
“Better not let Nick hear who say what?” Boomed from below.
Arms linked, the trio descended to the foyer.
“Audra was just taking stock of her handsome brothers,” Jarrod said. “And your name, Nicholas, appears to be missing from her list.”
Nick crossed his arms over his wide chest. “Oh it does, does it?”
“But then Audra didn’t mention Eugene either, so perhaps she wasn’t done announcing the many virtues of her siblings.”
Audra rolled her eyes at Jarrod and Nick. Heath knew this type of teasing went on between the three of them almost constantly. Though he would have been able to keep up with their good natured banter had he chosen to, he generally remained quiet. Heath wasn’t certain if his comments would be welcome in this playful routine that dated back to childhood.
The blond man felt a tiny hand come to rest between his shoulder blades. He turned to see Victoria join the group.
“Perhaps if Audra was allowed to finish her thoughts they would go something like this. Nick is the handsomest brother she has with hazel eyes--”
“Well that’s not hard to come up with,” Nick snorted, “considering I’m the only brother she has with hazel eyes.”
Victoria went on speaking as though she hadn’t been interrupted.
“And Eugene is the handsomest younger brother she has.”
“Again, not a huge strain to the brain there. She doesn’t have any younger brothers besides Gene.”
“Did someone call me?” Eugene asked as he entered from the dining room.
“No,” Nick said.
The young man, who was home from college for the party, looked from one sibling to the next.
“You know, ever since I was a little kid I always missed out on all the fun. I thought that would change once I reached adulthood.”
Nick snatched the carrot stick Gene was aiming for his mouth.
“Sorry, bucko, but you thought wrong. We’re still havin’ fun that you’re missing out on.”
“Hey! Give that back to me!” Gene jumped, swiping at the half eaten carrot stick Nick had pilfered. “Mother, make him give it back to me.”
Audra accosted Nick from behind. She grabbed his wrists and tried to wrestle the carrot from him so she could toss it to Gene in an impromptu game of keep away.
Victoria shook her head at her children’s nonsense. She loved it when they were all home at the same time, even if they did feel the need to relive their youth when they were together. She fought to keep the smile out of her voice as her adult offspring forced her to resurrect her role as mother.
“Nick, give your brother back his carrot stick. Gene, quit jumping in the house. You’ll knock something over. Audra, you stay out of the fray. You’ll wrinkle your dress. And, Jarrod, keep an eye on your brothers and sister for me tonight. They’re bound to get into trouble if someone isn’t watching them.”
Nick was still teasing Gene and Audra with the carrot stick, holding it just out of their reach, when the first guests began to arrive. The dark headed man popped the vegetable in his mouth and while still chewing, assembled by the door with his family.
The Barkleys formed a receiving line as music filtered in from the other room. Without conscious effort they stood in the order of their birth from oldest to youngest. For the first time since he’d come to live with them Heath pondered the thought of being the middle child. If he’d grown up in this family how would that experience have altered his personality? The studious, even-tempered Jarrod was eight years his senior, then came the boisterous, head-strong Nick at four years older. Below Heath was the spunky Audra at five years younger and the cheerful Eugene at almost seven years Heath’s junior. No doubt Nick would have been more of a playmate to him than Jarrod or Gene; which was amusing considering he and Nick still weren’t sure what to make of each other. On some days they were one anothers best friend, and on other days they were bitter enemies. That’s not how Heath wanted it per se, but he was a proud man who was used to doing things his own way. He didn’t always take too kindly to Nick’s bossiness. He wondered if he would have been more accepting of it if he’d lived with these people since birth. He’d always heard the middle child was the peacekeeper. Having spoken up on behalf of all his siblings a time or two since he’d arrived here made Heath realize he had a good portion of that trait within his personality, but having grown up as an only child also meant he was fiercely independent and not accustomed to having a brother tell him what to do. And telling Heath what to do was something Nick, as the head of the Barkley Ranch operations, seemed to relish at times.
Before Heath could give this further consideration people began flocking in the front door. He watched Victoria. She was a smooth and gracious hostess who greeted every person with a warm handshake and equally warm smile. If anyone in this household yet made him nervous, it was she. Heath was still as uncertain of her motives as he had been the day she invited him to live in the mansion. She’d never been anything but kind to him, even when he didn’t deserve that kindness, yet the fact that he was her husband’s bastard son was never going to change. To put it bluntly, Tom Barkley had slept with Heath’s mother. Regardless of the whys or wherefores, the man had stepped out on his marriage. Plenty of people in this valley held Heath at fault for that, but if Victoria harbored such feelings she kept them well-hidden. But then Heath kept a lot of his feelings hidden, too, so maybe he and Victoria were an even match as far as that went.
Heath swayed from foot to foot, relieved each time a guest passed him without saying more than a, “How do you do?” While he’d met some of these people during his three months here, there were a lot he didn’t know. He supposed rumor of his existence had pretty well reached all ears by now, but even so, there were often moments of awkwardness when he was first introduced to people who were old friends of Tom Barkley.
And speaking of old friends, the second the woman walked in the door Heath knew who she was. Her portly body was stuffed into a maroon gown layered with black netting like a sausage is stuffed into its casing. Her ample breasts made it look as though two ripe melons had been stashed in the bodice. He wasn’t surprised to see the gaudy hat on her head. If his mother were alive to see the woman she’d laugh and tell Heath the hat’s brim was big enough to carry a week’s worth of laundry. And then there were the feathers. An entire peacock must have been plucked naked in order to provide the colorful plume that stuck straight up in the air like an Indian’s headdress.
Nick elbowed Heath. The dark headed man leaned into his sibling and whispered, “Get a load of her. And this is tame compared to some of the stuff I’ve seen her wear.”
Heath wanted to say, “Boy howdy, Nick, the stories I could tell you about some of the stuff I’ve seen her wear would knock your socks off. And her bloomers are big enough to fit a circus elephant,” but he didn’t say that. It would prompt too many questions Heath would rather not answer.
Regardless of what Victoria Barkley thought of her guest’s attire she smiled and shook the woman’s hand.
“Constance. How very nice to see you. I’m so glad you could come.”
The woman’s shrill voice drowned out both the music and the chatter of the other guests.
“I must confess, Victoria, your party came close to having to go on without me. I had one of my spells this afternoon and thought sure the Lord was calling me home just as plain as if I could hear His voice. Why, I told John Peter he might as well summon the undertaker. I was that certain of my demise.”
Victoria’s eyes flicked to Jarrod. She could tell he was biting his lower lip to keep from laughing.
“Well, Constance, I’m happy to see you’ve made a full recovery.” Victoria looked to her guest’s son. “And John, I’m glad you found the time to bring your mother tonight. I know how busy you must be running the ranch.”
“Running the ranch my eye,” Nick whispered to Heath. “He’s the laziest S.O.B. this side of the Mississippi. What he knows about ranching you could put on a saddle horn. His old man was the same way. The only reason their operation succeeds is because of their money. They’ve got the most hired hands of anyone in the valley and a helluva foreman who calls the shots.”
Heath watched the lanky, milk-pale John nod in that superior way he’d possessed since he was a child.
“Yes, yes. Quite busy, Mrs. Barkley. Quite so.”
Jarrod smiled and kissed the back of the pudgy hand Constance offered him.
“Mrs. Vanguard, you’re as lovely as ever.”
“Oh, Jarrod, go on with you now. You’ll make an old woman blush like a schoolgirl. You do have your father’s charm, there’s no two ways about it.”
When the woman reached Nick he simply nodded. The last thing he wanted to do was make any form of physical contact with the old biddy.
“Mrs. Vanguard. Nice to see you again.”
Constance disliked the loud, ill-tempered Nick as much as he disliked her.
“Nicholas. Yes. Good to see you, too. And please, Nicholas, keep your cattle out of our stream.”
“Out of your stream! Lady, the only reason our cattle got to your stream in the first place is because you had a fence down that worthless son of yours is too lazy to--”
“Nick. Nick,” Jarrod soothed, while putting an arm around his brother. “Come on now. Calm down. Tonight’s not the night for business discussions.” The lawyer cocked an eyebrow at their rotund guest. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mrs. Vanguard?”
“I suppose not. No, of course it isn’t, Jarrod. You’re correct. But, Nicholas, please. From now on make more of an effort to keep your animals on your own property.”
If Nick had been able to produce steam Heath had no doubt it would be pouring out his ears. The blond man could feel Audra’s body shaking. She hid her face in his back as she tried to suppress her laughter.
Jarrod alleviated the situation by ushering the woman forward.
“I don’t think you’ve had the occasion to meet my younger brother Heath. Heath, this is Mrs. Vanguard. When her husband was living he and Father shared partnerships in several mines throughout the state. Mrs. Vanguard, this is Heath.”
Though Victoria was well aware tact was a foreign word to Constance Vanguard, she never imagined the woman could be so senseless. Or so cruel. Within seconds of Constance being introduced to Heath the matriarch of the Barkley family was wishing she’d never invited the woman.
Constance looked Heath up and down as though she was expecting to see some outward sign that made him unworthy of living on the Barkley ranch.
“Yes. Yes, I’ve heard of you. People like to talk, you know. ‘Keith’ did you say his name was, Jarrod?”
Heath felt his face begin to burn. Did the woman think he was some half-retarded misfit who couldn’t even tell her his own
“Heath,” Jarrod repeated.
