|An Angel on Earth, Part 3|
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.
|Chapters 18 - 26|
The next two days were repeats of Tuesday, only Heath began rising before dawn so he wouldn't encounter any of his family members at the breakfast table. How much he was eating, or even if he was eating at all, Victoria wasn't certain. All she knew as that when he returned home each night after nine o'clock he looked exhausted, depressed, and sick. Nick tried to talk to him Thursday evening, but that simply turned into a shouting match that Jarrod had to finally put an end to. As Jarrod led Nick from Heath's room and down the stairs the dark headed cowboy raked a frustrated hand through his hair.
"What the hell am I going to do with him?"
"Well, judging by the hollering the ladies and I could hear all the way in the study I'd say forbidding him to work isn't the answer."
"It might not be the answer, but anyone with two eyes can see he's got no business leaving his bed. He can't possibly be eating, Jarrod, or at least not much because the weight is melting off of him as we speak."
"So I've seen. Mother and Audra have noticed it, too."
"I'm more than half tempted to tie him to that bed tonight. Then we'll see how far he gets in the morning."
"I think Mother's half tempted, too, but you know as well I do that's not the answer."
"Then what is the answer?"
Jarrod shook his head. "I wish I knew, Nick. I wish I knew."
Heath Barkley rode into Stockton at noon on Friday. The quarantine was lifted on Wednesday as Jake Sheridan said it would be. Jarrod had returned to work on that day, though not before pausing at the graveyard first to pay his respects to the many who had lost their lives during the epidemic.
Heath knew the noon hour would find Stockton's streets deserted for the most part. Many of the businesses closed down for an hour so the proprietors could go home for lunch. Like Jarrod had Wednesday, Heath stopped when he came to Stockton's cemetery. He climbed off Charger, looping the horse's reins around a post of the black iron fence. He removed his hat and hung it over his saddle horn.
There was no one present when the blond man slowly walked to the vast area of ground that held fresh graves. The old trees towering above Heath seemed to be offering their own version of mourning as their leaves rustled softly in the summer breeze. A tear escaped Heath's right eye as he counted the mounds of dirt. His heart wouldn't allow him to continue when he reached eighty.
Heath heard someone walking up behind him. He glanced at the man but didn't recognize him. He felt the stranger stop beside him.
"You're Heath Barkley, aren't you?"
Heath nodded his head.
"I'm Halden Whitcomb."
Again, Heath nodded.
The man pointed to the graves in front of them. "And these here are my children. Neil, Grace, and Emma. It's because of you they're dead. Because your rich papa wasn't satisfied with one woman so he had to go lookin' for another until he found your whore of a mama. You're a product of sin and God punishes your kind! I just don't understand why He had to punish my children, too!" Mr. Whitcomb dropped to his knees as sobs overtook him. "Why? Just tell me why God punished my babies because of someone like you."
Heath stared down at the grieving man and felt like he was watching him through a long, dark tunnel. The sun was burning too hot on his head, and he was suddenly so weak he didn't think his knees would hold him up.
The cowboy bolted for Charger. He grabbed onto the saddle just as his legs gave away. He stood there a long time, breathing hard and smelling warm leather. When he finally felt strong enough Heath slithered onto Charger. He refused to look back at the graveyard, but he knew Halden Whitcomb was still there. Heath could hear the man's cries for his dead children as he headed down main street.
Jarrod returned to his office shortly before one p.m. after having dined with some associates at the Cattlemen's Hotel. His secretary entered five minutes later.
"I'm back, Mr. Barkley!" The woman called from the outer office.
"Karen, when you get settled will you please come in here. I need to dictate two letters."
Within seconds Karen entered the room with notebook and pencil in hand. As she sat down she said, "I saw Heath a little while ago."
"Yes. He's very thin, Mr. Barkley. So thin and so pale. If you want my opinion he has no business being out of bed yet."
Jarrod smiled. "Believe me, Karen, my mother's opinion concurs with yours. However; Heath's opinion seems to differ. Where did you see him?"
"He was standing in the graveyard."
"In the graveyard?"
"Yes. I was going to stop and say hello, but then with all the deaths that have occurred in the past two weeks I thought maybe he was paying his respects to a friend so I decided not to disturb him."
Jarrod headed for the door and grabbed his hat off the rack. "Karen, forget that dictation for now. I left the mail on your desk. Please go through it and answer any necessary correspondence for me. If I'm not back by three close up the office and call it a day."
Before the woman had a chance to ask her boss any further questions he was gone.
Jarrod searched most of Stockton for Heath until he finally spotted Charger outside of Big John's. The saloon was a favorite hangout of Nick and Heath's. If they came to town for any reason it wasn't unusual for them to stop off here for a cold beer.
The lawyer pushed against the swinging half-doors. He spotted a couple cowboys from the Circle V ranch at one table, and a lone man he didn't know at another. The saloon's proprietor, John Wesley Briggs, lived up to his nickname. At six foot six and three hundred and ninety pounds he had the girth of a grizzly bear. His rust colored beard and thick red hair only enhanced that comparison.
Jarrod picked up the beer John poured him. He kept his voice low when he said, "I'm looking for Heath. Have you seen him?"
John pointed to a room at the back of the saloon. "He bought two bottles of whiskey about an hour ago and has been in there ever since. It's not like Heath to drink so much. I was gonna come get you in a little while if I couldn't convince him to head on home."
Jarrod paid for his beer and added a handsome tip. "Thanks, John. I appreciate your concern."
The room Big John pointed to was normally used for private poker games on Friday and Saturday nights. It was the size of Heath's bedroom at home, and decorated with nothing more than a round table and a smattering of chairs.
Jarrod entered the room and closed the door behind him. He paused a moment and studied the man seated at the table. Heath's hat had been tossed on a nearby chair. Without its wide brim shading his forehead one could easily see the evidence of Jim Garver's fists. An empty whiskey bottle had been pushed off to one side, and Heath was pouring a shot from the second bottle that was quickly on its way to being empty.
That's a hell of a lot of liquor to consume in an hour's time, Brother Heath. I dare say you won't be feeling too good come tomorrow morning.
Jarrod pulled out the chair to the right of his sibling and seated himself.
