|Anna's Adventures: A Postscript|
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. No infringement is intended in any part by the author, however, the ideas expressed within this story are copyrighted to the author.
|This occurs a few years after the end of "Anna's Adventures."|
Don Alfredo Montero died in the early spring, not quite a year from his first taking ill. He had
recovered somewhat from a heart attack in June, recovered enough to take short walks around
the garden on his daughter's arm. But after Christmas he took to his bed, never to rise again,
and he died before a new crop was sown in his beloved valley acres.
For his daughter Maria those months had been solitary and melancholy. The man she had cherished for so many years was lost to her, and she took those slow walks with her father knowing he too would soon be lost to her. She nursed him devotedly and kept a cheerful face for him.
She had left the valley when she was a child, and, other than her father, she had no ties there. Nor, really, had she any elsewhere in California. But she had no desire for visitors or entertainment. These months were her chance to redeem the harm she felt she'd done, and she took her sadness and her solitude without complaint.
She was not entirely alone. Nat Sherborne came from San Francisco from time to time to see her father. And Nick Barkley called on her. His calls were quiet and, she suspected, not shared with the rest of his family. He was lighthearted and amusing and rarely failed to divert her. But underneath his good humor was an understanding kindness that she leaned on. He never presumed, never prodded her to go here or there with him, though she knew he loved activity and society. It was not courtship. In his attentions to her there was a delicacy and a tact that few who knew this blunt-spoken man would suspect.
When her father died at last, she felt a need to escape. This was her home, however unfamiliar it might be to her. But it was thoroughly colored by these long months of her father's decline. She was alone in the world now. Once she might have called it independence; now she knew she was alone. She would feel it less somewhere else.
She went to Europe. Nick followed her there, in the form of letters. In the beginning they were not very good letters; but he persisted. He sent a long and funny description of the grand wedding of his sister to that same Nat Sherborne. The letter about his brother's wedding to Hester Converse was considerably more subdued. It was a reminder that at least one soul knew what she had lost, and knew the sort of pain she had felt.
Mostly, though, the letters were full of the mundane details of the changing seasons, the active country life of a hands-on farmer and rancher. Among the news of horses bought and cattle sold she learned he'd acquired a nephew; the news pained her. Underneath all his letters was a persistent, unasked question: when are you coming back? She never answered the question, for she never thought of returning to California. Yet she looked forward to his letters and read them carefully. They were her one tie to the life her father had lived, the place he had loved.
She settled in Italy. The weeks stretched out and became a year, and more. She had taken up the life of an expatriate and found it suited her. She traveled a little; she made a few acquaintances; she sketched a little. She believed herself content.
And then one day she was sketching a terra cotta bust of a Renaissance prince. She was not without skill. She looked down and realized her sketch bore little resemblance to the bust, but it was a fair likeness of the handsome dark-haired man in the carte de visite he'd boldly sent her at Christmas. She realized it was time, finally, to go home.
She told no one, not even him, of her return. She wished to see him unencumbered by promises. She was not sure if true affection were calling her back, or if she'd merely grown sick of foreign climates. She was afraid, too, that time had not truly eased her disappointment; she was not sure she could meet the man she had once loved without regret. If she could not do that it would be cruel to give Nick hope.
So she arrived in Stockton late one afternoon, weary from weeks of travel. And she met her test far sooner than she'd intended.
Anna Barkley had kept her surgery in Stockton. She was still the only doctor in town and it was more convenient for most of them to see her there than to make the long drive out to her home. Her husband was known to grumble that too many of them were more than willing to make the long drive, and at all hours, too. Upon marriage Heath had promised not to complain too much about her work, and generally he kept to it, for he knew he kept long hours himself, especially in the summertime. In the busy months it was hard to find time alone, so he made it his business to drive her into town most days. Too, it was easier to get her home at a decent hour if he came and fetched her. Most days he brought the baby along, because the combination of a waiting ride and an armful of wriggly baby generally proved irresistible.