“Heath. Mmmm, now that is an unusual name. Very unusual. Certainly not a good Christian name like John Peter, or Jarrod, or Nicholas. Even Eugene has Christian roots you know. Why, I do believe I’ve only heard the name Heath one other time in my whole life.” The woman looked at her son. “John Peter, wasn’t Heath the name of that little bastard boy of our washerwoman’s when we lived in Strawberry? Oh, you remember him, don’t you? Why I used to sell the clothes you’d outgrown to her for the boy, and how did that little urchin repay us? By beating you up.”
“He didn’t beat me up, Mother.”
“He most certainly did. I recall you coming home all battered and crying your eyes out more than once. Oh, but was your father angry with you. He took his belt to your hide for being such a sissy each and every time it happened. Don’t you remember that? Father was furious that such ‘scrawny little white trash,’ as he phrased it, five years younger than you had whipped you.”
Jarrod did his best to move the woman along. It seemed to Heath that everyone in the entire house was listening to her while staring at him.
“Come with me, Mrs. Vanguard. I’ll introduce you to some of the guests you haven’t met.”
The woman wiggled her body out of Jarrod’s arms. Her grey eyes remained fastened on Heath.
“You’ve grown up to be quite a handsome man. Who would have thought it? Every time I saw you your feet were bare and your bangs were hanging in your eyes. But then I don’t suppose your mother could afford to send you to the barber, or buy you shoes for that matter. And speaking of your mother...what was her name again? LeeAnn. Yes, that was it. LeeAnn. My, but LeeAnn certainly could get the toughest stains out of clothes. I don’t know how she did it, but I surely marveled at her ability.”
Heath never thought about where he was, or that holding his tongue might be what a polite gentleman does when insulted while attending a lavish shindig. He wouldn’t stand by and let this woman defile his mother’s memory even if he was attending a party at the White House. Heath’s jaw was so firmly set he’d later wonder how any words managed to come forth.
“She got the stains out of your clothes by standing over a washboard until her back ached and her fingers bled. She did it because she was never too proud to labor at an honest day’s work in order to feed her child. She came to your house every day for six years and not once did you do anything but lecture her like some high and mighty priestess because of her ‘bastard,’ as you used to refer to me.”
“Why I never--”
“You did, too!” Heath shouted. “I wasn’t deaf and I wasn’t invisible! You may have thought of me as ‘white trash’, but I was there with her. I heard you. And at night, long after she thought I was asleep, I’d hear her cry because of how hurt she was by the things you said.”
Nick put a hand on his brother’s elbow. “Heath, come on. Let’s go outside for a few minutes.”
The blond man shook himself free. He gave Mrs. Vanguard a final glare. “And her name wasn’t LeeAnn. It was Leah.”
Heath turned on one boot heel and stomped through the dining room. Audra gathered up her gown, scampering after him.
“Heath! Heath, wait!”
The Barkleys’ guests stood in uncomfortable silence. Even the musicians had quit playing. The slam of the kitchen door echoed throughout the house and caused the windows to rattle in their panes.
Jarrod signaled the musicians to start again. At the same time Silas sent the girls in from the dining room bearing trays of hors d’oeuvres. Within seconds people returned to mingling with their neighbors, doing their best to act as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
Mrs. Vanguard looked at Victoria. “I apologize for the upset, Victoria. I didn’t mean anything by it. Why, everything I said was true. I don’t understand why the boy got so upset. But then, I suppose one must forgive his poor manners considering his roots and all. And to think he’s Tom’s son. Well, who would have ever imagined it?”
Mrs. Vanguard moved toward the parlor, the balding John Peter trailing behind her. He shook his head as he passed the Barkleys.
“It’s hardly surprising. He was a no-good mangy little scoundrel as a kid. I can see not much has changed. If I were you I wouldn’t allow Audra to be alone with him. After all, with his kind...well, you just never know.”
Nick lunged forward. “Why you--”
Jarrod thrust out a hand that landed square in the middle of his brother’s chest. “Nick. Just let it be for now.”
The lawyer stepped closer to his brother. “Nick, the Vanguards have made enough of a scene already. Let it drop for tonight.”
Nick’s eyes followed Constance and her son. “I’ll tell you one thing. As of right now those people are permanently off the Barkley guest list.”
For the first time Victoria spoke. “Yes, Nick, they are.”
And with those words Victoria forced herself to smile and turned to greet the next guest, all the while worrying about Heath.
“Heath! Heath!” Audra stopped and strained to see into the darkness. The path lit by torch lamps meant to guide their guests from the front gate to the house was now behind her. “Heath!”
The young woman lifted her gown again and continued her search. She bypassed the row of bunkhouses. Lights shown from within, no doubt many of the hired hands were awake yet playing cards or shooting the bull over a shared a smoke. Nonetheless, Audra knew Heath wouldn’t have sought refuge within any of those walls. A lot of the men were still unsure of him, their resentment over having to take orders from the newest Barkley evident in their snide remarks or downright defiance of him. Sometimes their orneriness toward Heath made Audra want to spit at their feet. If she’d been Nick she would have sent them all packing. She even said as much to Jarrod one day when she saw Heath walking away from some of the hands in that restrained, proud manner he possessed. One of the men snickered and cursed, “dumb bastard,” loud enough for everyone to hear. Heath stopped for just a moment, but never turned around to confront the cowboy. Within seconds he continued on his way as though nothing had been said.
As Audra watched from the front veranda that afternoon she clenched her fists. “Oh, sometimes I wish he’d lay right into them and let them all have what they deserve. How can he just keep walking away from it?”
A quiet voice from behind startled the nineteen year old.
“Because I imagine he’s learned by now that beating someone up every time they say something nasty only gets you two things. A black eye and sore fists.”
Audra turned as Jarrod crossed the length of the porch. “You saw?”
“It happens a lot.”
“Yes. And before you ask, so does Nick.”
“Jarrod Barkley, if you and Nick know this is happening how can you stand by and let it continue?”
“Audra, this is going to be hard for you to hear, but Heath has to find his own way.”
“What do you mean?”
“He fought his way onto this ranch and into this family. But just because we’ve come to accept him as brother, doesn’t mean everyone he encounters will accept him as a Barkley without making him prove himself to them first. It might not be right, but nonetheless it’s true. If Nick or I step in every time one of the hands refuses to do what Heath asks then Heath won’t learn how to deal with the situation and the men won’t learn how to respect him.”
“What makes you so certain that by not stepping in you’re actually helping?”
“A man has a lot of pride, Audra. Heath more than most. Believe me, honey, we’d be doing more harm than good to interfere. I’ve got a feeling that ounce for ounce that blond brother of ours possesses more perseverance than any of the rest of us put together. Trust me when I say he’ll survive this ‘initiation’ period and come out on top.”
Audra turned from Jarrod and watched as Heath rode out of the barn on Charger. When he was nothing but a speck in the distance she said, “He’s still such a mystery to me. He...there’s something very sweet and gentle about him. Something very kind and loving. But if you get too close to touching that part of his soul he pulls back, almost like a turtle retreating into its shell. Have you ever noticed that?”
“Yes, I’ve noticed it. We all have. Mother thinks he’s afraid of being hurt.”
“Being hurt by us? His family?”
Jarrod shrugged his shoulders. “I imagine Heath’s been hurt by a lot of people in his life. Whether or not we’re family probably makes little difference at this point.” The lawyer kissed his sister’s forehead. “Don’t you worry. In time, Heath will settle in.”
That conversation with Jarrod had taken place a month ago, and as far as Audra was concerned things hadn’t improved any. Wasn’t tonight with Mrs. Vanguard a perfect example of the prejudice aimed at Heath by the people in this valley? Though Constance Vanguard was known to be outspoken, Audra still couldn’t believe what had come streaming out of the woman’s mouth. And in front of all their guests. Poor Heath. What a humiliating experience it must have been for him.
A soft glow coming from a barn window drew Audra to the large structure. The young woman opened one of the big doors just enough so she could slip in between the crack. Her horse Ladino, or Lady as she’d long ago been nicknamed, whinnied from her stall.
If Heath heard Lady, or knew the sound she made meant Audra was now in the barn, he never indicated it. He sat on a bale of hay in profile to his sister. His jacket and tie were thrown over a stall door. The sleeves of his white dress shirt had been rolled up to his elbows.
Audra traversed the long aisle. She had no doubt her brother knew she was present. The taffeta dress was too noisy to keep her presence a secret. When Audra came to the hay bale she stopped and waited. Heath didn’t look up at her, nor did he move to make room for her beside him.
“Don’t say it.”
“Don’t say what?”
“Don’t tell me you’re sorry.”
“But I am.”
“For Mrs. Vanguard. For the things she said. For--”
“They were all true. Every single one of them. I was a bastard kid who didn’t wear shoes and whose mother couldn’t afford to get him a decent hair cut.”
The man finally made eye contact with the teenager. “Audra, that’s just the way it was. No amount of your sympathies or apologies will change the facts.”
Heath shot to his feet. He turned his back on his sister, but not before she saw the set of his jaw and the storm in his eyes. Audra hadn’t seen her father angry very often, but at that moment she saw Tom Barkley just as sure as if he was standing in front of her.
“Just go, Audra! Get back to the party.”
“I’d like you to come with me.”
“Why? So everyone can look and see if I’m wearin’ shoes?”
“Heath Barkley, that was totally uncalled for and you know it!”