"Mind if I sit down?"
Heath looked up for the first time. A silly grin spread across his bruised face. "Jarrod, ya' know somethin'. Sometimez, without even tryin', you're one helluva funny guy."
"Oh I am, huh?"
"Yeah. Like juz now. You asked,...you asked if you could sit down, but you waz already sittin'." Heath shook his head and laughed. "Like I said, funny. Funny, funny, funny."
Jarrod sat back in his chair and took a long sip of beer. "So, Brother Heath, what brings you to Stockton today?"
"Had to visit me some friends."
The slight drawl Heath normally possessed that he'd picked up from his Southern born mother, was now coming through as strong as if he'd been raised in the heart of Dixie.
"Yep. Came to pay my repect,...repent,...repast,...my respect,...respect, thaz a hard word to say when you're drunk, ya' know that?"
"No. I didn't know that."
"Well, take it from ole' Heath, it is. Anyway,....." Heath stared at the lawyer. "What'd you ask me?"
"I asked what brings you to Stockton today."
"Oh, yeah. Well see, Brother Jarrod,...I hope you don't mind me connin' your phrase."
"I believe the word you're looking for is 'coining', as opposed to conning."
"Oh. I guezz you could be right. After all, you're the lawyer and good with them fancy words and such. Anyway, I came to Stockton to pay my respects to my friends."
"No, you don't." Heath's speech was slurred but slow, making the words easy for Jarrod to understand. "I can tell by the look on yer face you ain't got a fiddly doggone notion as to what it is I'm talkin' about. You know what yer problem is, Jarrod?"
"No, but I suppose you're going to tell me."
"Sure am. Yer problem is you're too polite. 'Cause if you waz more like Nick, who ain't polite at all more often than not, you wouldn't be pretendin' to know what I'm sayin'."
Jarrod watched as Heath poured himself another drink and downed it in one swallow. He'd never seen the blond man drunk in all the years Heath had lived with them. Heath could hold his liquor and knew his limits. He'd told Jarrod one time that any fun he'd once gotten out of drinking in excess ended when he was twenty and working at an Oregon lumber camp. An inebriated logger lost both an arm and a leg in an accident caused by his own drunken hand. From that point on Heath told Jarrod he'd had a healthy respect for alcohol and never drank to the point it impaired his thoughts or judgment.
Until today evidently.
"Okay, Heath. Then why don't I quit pretending to be polite, and just come right out and ask you what you mean when you say you came to town to pay your respects to your friends."
"Okay. Ask me."
"I just did."
"Oh." Heath thought a long minute, took another drink, then thought again. "What waz the question?"
Jarrod took a deep internal breath. "Why did you come,..."
Heath started laughing a drunken, silly laugh that was unfamiliar to his brother. "I was juz joshin' ya', Jarrod. See, I can be a funny guy, too. Now, the answer to your question is,...I came to pay my respects to the people I killed."
"I guezz a person can't really call 'em my friends. I suppose I don't even know a lotta of 'em. But Mr. Whitcomb,....he waz there and he told me I killed his children. Neil,...and Grace,...and Emily,...no, thaz wrong. Emma. Her name was Emma. So I reckon now if I know their names that makes 'em my friends. But they can't be my friends for long 'cause Mr. Whitcomb was mad that I took his babies from 'em. Course that came as no surprise to him 'cause I'm a product of sin, ya' know. Thaz what he said. He announced it to the whole entire graveyard, he did, though I don't 'spect anyone heard 'em cause all those in attendance was already layin' down and restin' in peace, as the sayin' goes. But hell, whaz that guy take me for, some kinda' fool? I already know I'm a product of sin. Been told that damn near all my life."
Heath poured himself another glass of whiskey. Jarrod pushed the bottle aside, hoping if his brother had to reach very far for it he'd leave it be.
"Heath, please. You've had enough. Let me take you to my office and we'll talk."
"Talk." Heath sat back in his chair and shook an unsteady finger at is brother. "Talk, talk, talk. Thaz all you Barkleys do. Howdy boy, I,..." Heath laughed again. "Did you hear that, Jarrod? I said howdy boy when I meant to say boy howdy."
"I heard it."
"I kinda like it, though. How 'bout you? Kinda gives a new twist to an old ex....ex.....ex....."
"Yep. Expression. Thaz another hard word to say when a body's half looped. Anyway, I don't wanna talk. You people do enough talkin' to last me a life time. When I first came to stay with ya' all, I wondered on some days if any of ya' ever shut up."
"Yes, I suppose you did." Jarrod smiled as he thought of how quiet Heath had been back then. Not that one would consider him a talkative man now,...or at least not when he was sober, but he'd sure come a long way in learning to contribute to a conversation during the three and half years he'd been with them.
"Especially Nick," Heath went on to say. "Blah, blah, blah. I wonder if he knows that more often than not when he gits goin' real long-winded like, and is wavin' his fists in the air like a crazy man, all I hear is blah, blah, blah. Whatever he's really sayin' I juz tune right out."
"I don't blame you. Sometimes I do the same thing myself."
Heath groped for the liquor bottle. Without pouring another drop in his glass he took a long swig. "But now unerstand this, I don't mean to sound ungraceful."
"Thaz what I said. Ungraceful. 'Cause I ain't ungraceful, ya' know."
"I know that, Heath. We all know that."
"I'm pissed as hell, though. Pissed at all of you for keepin' secrets from me. I wanna tell your mother that, but when I do I won't use the word pissed in front of her."
"Thank you. I'm sure Mother will appreciate your thoughtfulness."
Heath slouched in his chair, cradling the liquor bottled against his chest and staring at the smooth surface of the table. "She's a good woman, yer mother. I waz like a wild stallion when I came to your place. Unbroken and untamed. Didn't think any woman had it in her to gentle me. But yer mama did. Your mama,.... well now she surely did."
Jarrod found it ironic that Heath would use that particular analogy. His mother had said almost the same exact words to Jarrod one time when she told him, "Heath was like a skittish stallion that simply needed a little gentling. A little gentling and a lot of love. Underneath all that anger I saw a first place winner, Jarrod. A first place winner just like all Tom Barkley's children."