He was a little early today, and he decided to be fair and give his wife a full day before he bothered her. So he called in on his brother Jarrod for a few minutes, and he called in at the general store to put in a small order, and while doing so he let the baby wander around and poke his head in a few dusty barrels, and he called in at Hank's café and had a cup of coffee and treated his son to a piece of cake. He let the baby feed himself, amused to see that the boy managed to get a smidge more in his mouth than he left on his face or on his bib or his hands. And then he realized it was time to go rope in Anna and he had one very disheveled child on his hands. It was a puzzle, because his mother had handed him a perfect-looking child not so long ago. "My God," Anna was fond of saying. "Do you roll him in dirt?"
And so he found himself trying to get the baby in a more presentable state while hurrying enough to catch Anna between patients. It was no small task, and a good bit of the cake had found its way onto his own shirt, without noticeably diminishing the amount on the baby's face, when he nearly ran a woman over. "Ma'am, I'm mighty sorry," and then he looked at the woman and stopped.
The actual time they had spent together in the whole of their acquaintance had been astonishingly small, yet it had marked both of them. They hadn't seen each other in more than two years. Their last meeting had been a painful one. For Heath, seeing her now, it embarrassed him a little to know that so much of his life since then had been good, and hers had been sadness. He'd known of her father's illness, known what it must have meant to her, and yet known he was powerless to help. It almost seemed that his good fortune had come at her expense. "Maria," he said finally. "You've been a long time gone."
"Over a year," she said. The child in his arms was surprisingly big, with long arms and legs. Handsome, too, with intelligent blue eyes and a crop of red-gold curls. "And who is this?"
"Charlie-Charles," he amended. "For Anna's brother. He's a year old last week." For a moment he forgot the awkwardness of the moment, smiled at his son. "He's a bit of a handful. Just walkin."
She smiled in reply.
He remembered his manners. "Are you just gettin in? You don't need a ride, do you?"
"No, Luis is here. I was just on my way to the bank before going home."
"Well, that's fine. Are you plannin on stayin for a while?"
"Yes," Maria said. "For a while."
"That's fine," he said again. And it was. "I'd best go find my wife before this child gets any dirtier." More gently he said, "It's nice to see you back here, Maria."
"It's good to be back." They nodded and she passed on.
Walking away from him Maria could not help remembering. When they'd first met he had been as gentle as a lamb to her, but there had been something wild, just barely restrained about him. Now-whether it was just time, or age, or perhaps it was marriage and fatherhood-that wildness was gone. He seemed a happy man, and, somehow, a more ordinary one. Or perhaps it was just that he so palpably belonged to someone else. How comfortable he'd seemed with the child in his arms; the smile he'd given his son. She found, to her surprise, that the smile had given her no pain. She walked toward the bank with a firm step and a lighter heart than she'd thought possible.
Anna came out of her surgery just then. Heath leaned over and kissed his wife with a little extra warmth. She smiled, then caught sight of the woman down the sidewalk. "My goodness," she said. "Was that Maria Montero?"
"Yes," Heath said. "Just back. Says she's going to stay a while."
Anna was the one member of the family who knew about Nick's long correspondence. She suspected that Maria was back for more than a while. She looked at her husband searchingly. "Does it bother you, my love? Be honest."
He looked down the sidewalk at Maria's retreating figure. "No," he said. "No, it doesn't." He turned back to his wife. She was a tall woman; they were nearly eye to eye. Impossible to lie to her. He'd learned long ago not to try. He twisted a stray strand of her dark hair around his finger. In the humidity the strand held the curl after he let go. "May I take you home, doctor?"
"You may." She reached for the baby, grimacing. "My God. How does this happen? Do you roll him in dirt?"
"Yes." He grinned. "I roll him in dirt. I won't lie to you." He kissed her once more, more lingering this time, and he traced the line of her jaw. They stood close together for a moment, until he was certain she understood, and, grinning again, he helped her into the wagon.