Heath swiveled to face his sister. “That’s easy for you to say! You don’t know what it’s like to watch your mother count pennies at the kitchen table in the hopes that she has enough extra money to buy you a pair of shoes before cold weather sets in! You don’t know what it’s like to hear your mother cry at night because she’s not sure where the next meal is coming from! You don’t know what it’s like to hear your schoolmates call her a whore because Tom Barkley rode into town one night and left you as evidence of his visit! You don’t know what it’s like, Audra, and you, with your fancy dresses, and fancy parties, and enough shoes to fill a closet bigger than the bedroom I grew up in, never will!”
Audra’s hand flew to her mouth in an effort to stifle her sobs. Heath had never been cruel to her before, never tried to make her feel as though she was at fault for the conditions of his childhood. She thought he knew she was always the first one to come to his defense. She thought he knew how much it pained her to be aware of all he’d grown up without. She thought he knew how much she’d come to cherish him as ‘big brother’ in the few short months he’d been with them. She thought he knew she loved and respected him just as much as she loved and respected Jarrod, Nick, and Eugene.
But evidently he didn’t. He didn’t know any of those things, and even if he did his words were evidence of how little he cared. Audra wanted to shout that at him, wanted to tell him how ungrateful he was, but her tears prevented her from doing anything other than racing from the barn with blind hurt.
Heath turned, taking two steps toward his fleeing sister. He stopped as he saw green taffeta sail through the open barn door. He whirled around and slammed his fist into a wooden beam. He never noticed the pain throbbing from his hand. The pain in his heart overruled it.
The party was in full swing when Silas approached Victoria. He’d waited until he could catch her alone then hurried to her side. Over the sound of the violins he said softly, “Mrs. Barkley, Miss Audra just ran in from outside. She flew up the backstairs like the house was on fire. She was crying so hard it’s a wonder she could see straight. I thought you’d want to know, ma’am.”
“Yes, Silas. Thank you.”
So as not to draw attention to herself by climbing the front staircase Victoria followed the black man into the kitchen. If any of the guests took notice they’d assume she was consulting with Silas on some issue having to do with the party.
Victoria lifted the hem of her midnight blue satin gown and trotted up the wooden stairs. She knocked when she came to Audra’s closed bedroom door.
“Audra? Honey, it’s Mother. Are you in there?”
Audra didn’t have to answer. Victoria could hear her weeping even through the thick oak barrier.
The woman opened the door to find her only daughter sitting on the edge of her bed. A steady stream of tears rolled down the girl’s face. Victoria moved to sit by her side.
“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”
“Audra, when I find you crying in your room on the night of a party I can hardly believe that nothing is wrong.” Victoria smoothed the hair that had fallen loose of the clasp at the back of Audra’s head. She had a strong suspicion she knew what the problem was. She’d seen Audra chase after Heath. That was one reason she herself hadn’t gone, and the reason she hadn’t sent Jarrod or Nick after him. As long as one member of the family was with Heath the rest of them could put on their party faces and try to undo the damage Constance Vanguard had inflicted. Besides, Victoria thought if anyone could offer Heath comfort it would be Audra. She thought Heath might talk more freely about his feelings to his sister as opposed to any of his brothers.
“Audra, what happened? Where’s Heath?”
“In...in the barn.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“He got angry. He wouldn’t accept my sympathies over what Mrs. Vanguard said. He...he basically said I didn’t understand what it was like to grow up like he had to.”
The ever-practical Victoria arched an
eyebrow. “Well, do you?”
“No. No, I don’t. But I wasn’t trying to patronize him, Mother. I just...I just wanted him to know I care. I just wanted him to know that when people say mean, spiteful things to him it hurts me, too. That it hurts all of us.”
“I suspect that deep inside Heath does know
“Then why won’t he let us reach out to
him? Why does he pull away just when he
needs us the most?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because being a part of family, having three brothers and a sister, is new to him. Maybe he doesn’t realize that when you’re a member of a family you share things that go far beyond the last piece of pie or conversation at the dinner table.”
“I only wanted to help him. I didn’t mean to make things worse.”
“I know you didn’t. And Heath knows that, too. But in Heath’s defense you have to remember
“First of all Constance insulted Heath’s
mother. That was an unforgivable thing
for her to do. And second of all she
embarrassed him in front of our guests.
That was also unforgivable.
There’s nothing a man hates more than to be put on the spot by a
woman. Especially a man like Heath.”
“Jarrod says Heath has a lot of pride.”
“He does. Whether he knows it or not he’s like your father in that respect. Of course Jarrod, Nick, and Eugene possess large doses of the Barkley pride, as well. But Heath...well sometimes Heath reminds me very much of your father as a young man. The young man your father was when we first arrived in this valley with nothing but each other and Tom Barkley’s dream.”
Audra looked at her mother with respect shining through her tears. She reached out and pulled the tiny woman to her.
“Sometimes I forget how hard this has been on you. Heath is my brother, and Father’s son, but...” the young woman allowed her sentence to trail off unfinished.
“But to me he’s just a young man I’ve invited to live in our home. A young man whose mother my husband had an affair with. Is that what you were going to say?”
Audra pulled back. The shock on her face at her mother’s blunt
words was plain to read. “No. No, I...I...I guess I don’t know what I was
going to say.”
Victoria smiled as she used her thumbs to wipe at the last of Audra’s tears. “That’s all right, sweetheart. Because no matter how hard I try to show Heath there’s much more to it than that, I often get the impression that’s how he feels as well.”
“Will it ever change, Mother? Will things get better for him? For him and for you?”
“I don’t know. Only time will tell I suppose.”
“Now you sound like Jarrod.”
“Then you know where your brother gets his intelligence
from.” Victoria pulled the smiling
Audra to her feet. “Come on now. Wash your face and join the party.”
“What about Heath?”
“Based on what you’ve just told me I think Heath prefers to be alone tonight.”
“But should he be?”
“Probably not. But he’s made his choice, and if he’s as much like your father as I think he is there’s no use trying to convince him otherwise.”
Audra deferred to her mother’s wisdom. Not long after she arrived downstairs she saw her mother talking to Jarrod and Nick. She could tell Nick wanted to head to the barn, but she saw their mother grab his arm and then saw Jarrod mouth the words, “Leave him be, Nick.” It was Audra herself who filled Eugene in as to Heath’s whereabouts when they shared a dance later in the evening. The youngest Barkley had been away at college almost from the day Heath had arrived. At this point the two men were still strangers to each other.
“Do you think it will ever get easier?” Gene asked as he whirled his sister around the parlor floor.
Audra smiled in a soft, maternal sort of way that made Eugene think of their mother.
“Only time will tell, Gene,” the young woman said. “Only time will tell.”
It was nine o’clock before the Barkleys gathered at the breakfast table Sunday morning. The last guest hadn’t left until two a.m. Any thoughts Victoria had of getting her household up in time for church ended at that moment.
Heath never had put in an appearance the night before, though Victoria heard him come in from the barn...or wherever he had been, shortly after three. She had pondered getting out of bed and talking to him. If he had been one of her sons she would have. But in so many ways this boy was still a stranger to her. He seemed to hold himself at arms length with her. She got the impression he had no desire to get to know her, nor allow her to get to know him. At least he didn’t call her ma’am anymore. It had taken her weeks to convince him to set aside that form of address to instead call her Victoria. Not that he’d ever referred to her as such yet. Since she’d asked him to quit calling her ma’am he simply didn’t call her anything. Which meant unless she made eye contact with him he basically didn’t talk to her at all. Did he resent her that much for being Tom Barkley’s wife? She often wondered if he looked at her and imagined his mother in her place. And if he did, could she blame him for it? Wouldn’t any one of her own sons feel the same way if their positions were reversed with Heath’s?
Victoria’s mother had often been fond of saying life is full of complications. As Heath sat down at the breakfast table that morning silent and sullen, Victoria imagined her mother was looking down from heaven and saying, “What did I always tell you, Victoria? Life is full of trials and tribulations. The true measure of who we are comes each time adversity crosses our paths.”
Victoria could always count on her second son to put his foot in his mouth and this morning was no different than any other. In an effort to break the uncomfortable silence Nick said, “You missed a heck of a party last night, Heath.”
Heath’s eyes slid to Nick, then down to his plate. Victoria simply shook her head at Nick in exasperation while Jarrod and Gene rolled their eyes. Audra arrived on the heels of Nick’s faux pas. She said good morning to everyone by name as she took her seat, saving Heath until last.
The blond man barely acknowledged his sister. “Mornin’.”
The meal would have been painfully subdued had it not been for Jarrod and Eugene. Victoria could always count on the sunny personality of her oldest, and the enthusiastic personality of her youngest, to pull the family out of whatever gloom it was mired in.
Jarrod engaged Gene in college talk. The two men were fourteen and a half years apart in age, therefore the relationship they had was much more like father and son then that of brothers. Or at least it had been until Gene started school at Berkley. Now he and Jarrod had common ground. They both loved to read and expand their knowledge through studying. Despite their different fields, Jarrod’s being law and Gene’s being animal husbandry, they had a wealth of information to exchange. Victoria enjoyed watching the brotherly bond that was building between them while Nick could be counted on to interject his opinions freely, regardless of whether or not he really cared about the subject matter. The only two members of the family who seemed far removed from the table that morning was Audra and Heath. Victoria knew that for Audra, it was because her tender feelings had been hurt by her new brother. As far as Heath went...well she was certain his silence had a lot to do with Mrs. Vanguard’s words, but knowing him he’d never confirm that to her, nor to any of them. Eventually the issue would be pushed aside, like so many other issues had been since Heath’s arrival.