The lawyer patted Heath's elbow until Heath made eye contact with him. "And Mother thought you were a prize, Brother Heath. She saw the person you could be from the very first day you walked onto the ranch. Now, speaking of our mother, what do you say we head home."
"She's not my mother."
"Nick. He made that clear the other night. She's not my mother."
"Heath, Nick never said anything like that to you. At least not that I'm aware of."
"Yez he did. He said,...he said,....let me think a minute 'cause I mighta' tuned him out. No,....no wait. I didn't tune him out 'cause what he said was too important. He said I wasn't to talk to his mother that way. His mother. Not our mother. His mother. Your mother. I don't have a mother, you know. Nor a father either. I'm an orphan."
Jarrod could see this was going to rapidly turn into a pity party he had no intention of participating in. "Heath, you're being ridiculous. You're not an orphan. You have three brothers and one sister which completely eradicates the definition of orphan."
As quick as Heath's morose mood came it left him. "Eeeeeeeradicates. Howdy boy, I sure do like it when you use them big words."
"And another thing," Jarrod stated while ignoring his brother and barely pausing to take a breath, "what Nick said to you he would have said to any of us who were speaking to Mother in the tone you were using. He was simply letting you know you needed to back off a bit and give yourself time to cool down before you said something you'd come to regret."
"No, no, no," Heath shook his head. "He said his mother. I know what he meant, Jarrod. And what the hell, I don't blame him none. I can pretend Victoria Barkley is my mother, I can tell people Victoria Barkley is my mother, but let's face it. It just ain't so no matter how much I might want it to be."
"And do you plan to tell Victoria Barkley that?"
Heath looked at his brother with a dull, drunken haze to his eyes. "Huh?"
"Do you plan to tell our mother what you just said?"
"No. Ain't got no reason to."
"Well, I wish you would because I think she'd set you straight on a number of issues where that's concerned."
"She'd juz lie to me. Juz like she did when I waz sick. She'd juz say what she thinks I wanna hear. But no matter. I'm tough. I can take it. I been hurt so much in my life by people, and by their words, and by their lies, that there ain't hardly room left to hurt me anymore."
The blond man plunked the whiskey bottle on the table, grabbed his hat, and staggered to his feet. "Come on, Jarrod. You're drunk. Lez git you home."
Jarrod watched dumbfounded as his brother somehow managed to walk a straight line through the saloon, swing himself up on Charger with his usual grace, and head for the ranch.
Long after supper had been eaten that evening four grim faced Barkleys sat around the dining room table. Jarrod waited until Jessybell had cleared the dishes away before bringing up the subject of Heath, and the encounter the lawyer had with him in Big John's that day. Jarrod had spent years memorizing testimonies as told to him by clients, therefore he had no trouble recounting almost word for word the conversation he'd had with his brother. When he was finished Nick pounded a fist on the table.
"I didn't mean anything by it when I told Heath not to talk to 'my' mother that way! For the love of mike, from the day Mother told us she asked Heath to call her mother I pretty much forgot he hadn't grown up right here with us!"
"Nick, at any other time in his life Heath knows that," Jarrod said. "It's just that right now,...well after talking to him today, or hearing him talk rather, I've come to the conclusion he's carrying more pain and guilt inside than any of us can imagine. That alone can cause a man to misconstrue nearly every innocent comment that's made to him."
Nick and Audra continued to pepper their brother with questions about what Heath had said in Big John's, then began offering suggestions they thought might aid in Heath's emotional recovery. Only Victoria remained silent. When Jarrod finally turned his attention to his mother she appeared distant and far away, as though she was lost in deep and troubling thought.
The woman took her steepled fingers away from her mouth. "Yes, Jarrod?"
"You must have some thoughts on all this. Nick, Audra, and I have just batted around every idea we can come up with to help Heath, what about you?"
The woman took in her three offspring. Their faces were so full of hope, as though she was going to dispel some sort of vast maternal wisdom that would make everything all right by tomorrow morning.
"I wish I had an easy answer, but I don't. From what Jarrod tells us I have a son who spent part of his day standing in a graveyard unjustly blaming himself for those who have been taken from us by an act of God. I have a son who was once again told he's no good and is the product of sin; something that's been said to him far too many times in his life. I have a son who called himself an orphan which indicates to me that right now he feels very alone and bereft. I have a son who's 'pissed as hell' at me but doesn't think he has the right to tell me that."
The siblings exchanged smiles at their mother's attempt at humor. Victoria Barkley was every ounce a lady, but she was full of vinegar, too, and a few vulgar words as spoken by a drunken cowboy barely earned a raised eyebrow from her on most occasions.
"I have a son who's been hurt so many times by lies and deceit that he doesn't realize, for the sake of his health, we had no choice but to deceive him where this issue was concerned, and he may never come to realize that. But most of all I have a son who is pushing his family away at a time when he needs them more than he ever has. But how I get that son to turn to me, or to any one of you, before he allows unjust guilt and blame to destroy him from the inside out, I don't know. I just don't know."
Audra squeezed her mother's hand when she saw Victoria swipe at a lone tear. Nick finally broke the silence they'd fallen into.
"If you want my opinion we have to talk to him. All of us. Tonight. Like Jarrod, I've never known Heath to drink to the point that he's drunk. Not once in all the time he's lived here have I seen him turn to liquor when something's bothering him. Not once have I seen him drink more than he should regardless of whether he's happy, sad, angry, upset,....whatever. We can't let him start using the bottle as a way to hide from his pain. I've seen too many good men ruin their lives with that method. I won't let my brother start down that path."
"Nick's right," Jarrod agreed. "We have to make Heath understand that it's okay to hurt, okay to be angry, and okay to feel pain when he thinks about those who lost their lives to this epidemic. But at the same time we have to make him understand that we're the people he needs to lean on to get him through this. We all know he's a hard nut to crack. Each one of us has come to respect that he's a soft-spoken man who keeps many of his thoughts and feelings to himself. We're certainly not going to be able to change that about him, and I doubt any of us really want to. It's those qualities that make Heath the person he is. But if a simple fishing trip with me and Nick will help him heal a little bit then he needs to know we want him to tell us that. If spending a week at the lodge with Mother will help him get past some of the pain and grief, then again, he needs to know he can tell us that. If going riding every evening with Audra will somehow help him come to terms with all this, then we need to know that. If he wants to go to San Francisco for a couple weeks and stay at my apartment just for the opportunity to get away from here, then once again, we need to know that."
Victoria gave a thoughtful nod. "It might work, Jarrod. If nothing else it's a place to start. He enjoys doing all those things you suggested. And by far the last thing he should be doing right now is working, so if a fishing trip is in order, or a week at the lodge, or time in San Francisco, then I say let's give it a try."
"It can't hurt," Audra agreed. "One thing I've learned about Heath is that he's more likely to open up and reveal his thoughts and feelings if he's with just one person, as opposed to being in a group."
Victoria and her sons nodded at the truth to Audra's words. Before anyone had a chance to speak again the family heard the front door open. Victoria recognized the sound of a gun belt being laid on the table in the foyer, and could picture Heath's hat joining it. Jarrod looked from one family member to another. When no one voiced any objections he stood and walked through the parlor. When he came to the foyer Heath was just turning for the stairway.
"Heath! Glad to see you're home." The lawyer's tone was cheery and inviting. "Come on in the dining room and eat. Your supper awaits you."
The absence of anyone in the study or parlor indicated to Heath that more than his supper awaited him in the dining room.
Counselor, I'm sick, I'm tired, and I've got the mother of all hangovers. Can't you people just leave a man be?
Jarrod walked over and put an arm around Heath's shoulders.
"Well 'ain't hungry' isn't acceptable. Not in this house. Not for a man who's been sick and is insisting on putting in a full day of work before the doctor even wants him out of bed."
If Heath was healthy and at his full strength there was no way Jarrod was a match for him in terms of a physical confrontation. But the blond man was far from either one of those things, and he had no doubt if he tried to flee up the stairs Jarrod would simply chase him down and bring him back.
In order to avoid making the day any longer than it already had been, Heath gave in to his brother. As Jarrod led him to the dining room Heath was already calculating how little he could get by with eating to please Victoria, and how quickly he could consume it before claiming fatigue was forcing him to call it a night.
As the two men entered from the parlor Audra came from the kitchen bearing Heath's plate and a glass of milk. Roast chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn were heaped high. Audra sat the food and drink in front of her brother while placing a napkin and silverware off to the side.
"Can I get you anything else, Heath? A slice of bread or a cup of coffee?"
"No. This is fine."
Heath's stomach flip flopped as the smell of warm chicken wafted to his nostrils. God, did he have a headache. He'd only made matters worse after he'd sobered up that afternoon by forcing himself to work twice as hard repairing fences in penance for his noon time foolishness.
The blond cowboy resisted the urge to massage his forehead. He hunkered over his plate with hunched shoulders and took a stab at his chicken. Victoria immediately recognized the body language. This was Heath's way of saying he was angry and had no intention of taking part in the conversation that was about to ensue. Jarrod and Nick exchanged glances. They recognized the meaning behind those hunched shoulders as well.
Jarrod started the discussion, but that didn't surprise Heath. Jarrod the wise one. Jarrod the peacemaker. Jarrod the confidant. Jarrod the father figure and male head of the family.
Jarrod's tone was quiet and full of gentle understanding. So many times since Heath had come to live with his father's family he had appreciated that tone and the sincerity behind it. But tonight he just wanted Jarrod to shut up.
Where Jarrod left off Nick began. Now the voice that spoke had more volume, but still the words were kind and sympathetic. Or at least kind and sympathetic until Nick started to lose his temper over the fact that Heath was staring at his food and not acknowledging the conversation in any way.
Jarrod shushed Nick as Heath knew he would. Audra tried next. His little sister oozed enthusiasm as she offered to go on a long ride with him, or pack a picnic lunch, or maybe they could spend a day swimming in the Diamond River.
Jarrod suggested a couple weeks in San Francisco.
Nick proclaimed a fishing trip was what the Barkley brothers needed.
Or how about time at the lodge with Mother, was Jarrod's next idea.
Or with all of us; the whole family, Nick was quick to add.
Their words seemed to assault Heath from all directions. It was times like this that he longed for the little house in Strawberry. Compared to this house it wasn't much more than a shack, and God knows he was dirt poor back then, but he had his mother. The woman who understood him about as good as any woman ever had. She respected his silences. She didn't try to make him talk when he would rather keep to himself. She didn't think sitting at the supper table meant having to engage in useless chatter the way these people often did. Sometimes Heath enjoyed the banter and teasing that went on when he sat down for a meal with his siblings and stepmother, but when he just wanted to be alone with his thoughts he resented his family for trying to force him to participate in their conversations. He'd learned over the years, that they seemed to take it personally if he had nothing to contribute. So, out of respect for all they'd done for him, he generally said something at every meal whether he wanted to or not. Nonetheless, that didn't mean that at times he didn't resent what he perceived to be their lack of respect for him. As though he had no right to private thoughts and feelings he had no desire to share.
It was Victoria who finally put an end to the conversation. She'd remained a silent observer through it all and had no doubt Heath was blocking out everything being said to him. Blah, blah, blah, as he'd told Jarrod that day in the saloon. Heath might not have been aware of it, but there was, in fact, one other woman who understood him as well as Leah Thomson had.
The family matriarch held up her hand. One by one her children heeded her signal and grew silent. She settled her gaze on Heath. He'd swallowed exactly three bites of chicken and half his milk. Now he was doing nothing but pushing his food around on his plate while he stared at the table cloth.
"Jarrod,...Nick,....Audra, there's no point in saying anything else to your brother. He's decided he's not going to listen so we might as well call this conversation finished. Isn't that right, Heath?"
Heath finally lifted his head. He looked at Victoria as he stood.
"Yeah, that's right. I'm goin' to bed."
Heath headed for the kitchen and the back stairs. Nick stood to follow. "Now you just wait one cotton pickin' minute there, Heath! I wanna talk to,...."
"Nick, leave him be," Victoria said.
"It won't do you any good. From the moment Jarrod brought him in here he wanted no part of any of us. You could see it in his face. You could see it in the way he sat."
Nick heaved a sigh of frustration before easing himself back to his chair. "So what do we try next?"