Eugene had to make his leave right after breakfast. The noon train would be returning him to school. While Jarrod tied the young man’s suitcase to the back of the waiting buggy Eugene said his good-byes to the rest of his family. He accepted kisses from his mother and sister, hugged Nick, then moved awkwardly to Heath. He didn’t want to treat Heath differently than he treated Nick or Jarrod, yet he was far from sure how to take this often-reticent big brother. He finally settled on holding out his hand. Heath shook it and nodded his goodbye.
Jarrod clapped Eugene on the back. “Come on, young man. We don’t want you to miss that train. After all, we’ve got a good deal of the Barkley money invested in your education.”
“And exactly how much money would that be, Jarrod?” Nick asked. “I’d like a full disclosure. You know, just to make certain I think the boy is worth all my hard work.”
Eugene whirled around and knocked Nick’s hat off his head. Before Nick could give chase Gene was in the buggy with Jarrod at his side.
The two men were laughing as they rode away. Heath got the feeling Jarrod and Gene enjoyed teaming up and ‘besting’ Nick whenever they could. He wondered if he’d ever feel comfortable enough with his siblings to be a part of their games, or if like in so many other aspects of his life, he was destined to always be the outsider.
Spring came to the valley that April, and with it an increased workload for all. Every animal on the Barkley ranch seemed to be giving birth, in addition to that cattle needed to be driven to fresh pastures, calves were in need of branding, and a new string of wild horses were waiting to be broken. Nick and Heath worked from sun up to sun down, and though Nick was loath to admit it at times, he was beginning to take quite a shine to this new brother. Heath hadn’t returned to the house yet one evening when Nick was sharing a before-dinner-brandy with Jarrod in what had been their father’s office.
Nick perched a hip on a corner of the desk. “I’ll tell you one thing, that new brother of ours sure isn’t afraid of hard work. He can flat out do the labor of three men in one day’s time.”
Jarrod hid his smile behind the rim of his glass. Whether Heath knew it or not, the quickest way to earn Nick Barkley’s respect was to prove you were willing to give one hundred and ten percent toward keeping the ranch running.
“I imagine there’s been times when he’s had to do the labor of three men just to keep his belly full.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Nick agreed. “From what little we know he hasn’t had an easy life.”
“He’s still not overly talkative I take it?”
“Talkative? Jarrod, that man can go longer without saying one single word than anyone I know.”
Victoria entered the room wearing a smile. “I’d say that might be somewhat refreshing. After all, none of the rest of the Barkleys can be accused of holding their tongues for long. Perhaps our friends and neighbors are finding Heath a welcome change.”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself, Mother,” Jarrod said.
The woman moved to sit in a chair facing her sons.
Nick scowled. “I don’t know. There’s something wrong with a man who’s your brother, that on some days you can’t even get five words out of.”
Victoria smoothed her dress. “Maybe Heath simply isn’t comfortable offering us his thoughts at this time.”
“Maybe. But I still don’t like it. It...it’s downright sneaky if you ask me.”
“He may not say much, but he observes
what’s going on around him better than any lawyer I’ve ever encountered.”
Nick looked at his older brother. “What do you mean?”
“You watch him sometime. Especially when we’re at the dinner table. He may not contribute to the conversation, but he’s taking it all in.”
“You mean like eavesdropping?” Nick asked. “See, just what I said. Sneaky.”
“No, Nick, that’s not what I mean. I mean absorbing. Getting to know each of us by the opinions we hold on a particular subject. By the way we interact with each other. By the way we tease or joke with one another. I think he still feels very out of place, and through his silence, is trying to figure out just where he belongs within our family structure.”
“That’s a very apt way of putting it, Jarrod,” Victoria said. “I’ve surmised the same myself.”
Nick stood and walked over to the table that held the brandy decanter. He refilled his glass, then held the decanter out to his brother. Jarrod shook his head no. Nick put the decanter back and walked over to sit in the chair next to the one his mother was occupying.
“I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wish he’d open up and give us the same opportunity. I still feel like I’m spending the day with a stranger more often than not. A mute stranger at that.”
“Be patient with him, Nick,” Victoria urged.
Jarrod laughed. “Nick? Patient? Mother, I think you have Nick mixed up with one of your other children.”
“Hey! I can be patient when I have to. And I have been patient. It’s just that I’m starting to lose my patience on some days.”
Victoria stepped in before her sons’ good-natured bickering could continue.
“Nicholas, you need to keep in mind that Heath was raised as an only child. I’m sure finding himself smack in the middle of three brothers and one sister is challenging at best, difficult at worst. Add to that he left home at sixteen. By virtue of that he’s used to being his own man. It may take him a while to learn how to fit into a family. To learn how to be one of the owners of an operation the size of ours.”
Victoria fiddled with the cuff of her dress. “And then there’s me.”
“What about you?” Nick asked.
“I’m not his mother, yet I’m the mother of his brothers and sister. That must be as awkward for him as it is for me.”
Nick and Jarrod exchanged glances. This was the hardest part of the entire situation. Heath was their father’s child as result of his affair with Leah Thomson. They knew that had to break their mother’s heart, just as much as it broke their hearts at times.
Jarrod was the one who spoke first. “What can we do to help you and Heath get past the awkwardness, Mother?”
“There’s nothing you can do. There’s one thing I’d like to be to Heath, but until he’s ready to reciprocate that one thing there’s nothing any of us can do.”
“And just what thing is that?”
Victoria looked from Jarrod to Nick.
“His friend. I’d simply like to be his friend.”
Rivers of perspiration trickled down Heath’s face and neck until they were absorbed in the cotton of his shirt. He lined up the board he was holding, leveling it with nothing more than the naked eye. He swung his hammer until the nail was embedded in the new wood.
The blond man straightened. He took a step back from his work while removing his hat. He wiped a sleeve across his forehead then walked to the shade of the big tree Charger was tied to. He unwrapped the strap of his canteen from the saddle horn and took a long drink of water. He held the canteen in front of Charger’s mouth and tipped it, allowing the horse to get a drink as well.
Heath screwed the canteen’s cap back on then secured it to his saddle once again. He fished into the right front pocket of his jeans and pulled out his watch. He flicked the lid to see it was fifteen minutes after two.
The man’s day had started early. He ate breakfast alone in the kitchen at five that morning, a full hour before Silas would began cooking biscuits and frying eggs for the rest of the family.
By five thirty Heath was driving a wagon out of the barn pulled by a team of horses with Charger tied to the back. Nick wanted him to start building a new fence on a section of pasture five miles from the Barkley house. Heath had gone to Stockton the previous day and purchased the necessary supplies for the job.
Though building a fence was at the very least, a two man project, Heath didn’t mind working by himself. It gave him a chance to think without having to tune out the senseless chatter so many people seemed to feel the need to fill a nice, comfortable silence with. Besides, there was only a handful of the hired men who had come to accept him, and even at that he didn’t consider any of them to be his friends. Oh, some of the older ones who had known Tom Barkley for years prior to his death like the ranch foreman, Phillip Mattson, were nice enough to Heath, but there wasn’t anyone near his own age he felt a kinship with other than Nick. Perhaps that would change in time as new hands were hired who would only know Heath as one of the Barkleys. Maybe under those circumstances he’d be given the respect an employee owes a good, honest, hard-working boss, as opposed to giving him grief and back talk like he generally got now each time he asked one of the men to do a task they’d jump to do for Nick.
Heath glanced at his watch one last time then returned it to his pocket. As he walked toward the fence a rising billow of dust caught his eye. He watched as the riders grew closer. Within seconds he recognized the three men as Barkley hired hands. They reined their horses to a halt in front of Heath.
Lyndall Barrett grinned down from his mount. It wasn’t the kind of grin one perceived as friendly, but rather the kind of grin that indicated to Heath he was once again going to be put to the test. He waited the man out, and when nothing was forthcoming bent to pick up his hammer.
“You just gonna sit up there all day,
Barrett, or do you plan on givin’ me some help?”
Lyndall winked at the two young men with him. Neither were over twenty years old, and if forced to be honest would have to admit they had nothing against Heath. But it wasn’t Heath they bunked with each night so it was wiser to go along with Lyndall’s games and mean-spirited humor than it was to rebuke him. The man had a hot temper, and was down right unpredictable when he was drunk.
“Well now, I reckon we’ll just enjoy watchin’ you for a while there, Mister Barkley. After all, I expect you gotta work awful hard to earn your keep now that they got you livin’ in the big house. I’d hate to have to tell ole Nick you’re slackin’ off because of me.”
Heath eyed the man while reaching for a board.
“Considering I’ve been out here since six this mornin’ I don’t think that’ll be a concern for either one of us. Besides, I wasn’t aware that it was your job to report much of anything to ole Nick as you phrased it. When I sit down to supper tonight at that fancy table in that nice big house, I’ll make sure I tell my brother you’re lookin’ to be named chief tattle tale.”
Barrett’s sidekicks couldn’t help but laugh at Heath’s barb. The man felt his cheeks burn red. He didn’t like having his words turned against him, especially not in front of an audience, and that’s just what this no account son of a bitch had done. Lyndall had worked for the Barkleys for three years now. He was certain he was just about to become Nick’s right hand man directly behind Phillip when this guy had shown up claiming to be Tom Barkley’s bastard kid. What proof the Barkleys had in that regard which caused them to welcome Heath into their home and slowly make him a full partner with Nick in the running of the ranch Lyndall didn’t know and he didn’t care. All he knew was this smart mouthed punk had been a stitch in his side since the first day he rode onto the ranch. Well, it was time the bastard was brought down a notch or two and was reminded of exactly where it was he came from.