"I wish I had an answer for you, son. One thing I do know is that we have to come up with something and come up with it quick."
"What do you mean, Mother?" Audra asked.
"His eyes." Victoria looked from her daughter to her sons. "When I looked into his eyes as he stood to leave the table all I saw was pain, and sorrow, and fear."
"Fear?" Nick questioned.
"But what is he afraid of?"
Victoria had to swallow hard to talk past the sudden lump in her throat.
"I think he's afraid to go on living, Nick. I think....I think he wants to die."
What made Victoria's statement all that more prophetic was that none of her children could dispute it.
It was ten minutes after four on Saturday morning as Heath walked down the front stairs. He had full saddle bags thrown over his right shoulder and was carrying his bed roll and boots. When he got to the foyer he bent and pulled the boots on.
The first faint rays of dawn were starting to break upon the outside world. There was just enough light coming in through the windows to see by, though the house was still heavily bathed in nighttime shadows. Heath propped a folded piece of paper against the vase that sat on the round table, then turned for the door. He hadn't taken more than two steps when a voice spoke from the parlor.
The man took a deep breath and turned. Victoria, dressed in her pink satin robe, stepped into the foyer.
"I asked you a question, Heath."
"Yeah, I'm goin' somewhere."
"I,....I don't know. I'm just gonna be gone for a few days." The man pointed to the table. "I left you a note."
"I see that." Victoria walked over and retrieved the paper. She unfolded it and read out loud, "I'll be gone for a few days. Heath."
The woman looked up at her son. "Much like you, your notes never waste any words. Though usually they start with 'Dear Mother' and end with 'Love, Heath'."
Heath shrugged. "I didn't have time to write all that. I wanna get movin'."
"You want to get moving, or you don't want to get caught by your family sneaking out of the house?"
Heath's temper flared, but he remembered to keep his voice low. The last thing he needed was Nick flying down the stairs.
"I'm not sneaking. I just wanted to get an early start."
"And why didn't you tell us this last night when we were all sitting together at the table? Why didn't you tell us then, that you were going away for a few days?"
"Didn't feel like talkin'."
"I got that impression." Victoria paced the floor in front of her son. "Heath, when you were sick I made some decisions concerning what was best for your health that you're quite angry with me about. Isn't that true?"
"Ain't angry with no one."
"Oh, I think you are." Victoria stopped and turned to look her son in the eye. "As a matter of fact I know you are, otherwise you wouldn't have told Jarrod you're 'pissed as hell' at me."
If Heath was shocked over Victoria's choice of words he didn't show it. His eyes narrowed in fury.
"Jarrod should keep his big mouth shut."
"Perhaps you should cork the whiskey bottle long before your tongue gets loose, then Jarrod wouldn't have reason to open his 'big mouth' as you put it."
"Doesn't matter. What's done is done."
"You're right," Victoria conceded. "What's done is done, and none of us has the power to go back and change what's already happened. If I had to do it over again, if I had the same exact choices to make today that I had to make when you were so ill, I wouldn't do any of it differently. I know that's not what you want to hear, and I'm sorry about that fact, but your well-being was first and foremost in my mind and my heart. Heath,....son, Jake Sheridan told us that while you recovered you were to have no shocks and no upsets of any kind. You were too weak to withstand that type of stress. How could I tell you about Caroline, or Billy, or Jeb, or anyone else given those circumstances?"
Heath simply stood there looking down at Victoria. When he spoke all he said was, "How could you not?"
The man turned for the front door once again. Victoria ran to his side and grabbed his arm.
"Heath! Heath, please. Honey, you have no business leaving this house. You're still sick. You're still weak. Please, if nothing else just stay until you're fully recovered. After that,.....well after that if you still feel the need to get away for a few days I'll support that decision with no questions asked."
"I'm sorry, but no. I already made up my mind. I'm goin' and I'm goin' now."
The blond man freed himself from Victoria's grasp. Without any further words he walked out. It was the first time he'd left this house without kissing Victoria goodbye since the day he began calling her mother.
The woman recognized the significance of that action as she leaned against the door and cried.
Heath Barkley had no particular destination in mind when he'd left the ranch five days earlier. But then there were many things he was uncertain of, like whether or not he ever planned to return to what had been his home for the past three and half years.
Heath hadn't taken much with him when he rode out that Saturday morning. Just two changes of clothes, his leather jacket, his gun, the rifle Nick had given for Christmas, two boxes of ammunition, his canteens, a few personal items he had room for in his saddle bags, and his precious Charger. The heavy coat Caroline Atkins had admired two months earlier had been left hanging in the closet. It wouldn't fit in Heath's saddle bags and besides, July wasn't that far off. He hardly needed a winter coat in the middle of summer. When the seasons began to change again he could buy himself another coat if he was still in an area that felt the bite of winter winds.
The blond man crossed into Nevada that fifthe day of his journey. It was all his weary body could do to make camp at sunset. Victoria had been correct. He was too weak to travel. Heath supposed, deep down, he knew that the morning he'd walked out of the house. But the urge to get away from that ranch, from Stockton, was far stronger than the urge to stay. Funny thing though, after five days on the trail the pain was still with Heath. He thought he'd find the sorrow that filled his heart lessening with each mile he put between himself and home. That hadn't happened so far, but tomorrow; tomorrow he'd ride on and he'd begin to forget. Begin to forget he was the person who killed one hundred and thirty-five men, women, and children. Yes, tomorrow he'd put enough distance between himself and Stockton so that the memories, and the pain, dimmed.
That night's supper was hardtack and beans. The last of the food Heath had packed from Silas's kitchen was eaten the previous evening. He hadn't wanted to take too much, in part because of the logistics of carrying it on Charger, and in part because he wouldn't take what wasn't his. He supposed Nick would raise the roof at that thought and call it pig-headed foolishness. And maybe it was. After all, Heath had given the Barkleys the work of two men since the day he'd arrived. As time had gone on and he'd earned his new family's trust, Heath and Nick had begun sharing the responsibilities of running the ranch on a day to day basis. Nonetheless, Heath didn't take charity. When he walked out of that house he had little more with him than he'd carried the day he walked in. The money he had in his wallet amounted to forty-three dollars. Everything else he'd earned over the past three years, and he'd earned quite a bit as an equal partner in all the Barkley holdings, was either sitting in his account at the Stockton National Bank or had been invested for him by Jarrod. He supposed if he'd been smart he would have waited to leave until he could have gotten to the bank and wiped his account clean of the several thousand dollars that resided there, but it truly didn't make any difference to him. There was a time in Heath's life when he would have considered forty-three dollars a fortune. He'd get by on that until he found work.
Long after the sun set Heath sat in front of the fire sipping coffee. He found his mind drifting to the ranch. He could picture exactly what everyone would be doing now. Supper was over and Victoria was sitting by the fireplace in the parlor reading, or doing a cross stitch, or maybe sewing a cuff button back on one of his shirts. Heath quickly discarded that last idea, she certainly wouldn't be worrying about fixing his shirts for him now.
Jarrod might be in the parlor, too, reading the newspaper. Or he might be in the study doing work he'd brought home from the office. Nick could be doing any number of things; cleaning a gun, mending something in the tack room, or convincing Jarrod to play a game of billiards with him. Now Audra,....Heath had no doubts as to what Audra was doing. She was in the parlor setting up the checker board for their nightly game. Boy howdy, did that girl love to play games.
But then Heath remembered the picture in his mind was a bit off-kilter because he was missing from it. And if he was missing from it then who would sit and play checkers with Audra?
The man whipped the last of his coffee into the campfire. The flames hissed and flashed high a moment as though they were scolding him, then burned back down. Heath pushed himself to his feet. He swayed back and forth as a wave of dizziness caused the landscape to spin. When the world finally stopped turning he walked over to check on Charger one last time. As he petted the horse's nose with long, tender strokes he said, "Some thing's are best forgotten, Charger."
Four more days passed in which Heath continued to ride farther into Nevada. He bypassed every town he came to. He had no desire to meet up with anyone or be engaged in conversation.
The man ran a hand over his face. It had been over one week since he left the Barkley Ranch, and over one week since he'd shaved. A good many years had passed since he'd worn a beard. Not since he'd worked for Clint and Carter Armstrong on the Double A Ranch down Yuma way when he was twenty-one. He'd worn his hair long at that time, too, letting it grow to his shoulders. But then that was the fashion most of the wranglers who worked for the Armstrong brothers adopted. It was rough and rugged country made up of rough and rugged men. Heath Thomson was known to be about the roughest and ruggedest of the bunch. Though he had no mirror to look in Heath knew his beard was a burnished auburn in color, just like he knew if he went without a hat for several days under the hot sun his hair didn't bleach to pale blond like most folks would assume it might, but rather ended up with streaks of golden red running through it. For years Heath had wondered where that came from. His mother had been a brunette, as had his Uncle Matt. It wasn't until he arrived at the Barkleys and found out about his Scottish heritage and his strawberry blond Grandfather, Theodore Barkley, that the mystery was solved.
Heath stopped his travels when the Nevada sun was in the middle of the sky. He'd forgotten how hot this part of the country could be. He found a bit of shade for himself and Charger in a tiny grove of scraggily trees, but not much else. Heath knew he needed to find a water hole before the day came to an end. He'd refilled his canteens beside a stream the previous morning, but the water was almost gone. And as much as he dreaded making contact with anyone, be they man, woman, or child, he was going to have to head for a town soon. The muscles in his shoulders and upper arms were beginning to ache again; his headache was back, too. Not to mention he was starting to cough. A couple night's rest in a hotel room would do him good, along with a hot bath and a few hot meals. Then he could inquire as to any ranches in the area that might be looking for help. He knew he could come by work easily enough. If not in Nevada, then on up in Idaho territory. It didn't make much difference to Heath. Work was work and one ranch was about the same as any other. Well, almost any other unless you compared them to the ranch he held close to his heart. But he didn't plan on mentioning that one to anybody. As far as he was concerned Heath Barkley ceased to exist the day Billy Garver died. Chapter 20
Fourteen days had gone by since Heath had left home. Fourteen long days in which Victoria had gotten very little sleep.
The woman was alone in the house that Saturday afternoon. Like she'd found herself doing on many occasions since Heath's departure, she wandered up to his room. Victoria crossed to the bed where she rested a hand on a brass knob. Heath had left the room neat and clean as was his habit. The bed had been made, the multi-colored quilted spread pulled tight and hanging with military precision to the floor. He'd even changed the sheets as though to say the room could now be turned over to someone else. His closet broadcast that same message. He'd pushed the clothes he'd left behind to one end of the wooden rod, leaving the other end barren as if Victoria was going to find a son to replace him who would have need of the empty space. His dresser was the same way. The clothes he hadn't taken with him had been moved down so that the upper two drawers were empty. The few personal items he'd kept on display in the room were gone, as was the small wooden box he kept in his dresser that held things that were dear to him; - his mother's Bible, a wooden train engine that had been the only toy he'd ever had as a child, a poem Rachel Caufield had written for him the night he was born, and a pocket watch that had belonged to his maternal grandfather, Morgan Thomson.
Victoria smiled a bit when she looked at the one remaining item in the room, the cougar statue sitting on top of the dresser. The ugly thing had been sent to 'The Barkley Boys' two Christmases ago by Tom's sister Josephine. Aunt Josephine had never been out of Philadelphia and her notions of ranching were amusing at best. She never had understood her brother's love of the land or the animals, it was so foreign to how they'd grown up. Exactly what the cougar represented to her sister-in-law about the 'wild west' Victoria didn't know, but evidently the woman thought it was something Tom's sons would like. Victoria remembered the laughter that accompanied the opening of that gift, and also recalled how thankful she was that Aunt Josephine was far away in Pennsylvania. To say her four sons had displayed poor manners that Christmas Day would have been an understatement. Though Victoria had to admit she and Audra hadn't been much better as they, too, were drawn into the men's fun.