“You sure are high and mighty now, aren’t you, boy? High and mighty ‘cause the Barkleys handed you the key to the whole damn store. Well maybe you’ve fooled Victoria Barkley with your quiet ways and your shy, school-boy-polite ‘yes, ma’am’s’, and ‘no, ma’am’s’, but there’s lots of us who know what you really are.”
“And just what would that be?”
Barrett sneered. “The bastard son of a whore washer woman. The bastard son of a whore who cleaned houses for rich people when she wasn’t layin’ in some rich man’s bed. The bastard son of a--”
Lyndall Barrett saw Heath swing the thick board through the air, but had no time to react to anything other than its impact. He screamed in pain as he flew from his horse. He was curled in a ball on his hands and knees, groaning and clutching his injured shoulder when Heath’s boot slammed into his rear end. Barrett somersaulted head over heels. He choked and coughed on a mouthful of dirt. He turned his face just enough to see Heath Barkley standing over him, the four foot long board still in his hands. The man shrunk back when Heath dropped to his knees beside him. He knocked Lyndall’s cowboy hat off and grabbed a healthy chunk of dark hair. He yanked the man’s head back until Lyndall was forced to meet his eyes.
“You can say what you want about me, Barrett. But don’t you ever, ever say anything about my mother again, you got it?”
When Barrett didn’t answer Heath jerked his head so hard Lyndall thought for sure he’d hear his neck snap.
“You got it?”
“Yeah...yeah, I got it.”
“That’s good, ‘cause I swear if it happens again I’ll kill you.”
The force of Heath’s release on Barrett’s hair had the man eating dirt once more. As he passed the two wide-eyed cowboys still sitting in their saddles Heath jerked a thumb.
“Help your friend up, then the three of you work on this fence till quittin’ time. One of you can bring the wagon back to the ranch when you call it a day.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Barkley.”
Heath would have smiled at the admiration he heard in the young men’s voices if he had come by it honestly. Trouble was, he hadn’t. All he’d really done to warrant their reverence was to scare them. If his mother were alive she’d tell him that was no way to earn respect.
As he mounted Charger and rode toward Stockton Heath had to admit his mother was right. Beating someone up wasn’t the ideal way to get them to follow you to hell and back, but as of late, he was discovering that sometimes it was the only way.
Heath made it to the bank with just five minutes to spare prior to closing time. He’d barely touched any of the money he’d earned since coming to the Barkley ranch. He kept back enough to meet his weekly living expenses which, given the fact Victoria insist he reside in the mansion while paying no room and board, were very few. He then deposited the remainder of his pay in the savings account he’d opened. This was the first withdrawal he’d had reason to make in three months. He pocketed the cash the teller gave him, then exited the building as the bank president stood to lock the doors.
The blond man mounted Charger and headed south down Main Street. He bypassed the two places he was most likely to stop when he had reason to come to Stockton, the saloon and Jarrod’s office. The first he had no desire to enter because he didn’t have time to get involved in a poker game today. The second he had no desire to enter because he wasn’t in the mood for questions he had no intention of answering.
Thirty minutes later Heath’s business was taken care of. He swung himself onto Charger and rode toward the ranch.
Victoria Barkley’s family began drifting into the house one by one shortly before the Grandfather clock chimed seven times. During the winter months her children knew supper was served promptly at six p.m. Spring through fall supper was served one hour later. If Nick or Heath couldn’t make it at those times on occasion because they were involved in some project somewhere on the ranch, or if Jarrod couldn’t make it because he’d gotten tied up at his law office, then Silas kept their supper warming in the stove. But by seven chimes tonight Victoria counted all her children present, save for Eugene who was away at school.
Small talk ensued regarding everyone’s day as the main course was passed around the long table. As Nick was taking his first bite of roast beef he turned his head to look at Heath who was seated to his right.
“How many days work you figure you got left on that fence?”
“Three, maybe four depending on when and if you can spare any of the hands to help out.”
“Funny thing there, boy. I did spare some of the hands to help you out, but I hear tell the minute they showed up you vanished lickity split.”
Heath kept his eyes on his plate and swallowed hard in an effort to control his rising temper. “I pulled outta the barn at five-thirty this morning, Nick, and worked right through the noon hour. I think I was entitled to run a few errands when the men showed up to take over for me.”
“They weren’t sent to take over for you. They were sent to work with you.”
“Well, now,” Heath drawled, “I guess Barrett didn’t explain it to me in quite that fashion.”
“You know, boy, I could tear that smart tongue of yours right outta your head with one good yank if I had a mind to.”
Heath turned and met his brother face to face. “You think so, huh?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Before the childish verbal sparing could go any longer Victoria stepped in.
“If you two don’t stop this nonsense I have half a mind to send both of you to your rooms. The purpose of gathering at this table each evening is so we can enjoy coming together as a family. This is not the time or place to discuss business if you can’t go about it in a civilized manner.”
Heath had enough respect for Victoria Barkley to bow to her wishes and keep his thoughts to himself. Nick had a great deal of respect for his mother as well, but he wasn’t an easy man to silence when he was bound and determined to say what was on his mind.
“All I want to know is where the hell he high tailed it to when he should have been working.”
“Nicholas...” Victoria warned while Jarrod and Audra exchanged amused glances at the way their mother was still occasionally forced to stifle Nick’s impulsive ways.
“Look, you don’t have to step in and defend him every time I bring some issue up we need to discuss. If he’s gonna be a partner in running this ranch then he’d better learn to do things my way.”
Jarrod couldn’t help but laugh, an action that earned him a glare from Nick.
“What’s so funny?”
“Using the word ‘partner’, while in the next breath saying, ‘learn to do things my way,’ is a bit of a contrast, brother Nick. What generally makes a successful partnership work is the celebration of two different personalities coming together and being able to share diverse ideas, opinions, and ways of getting the job done.”
“Look, all I’m saying is--”
Heath dropped his fork to his plate. He snatched his napkin off his lap, threw it on the table, and stood.
“You’re so anxious to hear what I have to say, then fine, I’ll give you an earful. I started the day at five-thirty and worked nine hours without stopping for more than a few sips of water. Then I went into Stockton on some personal errands that are none of your business. Then I came back here and worked another three hours until it was time to come in for supper. If that’s not enough of my sweat for you, or if that constitutes not doing things your way, then so be it. I don’t have to ask for your goddamn permission every time I wanna leave this ranch! I don’t have to work with hired hands that give me nothing but grief because I’m the bastard kid! And most of all I’m not your boy so quit calling me that!”
Heath turned on one heel and stomped from the room. With his jaw clenched so tightly it looked like he’d pop a blood vessel in his neck Nick flung down his own napkin and started to stand. Jarrod snared his brother’s arm.
“Nick, sit down.”
“Jarrod, he’s just asking for another walloping with my fists like he got the first night he was here. Now let me go--”
“Nicholas,” Victoria ordered, “do as Jarrod says and sit down.”
Nick’s jaw worked in silently fury before he slowly sank back to his seat. He pushed his plate aside and brought his elbows to the table. He rested his chin on his fists for a long moment, then turned to his mother.
“I’m going to ask you again, why are you always the first one to come to his defense?”
“Maybe he needs someone to come to his defense.”
“Oh, Mother, he’s a grown man for crimity sake. He--”
“Nick, you and Heath are bound to have your clashes in the coming months for a lot of reasons. You had an enormous amount of love and respect for your father. I know that by acknowledging Heath as your brother you’re also being forced to acknowledge your father’s imperfections.”
Victoria held up her hand. It was long past time the unspoken things regarding her late husband’s indiscretions were said. “But you have no right to take your anger, the anger you’re feeling toward your father, out on Heath. He doesn’t deserve that, Nick. It’s not what Tom Barkley would want you to do. I believe when you calm down you’ll realize that Heath did have the right to go to town this afternoon and take care of whatever personal business he had to attend to. He didn’t allow himself any privilege you wouldn’t have taken. However; he should have let you know he was going to be gone for a little while. And that’s a perfect example of how the two of you need to learn to meet in the middle on a variety of issues. As Jarrod said, a successful partnership is dependent upon two different personalities learning to work together. You and Heath both have your share of strengths and talents. Learn to use those strengths and talents for the benefit of this ranch, and for the benefit of forming a bond as brothers with the last name of Barkley.”
Nick sat clenching and unclenching his fists. When he spoke he looked his mother in the eye. “Are you planning to have this same little discussion with Heath?”
“Good. Because he needs to hear it.”
The man stood without saying another word. Seconds later the front door slammed. No one had to wonder where Nick was going. When he was angry he sought refuge in the outdoors. He might mend a saddle, put a new horse through its paces, or take a ride on Cocoa and check out the orange groves. Whatever he chose to do would generally guarantee he was mulling over his current frustrations and would return to the house in a better mood from the one he was in when he left.
Victoria was wise in the way of the Barkley men and their tempers. She allowed Heath a cooling off period of an hour, then went in search of him. She wasn’t surprised to find him on the small porch that opened from a set of French doors off the parlor. Because of the heavy curtains that hung at the doors it was a secluded area and one not used by the rest of her family. From the porch you could see the barn and corral that sat next to it. Not a particularly stunning view unless you understand the heart of a rancher.