A playful argument had ensued after dinner about which brother should be forced to take ownership of the statue. Nick thought it would make a perfect addition to Jarrod's office, while Jarrod thought Eugene should take it back to college with him, while Heath was all for saving it until Audra's February birthday and passing it on to her. By day's end the cougar had been put away on a closet shelf in the study and all but forgotten about. Or at least forgotten about by everyone but Heath. Two months later he was the one who retrieved it and put it in Nick's room. From that point on the cougar had made the rounds. It would stay in one brother's room for a while, only to be moved some time later on the sly. Much to Victoria's horror it had shown up in the middle of the dining room table on a night when Jarrod was entertaining California's Attorney General, had ended up in the bathroom once, and traveled to Victoria's room on another occasion. She never was able to determine who had put it any of those places, though she suspected Heath was once again the guilty party. Because he was so quiet people didn't think of him as a prankster, but his family had learned long ago he possessed a wicked sense of humor that every so often was just itching to break free.
It was Nick who had moved the cougar from Jarrod's room to Heath's room one of the first nights Heath was sick. When Heath was recovering from his illness and had finally taken notice of it he'd grinned and told Nick he'd pay him back. Now Victoria wondered how a stupid little thing like an ugly statue could bring tears to her eyes.
The woman mentally chastised herself as she walked to the closet. She couldn't go on like this. None of them could. Without giving it a second thought she began to spread the clothes out on the rod. She turned when she heard Nick's voice behind her.
"What are you doing?"
"Moving these clothes back like they were. If I don't they'll be wrinkled when Heath returns."
"You think he's planning to?"
"I don't know, Nick. But I can hope."
When Victoria emerged from the closet she found Nick sitting on the arm of Heath's chair.
"He took the family picture, you know."
Victoria's eyes followed Nick's to the barren table in the center of the room. This was where Heath had displayed his copy of the most recent family photo taken last summer when Eugene was visiting with Anna.
"I realize that. He also took his mother's photo."
Nick looked at the nightstand. Sure enough, the small picture of Leah Thomson was missing that Heath had always kept there.
"Then that says it all. He's not coming back."
"Maybe. Or maybe it says something else."
"Like Heath needs his family more than he cares to admit right now. That Heath loves his family far more than he knows how to reveal."
Nick shook his head at what he deemed the silly sentiments of a female.
"It's been two weeks, Mother. You said he told you he was only going to be gone a few days."
"I know. But a 'few days' is a very abstract term."
"I think two weeks is a heck of a lot more than a few days no matter how abstract. You should have let me go after him that first morning like I wanted to."
"Nick, we've had this discussion before. What good would you going after Heath have done?"
"You know what good it would have done! I'd have brought him back here. Knocked some sense into that stubborn head of his! Sat on him in this bed if that's what it would have taken to make him rest and get past all this."
"It would have never worked and you know it. You couldn't have guarded him twenty-four hours a day, none of us could. Eventually he would have left again. Only that time filled with so much resentment that he might never come back."
"Well it sure doesn't look to me like he's planning to come back this time, so why should we have been fretting over next time!"
As soon as Nick saw the tears that welled up in his mother's eyes he regretted both his temper and words. He gently pulled her down until she was sitting in the chair. He leaned sideways, hugging her tiny form to his broad chest.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. It's just that,...it's just that I'm worried about him and I miss him. I miss him something fierce."
"I know, sweetheart." Victoria tightened her arms around her son's waist. "I miss him, too." The woman glanced up at the bronze statue, longing to see it suddenly show up in any other part of the house. "I'm worried about him and I miss him, too."
He was hot, so hot he felt like he had his head in Silas's cook stove. And tired, so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. The cough was worse now, too, jarring his body and almost throwing him from the saddle with its force.
Three weeks had passed since he'd left the ranch, or maybe even four, and Heath had yet to come across a town. It was so strange, he was familiar with this part of Nevada and was certain he'd stumble upon small settlements as he traveled. But not a building or person had been seen. It was all Heath could do not to give a mirthless laugh. He'd wanted isolation and now he had it. Charger wandered aimlessly day after day because his master wasn't cognizant enough most times to give him any directions. Heath had long ago lost his hat and felt the sun scorching his head. And speaking of the sun, that was another weird thing. They hadn't run across any water holes, but somehow Heath's canteens remained full enough for him to get a drink when necessary and for him to give Charger a drink. Or maybe he was slipping in and out of delirium, and didn't realize he was finding water on occasion and refilling the canteens. All the cowboy knew for certain was that if he didn't come to a town soon he'd die. Not that he necessarily feared that event. He was far from home now, but the pain was still with him. So in the end, death would be a welcome relief. He'd dreamed of Jeb the other night and woke up with tears on his face. Yes, if only death would come she would be his friend.
Heath patted Charger on the neck as he slumped forward, too weak to hold himself upright in the saddle. "I'm sorry, old pal," he murmured as he hugged the big horse. "I never meant to bring you this far from home and leave you high and dry with no one to take care of you. You were a wonderful gift from a wonderful family. If there was any way I could get you back to them I would." The dry, desert-like world began to swim in front of Heath's eyes. As he toppled from the saddle he mumbled, "I really would."
It seemed to Heath as though he'd been trying to return to consciousness for days now, but that he felt too darn good to make the effort. Each time awareness would flick on the edge of his brain he'd snuggle deeper into his pillows and pull the covers closer to his body. It was the humming that finally brought him around. Someone was humming his mama's favorite hymn, The Old Rugged Cross.
Heath made three attempts at opening his eyes before he was finally able to take in the world surrounding him. He was lying in a single bed supported by a black iron frame. There was a matching bed five feet to his left. The beds were separated by an old battered nightstand that held a lamp residing atop a lace doily.
The cowboy's eyes roamed a larger portion of the room next. A five drawer dresser stood against one wall, and a comfortable looking chair similar to the one in his room at the ranch sat in the far corner. The walls were clean and covered from top to bottom with a fresh coat of white wash. Pale blue curtains hung at the two windows that were opposite one another and billowed gently in the morning breeze.
A woman stood at the washstand with her back to Heath. She was pouring fresh water into a bowl and arranging clean towels next to it. When she turned around and caught sight of him she smiled.
"Well, a cheery good morning to you! I'm so happy to see you've finally decided to join us."