Heath sat with one hip on the railing, his back leaning against a thick granite pillar. Three long legged colts were prancing around the corral. The last rays of the setting sun streaked the sky pale pink, as if to make a perfect backdrop for the frolicking baby horses.
Heath heard the doors open but didn’t turn. He was no in mood for Audra’s sympathies, Jarrod’s words of wisdom, or more of Nick’s temper. Why he never thought his visitor might be Victoria he didn’t know. Maybe because, like Nick, he often found himself wondering why she was so quick to come to his defense when he and Nick butted heads. One would think she’d speak up for her own son long before she’d be willing to speak up on behalf of the man who was proof of her husband’s affair with another woman.
Victoria placed her palms next to Heath’s knee on the railing. She leaned forward, her eyes following his to the foals.
“You know, without realizing it you’ve come to what was one of your father’s favorite spots.”
Heath didn’t make a reply, but then Victoria didn’t expect that he would. The subject of Tom Barkley was a touchy one at best for Heath. Victoria hoped that someday she could give both herself and Heath peace where that was concerned, but whether such peace would ever materialize she wasn’t certain.
“When we built this house I told Tom this was the silliest place for a porch I could think of. He just laughed and told me it was the best place he could think of. He loved this ranch. He loved the animals. He loved to grow things from tomatoes in the family garden to oranges in acres of groves.”
Victoria looked at Heath in profile. He never turned or took his eyes off the colts. The sun was almost gone when Heath broke the silence. As often was the case, what he said was the last thing Victoria was expecting to hear. He made no comment about his father or the things Victoria had shared about the man, nor did he bring up his anger at Nick.
“I’m sorry for ruining everyone’s supper. I apologize for swearing in front of you and Audra. I shouldn’t have done that.”
Victoria smiled. “Heath, your sister and I have been the only two women on a ranch full of men for many years now. There’s hardly anything you can say we haven’t heard before.”
“Nonetheless, you were right. The supper table was no place for the discussion Nick and I had. We should have waited until later when we were both outside.”
“And done what? Beat the tar out of each other?”
Heath simply shrugged a shoulder.
“If I remember correctly nothing was resolved the last time you two went at one other in such a manner.”
“No, I don’t suppose it was.”
“But you’d still resort to that if given the chance.”
“If he threw the first punch, yes.”
Victoria shook her head in disgust. “You thick headed men, I ought to take you both by the scruff of the neck and dunk you in a horse trough until you promise to play nice with one another. Heath, I’m going to tell you what I told your brother after you left the table tonight.”
Heath did nothing other than cock a questioning eyebrow.
“You had every right to go to Stockton this afternoon and take care of whatever business you needed to. You didn’t give yourself any privilege Nick hasn’t seen fit to take on occasion. But in Nick’s defense, you should have let him know you were going to be away from the ranch for a while. As I said to your brother, that’s a perfect example of how the two of you need to learn to meet in the middle on many issues. Jarrod was right. A successful partnership is dependent upon two different personalities learning to work together. You and Nick possess an abundance of differing strengths and talents. That’s far from detrimental if you both learn how to combine the good things within yourselves for the benefit of this ranch, and the benefit of your relationship as brothers.”
The only response Heath gave was a tight nod of his head.
Victoria accepted the nonverbal communication while placing a hand on Heath’s arm. “You didn’t have a bite of supper. Go in the kitchen, make yourself a sandwich, and top it off with a piece of my apple pie and a cold glass of milk.”
A series of fleeting expressions crossed Heath’s face Victoria identified as everything from nostalgia, to sorrow, to anger. He abruptly stood, moving toward the interior of the house.
“I’m not hungry. Goodnight, ma’am.”
Before Victoria could say goodnight in return Heath was gone. Long after darkness settled over the ranch she stood staring in the direction of the barn. She wondered what she had said that had caused Heath to return to addressing her as ma’am. She shook her head as she wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the cool night air. She looked up at the stars blanketing the sky.
Oh, Lord, will I ever really understand this young man? All I ask is that one day Heath and I grow to become friends. Is that possible, or does he carry too many wounds deep inside he doesn’t know how to allow his stepmother to help him heal?
Stepmother, it was a word Victoria had hated for as long as she could remember. The stepmother in every fairy tale she’d ever been read, or ever read to her children, was always a cruel, evil woman, ugly on both the inside and out. She didn’t want to think of herself as Heath’s stepmother. She didn’t want him to think of her as such either. But the other word, the one that brought forth loving connotations, - mother, was one she was beginning to realize would never be used between the two of them.
Victoria had only known this young man three months. He was the child of her husband’s liaison with another woman, therefore the thought of him never calling her mother, or smiling tenderly when she called him son, shouldn’t bring tears to her eyes. But for some reason Victoria couldn’t explain, it did.
Victoria was sitting at the dining room table adding figures up in a ledger book when Nick returned home at nine-thirty that night. She didn’t have to be in the foyer to picture him removing his gloves, gun belt and hat, and laying all three on the marble table. She heard his spurs jingling as he walked through the parlor. She didn’t look up from her work until she felt his kiss on her right temple. He pulled a chair out and sat next to her.
Victoria pushed the ledger aside. “Did you have a good ride?”
“How do you know I went for a ride?”
“Oh, mother’s intuition I guess you’d call it. I wasn’t aware of any saddles that needed mending, or any horses that needed your attention.”
Nick shot his mother a puzzled look but didn’t question her further.
“Uh...look, Mother, I’m sorry for the blow-up with Heath at the table tonight. I shouldn’t have sworn in front of you and Audra, and I shouldn’t have ruined everyone’s supper. You were right, it wasn’t the time for me and Heath to have a disagreement.”
Victoria couldn’t help but chuckle.
“What are you laughing about?”
“You. Heath. The two of you and the stubborn pride you both possess. Which you inherited from your father I might add. Heath offered me the same apology earlier this evening almost word for word. Really, I don’t know what I’m going to do with the two of you on some days. I told Heath I just might dunk both your heads in a horse trough until you promise to get along.”
Nick had cooled down enough to see the humor, and irony, in his mother’s words. He smiled and shook his head.
“I just can’t figure him out on some days, Mother. I know I shouldn’t have jumped all over him because he went to town this afternoon. He was right when he said he’d already put in a full day of work. It’s just that he’s so...secretive, so private about everything. I guess...well I guess I’m just not used to that in a man I call brother.”
“I don’t think he’s secretive, Nick. Or at least not in the sense that he’s doing anything wrong or underhanded when he chooses not to tell us about his personal affairs, or chooses not to share a thought or opinion with us. But I do agree with you when you say Heath is a very private man. Maybe in time, when he grows more comfortable with us, some of that aspect of his personality will be shed. However; it may be a basic part of who he is and something you’ll never be able to change about him.”
“I also think he’s shy, which may attribute to some of his reserved nature.”
“I know that’s a foreign word to you, Nicholas Barkley, but yes, shy. As in self-conscious, bashful, unsure of himself in some situations.”
“I don’t know,” Nick wrinkled his nose with disbelief. “He seems pretty sure of himself to me. He wasn’t shy the night he stormed in here demanding his place in this family.”
“Oh, he’s a fighter for what he believes in no doubt. He’s not afraid to stand up for himself. He’s proven that time and time again. But he doesn’t like to be put on the spot either. He doesn’t like to be made to contribute to a conversation before he’s ready.”
“Boy, you’re tellin’ me. And that really puts a burr under my saddle on some days.”
Victoria smiled. “If you want to know the truth, I think it’s kind of cute. So does your sister.”
“Yes. And so, I would venture to guess, do half the women in this valley who have been making eyes at Heath since the day he arrived here.”
Nick shook his head. “As long as I live I’ll never be able to figure you women out.”
“Believe me, son, we work hard at keeping
it that way.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Victoria patted Nick’s hand. “Come on, let’s go in the kitchen and share a piece of pie.”
Nick leaned his chair back on two legs. He looked into the parlor then beyond to the foyer and stairway. “Where is everybody?”
“Jarrod and Audra are in the study playing cards. Heath went up to bed about an hour ago.”
“Oh. I was hoping to see him yet tonight.”
“You can knock on his door. If he’s awake he’ll probably tell you to come in.”
“No, no. That’s okay. We can talk in the morning.” The cowboy shifted his weight, returning his chair to all four legs. “I’m not gonna say that Heath is always right and I’m always wrong.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to because I’m certain that’s not true.”
“But...well, you are right about one thing you said tonight in regard to my anger.”
“What was that?”
“I’ve been directing it at the wrong person. When Heath is on the receiving end of my temper it should be for the right reasons as opposed to being for the wrong ones. I...I got that straightened out on my ride.”
Victoria reached over and squeezed Nick’s hand. He didn’t have to say any more for her to know he had visited his father’s grave that evening. What he said to Tom Barkley, or what feelings he aired, she’d probably never know. But if whatever transpired helped improve his relationship with Heath then that was all the knowledge she needed.
Nick stood. He placed his hands on his mother’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. Quietly he said, “You’re a remarkable woman and I love you very much. No man has the right to hurt you. Not even my father. I wish he were here to explain it to us. I wish he were here to tell you how sorry he is for the pain he’s caused you. I wish he were here to tell Heath how sorry he is for the pain he’s caused him. I wish...well I just wish I could make it better for all of us.”
Victoria laid a light hand on Nick’s arm. Since Tom’s death Jarrod had become the male head of the household in many ways, but Nick...Nick would always be their protector. The one who couldn’t stand to see his mother or his siblings hurt, be that hurt physical or emotional. The Barkley who would always be the first to confront those who would dare to raise a hand to any of his family members.
“I know you wish you could make it better, sweetheart. And as your mother I wish the same thing. I have faith that in time the hurt will be less for all of us. I have faith there will come a day when it will seem like Heath has always been with us. I have faith there will come a day when he will be a member of this family for more years than he hasn’t.”
“Do you really think that will happen? Do you really think he’ll stay that long?”
Victoria looked up into her son’s face. “Would you prefer he doesn’t?”
“To be honest I haven’t thought that far ahead. But with what little we know about his background, the drifting he’s done since he was a kid of barely sixteen...to tell you the truth I just can’t imagine him being satisfied to stay in one place for long.”
“Oh, I can, Nick. I can. As a matter of fact I think Heath has been wanting to stay in one place for many years now, but has spent a good number of days warring with himself over that acknowledgment. ”
“Is this another one of those mother’s intuition things I have no hope of ever understanding?”
“Yes, son. It’s another one of those mother’s intuition things.”
“Well in that case I won’t waste my time worrying about it, I’ll simply take your word for it.” Nick took his mother by the hand and pulled her to her feet. “Now come on. Let’s go get some of that pie before Heath cons Silas into packing it in his saddle bags for tomorrow’s lunch.”
Victoria smiled as she allowed her middle son to lead her to the kitchen. Nick had always been her unpredictable child. One minute he could make her so angry she was ready to sell him to the gypsies as she used to say to Tom, the next minute he could have her laughing so hard tears ran down her cheeks. Tonight she enjoyed the quiet conversation they shared in the kitchen as they ate the sweet pie and washed it down with cold milk. She knew the past three months had been tough on Nick. She tried not to think of what the next three months might bring.
Nick caught up with Heath as the blond man was stepping out of his bedroom at six the next morning.
“Heath, glad to see you slept in.”
Heath looked at his brother, uncertain if Nick was being sarcastic, funny, or truly chiding him for what Nick perceived to be laziness.
For the first time since Heath’s arrival that Nick could recall he was actually able to decipher what his new brother was thinking.
Well, maybe that’s one step in the right direction.
Nick clapped Heath on the back. “Don’t look so serious. I was only kidding you.”
Not knowing what else to do, Heath simply nodded.
Nick finished buttoning his shirt as the two men descended the staircase side by side. “What do you have planned for today?”
“Workin’ on that fence.”
“That’s fine. I’ll send Barrett, Galloway, and Hansen out to help you in the afternoon like I did yesterday.”
“Don’t bother. I’d rather work by myself.”
“Well now, that’s no way to get to know anyone.”
“I don’t need to get to know anyone.”
Heath sped his footsteps up and headed toward the kitchen. Just like supper was served at seven p.m., breakfast was served at seven a.m. every day expect Sunday when the morning meal was put on the table at eight. If you wanted to eat before seven during the work week then it was every man for himself which was just fine with Heath.
Nick took a deep breath and followed his brother. He latched onto Heath’s arm, forcing the blond to face him. He could see Silas through the kitchen window. The black man was entering the hen house; which meant Nick had only a few short minutes to take advantage of his time alone with his brother.
“Heath, I wanna apologize for last night at the supper table. I had no right to jump all over you just because you had to run a couple errands.”
Heath met Nick’s eyes but did no more than nod, which drove the dark headed man to distraction.
“I swear, you are the hardest person to have a conversation with I have ever encountered in all my days on this earth.”
Heath slathered jam on two pieces of bread. “I didn’t know we were havin’ a conversation.”
“You didn’t know we were having a conversation! I just apologized to you for goodness sake!”
“And I nodded my head.”
“So what’s that supposed to mean?”
“And you couldn’t have said that?”
“I thought I did.”
Nick silently counted to ten while kneading his forehead. It was much too early in the morning for the start of a tension headache.
“Let’s move on. I’ve got some things to do around here this morning, then I’ll ride out after lunch and work with you on that fence myself.”
“That’s fine.” With one hand Heath picked up the wrapped sandwiches and piece of pie Silas had setting on the sideboard for him, with the other he scooped up the bread he had just coated with raspberry jam. “See ya’ later.”
The kitchen door shut before Nick got out his, “Yeah, see ya’ later.”
The cowboy shook his head with frustration. This was one time he was sure his mother was wrong. There was no way Heath would be with them for the long haul. One day they’d wake up, find his bank account emptied, and find him gone. Nick was so certain of that he’d bet money on it.
He can frustrate me to death, he can irritate the hell out of me, but still I call him brother without even giving it a second thought. And yet someday I know he’ll disappear without saying goodbye. So what the heck is the point? Why should I make an effort to be his friend?
Nick Barkley knew the answer to that question even if he didn’t want to acknowledge it.
Because the man he had loved and respected for as long as he could remember, his father, would have wanted him to.
As the calendar turned from April to May the workload on the Barkley ranch increased. Though warm weather and sunshine usually brought a smile to Nick Barkley’s face, the cowboy was in an ornery mood. A violent spring storm had damaged a good number of fruit trees, a new string of horses had broken out of the corral and taken four days to round up, and to top it off the family received a telegram from Eugene saying he wasn’t going to come home for the summer, but rather was staying at Berkley where he’d been given the opportunity to study with a visiting professor. It wasn’t that Nick begrudged Eugene his education, but he’d been counting on the extra pair of hands for the summer, and the fact he could put Gene in charge of various work crews just like he did Heath, their foreman Phillip, and a small assortment of other trusted men.
It had been a long, hot day of chasing strays when Nick and Heath returned to the ranch at six-thirty one evening in mid-May. The hired men were staggering in from their various job assignments as well. Unless Nick said differently, quitting time was tied to the seasons of the year just like the Barkley supper hour was, which meant right now the hands were working from seven in the morning until seven at night.
The buzz of conversation echoed around Heath as he led Charger to his stall. He unsaddled the horse, paying little attention to the jokes and teasing words the hired men tossed at one another. Even Nick wasn’t immune to their fun and could always be counted on to give as good as he got. Tonight was no exception. Nick became the center of attention the minute he entered the barn with Coco. To a large degree Heath admired that trait about his older brother. Nick was so at ease with the men who worked for him. Somehow he was able to mix being looked upon as ‘one of the guys’ while still commanding the necessary respect it took to boss a crew that sometimes swelled to numbers as high as seventy-five depending on the time of year.
As Heath silently observed his brother he was unaware that what he took to be a natural-born talent was actually a quality Nick had learned at Tom Barkley’s knee. The patriarch of the Barkley ranch had been well known for the fair and humane way he treated those he employed. Despite his growing wealth over the passing years Tom was never reluctant to get his own hands dirty or put in a full day of work under the hot sun. He’d always demanded the same of his children, making them realize at an early age that no one gets something for nothing, not even a Barkley.
But of course these were things Heath didn’t know because he preferred not to talk about the man who had left a young, unwed woman to raise a little boy all by herself in a rough mining town. Sometimes when Heath looked at Nick the hurt he felt was overwhelming. It was no different than the hurt he sometimes felt when he observed Jarrod’s gentle wit and never-ending charm, or Eugene’s overflowing enthusiasm and abundant joy, as though the world had been made just for his exploration, or Audra’s soft heart and kind soul which didn’t allow her to pass a stray kitten without bringing it home, or pass a child looking forlornly into the window of a candy store without giving him money and telling him to buy himself a treat. At those times the observer in Heath would wonder what made him different from these four people who were children of Tom Barkley just as much as he was. Why wasn’t he good enough for his father? Why had he been abandoned by the man? How could the man sleep at night knowing he had a child being raised alone by a woman who could barely make ends meet?
Over the years Heath had learned that those were thoughts best not dwelled on. Tonight was no exception as he watched Nick point a finger at Barrett and tease, “Lyndall, my friend, you might as well not even bother collectin’ your pay at the end of the week, ‘cause come Saturday night you’ll be turnin’ it over to me when I wipe you out two minutes after the first poker hand is dealt.”
Heath paid no attention to Barrett’s reply as he curried Charger. He looked up when Nick leaned over the horse’s stall.
“About finished here?”
“Yeah, just about.”
“I’ll wait for you then.”
Heath nodded. Within a minute’s time he was ready to join Nick in heading toward the house for supper. He ducked beneath Charger’s neck and stepped from the stall. As he walked beside his brother down the barn aisle he said, “I need to be gone a couple days next week. I should be back by Thursday.”
Nick stopped as though an invisible hand had slammed itself in to his chest. The laughter that had been in his voice seconds earlier was gone. “What did you say?”
Heath immediately went on the defensive. There was nothing he hated worse than being talked to like an errant schoolboy. Maybe Nick could get away with using that tone of voice on Audra and Eugene, but Heath would be damned if the man would use it on him.
“You heard me.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I did. But no, you’re not going anywhere next week.”
“Nick, I’m not askin’ your permission.”
“Well maybe you should be.”
Heath paid no attention to the silence that suddenly blanketed the barn. Though Phillip did his best to wave the men out of the building in an effort to give the brothers their privacy, almost everyone ignored him. There was nothing more enjoyable to several of them, Lyndall Barrett included, than watching Nick take a chunk out of this new Barkley’s hide.
“And maybe I’m not gonna,” Heath shot back. “A few weeks ago your mother said I should give you the courtesy of lettin’ you know if I’m going to be away from the ranch. So now I’m givin’ you that courtesy, take it or leave it.”
Nick looked around, seeing the eyes trained on him and his brother. He turned his back on the men while putting a conciliatory arm across Heath’s shoulders. “Look, Heath, I know we all need a break from the daily grind every so often, but now just isn’t the time for a vacation.”
“I never said anything about a vacation. I just said I have to be away for a couple of days.”
“And we will go away for a couple of days, I promise. I know it seems like a long time off, but come each November I always spend a week in San Francisco with Jarrod. I guess you could say it’s my way of taking a well-earned break from the ranch, and Jarrod’s way of taking a well-earned break from his office. This year you’ll join us. Jarrod and I have already talked about it and we want you to come along.”
“Thanks, but if it’s all the same to you I can just trade that time for the time I wanna take next week.”
Nick didn’t even attempt to quell his rising temper as his arm dropped from Heath’s side. “Well it’s not all the same to me unless you can give me one good reason as to why you need to leave the ranch at the start of our busiest time of the year!”
Heath made no reply; which infuriated Nick even more. The blond man simply resumed walking for the barn door.
Nick snared Heath by the upper arm and spun him around.
“Look, boy, you don’t seem to be gettin’ it through your thick skull as to how things work around here. Now I don’t much give a damn if you’ve got an appointment with President Ulysses S. Grant himself, or if you’ve simply got an itch in your pants you’re hopin’ to have scratched by some pretty bar room--”
Heath’s fist flew back so fast Nick didn’t have time to defend himself. The impact of his brother’s knuckles on his cheekbone brought Nick off his feet. He flew across the barn aisle, his momentum finally stopped by a thick stall door. When Nick’s vision cleared he looked up to see Heath standing over him.
“I’m not like my father,” the blond man said. “I don’t sweet talk some young woman into doing things for me while making promises I have no intention of keeping.”
And with that Heath turned and walked away.
“Why you--” Nick struggled to get to his feet. Before he could pounce on his sibling from behind Phillip was clutching his biceps for all the older man was worth.
“Nick, stop it. Stop it now! Your daddy would be ashamed of the way you two go at each other! Now just knock it off.”
If it had been any other of the hired men talking like that to Nick they, too, would have been on the receiving end of his fists. But Phillip Mattson had been the ranch foreman for as long as Nick could remember. The first year after Tom Barkley died Nick had often turned to Phillip for guidance. Each and every time Phillip had willingly dispensed sound advice, while at the same time reassuring the twenty-two year old Nick he was quite capable of filling his father’s shoes when it came to running the ranch.
The fight slowly ebbed from Nick. When he stood straight and unclenched his fists Phillip released him. Nick waited until he knew Heath would be in the house, then followed the path his brother had taken.
The men watched their boss exit the barn. When he was out of ear shot conversation swelled about what they’d just observed. Lyndall Barrett smiled.
“Mark my words, fellas, the Barkley bastard won’t be here two months from now. One of these days ole Nick is gonna send that boy on his way with a swift kick to his ass.”
Phillip pointed a stern finger at Barrett. “You keep your trap shut. What goes on between Nick and Heath is none of your business, just like it’s no concern to any of the rest of you either. I worked for Tom Barkley for seventeen years, and have worked the past six for Nick, which means there’s none of you who’s been on this ranch as long as I have. The Barkleys are good people, - every single one of ‘em, Heath included. But no, they’re not perfect any more than we are. You leave those two boys alone and let them work their problems out for themselves.” Phillip’s gaze fell back on Lyndall as if he knew something no one else did. “They don’t need any of you fanning the fires. You keep your nose where it belongs, Barrett, or I’ll have you mucking stalls at half your current wages before you can so much as whistle Dixie.”
With that Phillip headed for his own house. Some of the older men, the ones who had also worked for Tom Barkley, exchanged solemn glances and nodded their heads in agreement with Phillip’s words. Some of the younger ones, like Lyndall Barrett, snickered at the prospect of watching the Barkley brothers go at each other again in the near future.
As he finished tending his horse Barrett turned to Jeb Galloway. Jeb was one of the young men with Lyndall the day he’d been sent to help Heath build the fence. Barrett kept his voice low as he vowed, “One way or the other, Jeb, the bastard goes.”
Though Jeb was beginning to like and respect Heath as a boss, he knew better than to voice that to Lyndall. Therefore the nineteen year old did nothing more than nod as head as though he was in total agreement with the mischief Barrett had up his sleeve.
Victoria stayed out of whatever the current fuss was Nick and Heath were engaged in. Neither of them discussed what they were at odds about in front of her so she decided it was best to let them work it out on their own. Jarrod and Audra were kept in the dark about why the two men were barely speaking to one another as well. But in that respect Jarrod was in agreement with his mother. As he said to her when they were alone in the house on Saturday evening, “The only way Nick and Heath will learn to run this ranch together is by learning to work through these occasional spats they have without our intervention.” Jarrod smiled as he added, “Unless of course, they ask for our intervention, which I’m willing to bet they’re both too stubborn to do.”
“I’m willing to bet that as well, son. And if nothing else I must confess I am forced to laugh on occasion as I watch this drama unfold.”
“Why is that?”
“Do you recall that from the time Nick was, oh...four or five years old, all he did was beg me and your father for a little brother to play with?”
“The night Audra was born he cried as though his heart was breaking. He was so certain she was going to be that baby brother he had long awaited. Then when Eugene arrived and I pointed out to Nick he finally got the little brother he’d been wishing for he simply shrugged his shoulders and said quite practically, ‘Mother, I’m eleven years old. By the time Eugene’s ready to play I’ll be a grown man.’ Which, in essence, was quite true. So now Nick has that little brother close to his age that he’s always wanted, but the funny thing is, he doesn’t know quite what to make of him.”
“No, I suppose he doesn’t. But then in Nick’s defense it’s a bit different having that playmate come along when you’re twenty-eight years old, as opposed to when you’re four years old.” Without realizing he was voicing an inner thought, Jarrod said quietly, “I often wonder how different Heath would be if he’d grown up with us.”
“Do you want him to be different?”
Jarrod looked at his mother. “Pardon?”
“You just said you wonder how different Heath would be if he’d grown up here, and I asked if you want him to be different.”
Jarrod thought a moment, then smiled. “You know, I’d have to say I don’t. Like Nick is so often fond of telling us, Heath’s quiet. Maybe a little too quiet sometimes. But like you’ve said, his silence is rather refreshing when compared to the rest of the Barkleys. A person has to work hard to get to know Heath, but to tell you the truth I’m rather enjoying the process. He’s a good man. A very good man. I’m proud to call him my brother.”
Victoria nodded, saying nothing more than, “I believe he’s a good man, too, Jarrod. One worthy of the pride you feel for him.”
By Monday morning nothing further had been said by Heath about his plans to be gone. Nick kept his satisfaction over that to himself as he watched Heath lasso a calf for branding.
At least the boy is beginning to learn who has the final say around here. It was one-thirty on Tuesday afternoon when Heath rode into the ranch yard. He’d left the house at six o’clock that morning to ride fence lines. He’d been on and off Charger more times than he could count, repairing boards damaged by the winter storms. He finished his work in the pasture Nick wanted to use for young heifers, and now felt he could attend to his own business with a clear conscience. Heath doubted Nick would see it that way, but then he didn’t really care. He’d done his best to reach a compromise with Nick by saying he wouldn’t partake in the November vacation, but rather stay at the ranch and work. If his brother couldn’t meet him halfway on the issue then so be it.
Heath put Charger in his stall and removed his saddle. He fed and watered the animal, gave him a pat on the neck and said, “See ya’ in a couple days, big guy.”
The cowboy took two other horses out of their stalls and hitched them to a wagon. He walked out of the barn and into the tool shed, totally unaware his every move was being observed from the haymow.
Heath put a shovel, pick ax, hammer, nails, saw and four boards in the wagon’s bed. He then walked over to a stack of bags. He chose one that was a mixture of sand and gravel. He shouldered it, bent at the knees to grab a bucket and carried both items to the wagon. The last thing he did was spread a tarp over his supplies.
The blond man headed for the mansion. He hadn’t necessarily planned to make his leave when the house was empty, but then he couldn’t say he was disappointed in the fact that no one was around to question him. He’d given little thought to telling any of them where he was going or why. But then he was certain none of his new family members would want to partake in what he needed to do anyway.
Heath entered the silent house and took the stairs two at a time. Every Tuesday Audra spent the day at the Mission Orphanage helping in whatever way she could. Silas always went with her in order to assist in unloading supplies Audra brought from the ranch, or carrying purchases that were made at Krueger’s General Store. Mrs. Barkley, as Heath still forced his mind to refer to the family matriarch, went calling on Miss Cobbs each Tuesday. The woman was an elderly, homebound neighbor who had been Stockton’s first schoolteacher. She’d taught all the Barkley children until ill health forced her to retire just as Eugene was entering his teen years. Heath had quickly learned these weekly rituals of the Barkley women were rarely parted from.
The cowboy made quick work of washing up, exchanging his dirty clothes for clean ones, and grabbing his wallet and bankbook from his dresser drawer. He stopped in the kitchen last. He spent the next ten minutes packing the food and provisions he needed, which was just enough time for Lyndall Barrett to pack a little something of his own in Heath’s wagon bed.