For some reason the young woman with the lilting Irish accent looked familiar to Heath. But try as he might he couldn't place her. No doubt about it, she was a beauty in every sense of the word, and if he'd run across her in the past he would have definitely remembered the encounter. She was slender and fine-boned as a young filly, and had large eyes that could be green, or could be amber, depending on how the light hit them. Her deep red hair was pulled back in one thick braid that fell to her waist while bangs fringed her forehead. She wore a mint green dress with a lace collar and had a white ruffled apron covering it that fell to her shins, just like the apron Heath remembered his mother wearing when she cooked at the Miner's Cafe in Strawberry.
The woman crossed to Heath's side and placed a hand on his forehead.
"Ah, no sign of fever. That's good."
"Oh my, yes. You were burning up when Doctor Wallace found you."
"Yes. Just outside of town."
Heath hiked himself up on his elbows. Through the west window he could indeed see the tops of buildings.
"When did he find me?"
"Four days ago."
"Four days ago!"
"You don't remember any of it, do you?"
"No, I don't reckon I do."
With a weary sigh Heath sunk back to his pillows and watched her return to the washstand where she picked up a black medical bag.
"Well, take it from Monica,...that's me, you've been one very sick man. But no matter, Doctor Wallace and I, we took good care of you."
The woman returned to Heath's side and removed a stethoscope from the bag. "Now sit up for me."
"I asked you to sit up. I need to listen to your heart and lungs."
Heath pulled the covers a little tighter around his bare chest. "I'm fine."
"That might be so, but you were sporting a good deal of congestion just yesterday. I need to see if it's better."
"I said I was fine."
"Now, Mr.,...." Monica stopped there, waiting for her patient to supply her with his name.
Heath barely gave it a thought when he said, "Lee."
"And would that be your first name or last name?"
Heath had to admit that was a logical question. Days ago, when he'd been on the trail, he'd decided he'd use the male version of his mother's first name when supplying anyone he met with his name. On a ranch full of men he could get away with introducing himself simply as Lee. It might be weeks before anyone thought to ask if that was his first name or last, if they ever thought to ask at all. Leave it to a woman to throw a wrench in his plans.
"You don't sound too sure of that," Monica said, as though she was privy to some sort of information Heath wasn't aware of. "But then I suppose the fever you were running has you a bit addled."
"Yeah, I suppose."
"Now, as I was saying, Mr. Lee,......do you have a first name?"
Oh, Lord, just what I need, a talkative woman.
"And that might be,....?"
Heath hadn't given much thought to this. All he knew was that he no longer had the desire to be known as Heath Barkley.
"Mr. Lee? Your first name, please."
Heath thought another few seconds, then said, "Morgan."
"Well, Mr. Morgan Lee, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. Now as I was saying, I need you to sit up for me."
"Oh, no. No buts. And don't be so modest. My goodness, Tess and I bathed you so if you're worried,..."
Heath felt the color drain from his face. "Bathed me?"
"Yes. You were filthy, full of trail dust and several weeks worth of dirt by the looks of you. And so ill. So very ill. Really, Mr. Lee, you must take better care of yourself." Monica reached for the blankets Heath was clutching to his chest. "Now come on, let go of these. I'm only going to put my stethoscope against your chest, and then against your back. Nothing more. I promise."
"Are you a doctor?"
"No, but I am Doctor Wallace's nurse."
Despite Heath's continued protests the woman got him to a sitting position. She propped the pillows up behind his back so he could lean against them. With great reluctance he loosened his grip on his covers. He allowed them to drop to the middle of his stomach, which was as far as he was willing to let them go.
Heath felt cold metal come to rest against his chest as the woman placed a warm hand on his shoulder.
"Now take a deep breath."
Heath did as requested. The metal cone moved and Monica said, "Again. Another deep breath please."
This action was repeated two more times, then Monica had him lean forward. Now the stethoscope was placed on his back. Each time it moved he was asked to take a deep breath.
"Okay, Mr. Lee, we're done. See, now wasn't that easy? And not nearly worth the fuss you gave me."
Monica helped Heath lean against his pillows once more, then folded the stethoscope and put it away.
"I believe I can give Doctor Wallace a clean bill of health on your behalf."
Ah,....don't thank me. It's the good doctor you should be thanking. The poor man, he's so busy he's barely getting two hours of sleep a night. He was coming back from the Grishem ranch when he found you. Goodness knows he didn't have the time to take on another patient, but of course Doctor Wallace couldn't just ride away and leave you lying there in the hot sun. So he brought you here and tended to you until his attention was demanded elsewhere. Then Tess and I took over."
Monica looked into the cowboy's face. "If you'll pardon me for sayin' so, you don't seem very happy about your good fortune. As a matter of fact you have an air of sadness about you that makes a body wonder how she can be of help."
"So you've told me on several occasions already. But alas, I recognize a stubborn Scotsman when I meet him, so I'll leave you to your brooding."
"I'm not Scottish."
"Oh, Mr. Lee, you are a funny one," Monica laughed as she picked up her medical bag. "I knew you were a Scotsman the moment I laid eyes on you. Why that wild red hair and beard just give you away. Yes, you look like a rugged bonnie man of the highlands, you do."
Heath decided he needed to take a long look in a mirror. Monica must have read his thoughts.
"There's fresh water here on the stand for washing up, and a toothbrush and toothpowder for you to make use of, too. In the top drawer of the dresser are some clothes for you. I see by what you brought you favor blue shirts, but the ones you had are dirty and need a good scrubbing. Now I myself picture you looking quite dapper in brown. Or green, as well. Yes, green would go nicely with your coloring. Anyway, you'll find shirts, pants, socks, and underdrawers in the dresser."
A tiny bit of longing touched the edges of Heath's soul as Monica rattled on about the shirts and what colors she thought he'd look best in. Audra was forever trying to convince him to wear something besides his favorite blue chambray work shirts on a daily basis.
"So come on now, up with you. Get out of that bed."
Heath started to throw back the covers, then thought better of it when he realized he was stark naked beneath them.
Monica laughed again. "Oh, come now, Mr. Lee, I'm a nurse. It's not like I've never seen a man in the all-together before. And Tess and I did bath you as I already mentioned."
Heath did nothing more than blush.
"But, I can see by the look on your face you prefer to take your clothes off for a pretty lady when the time is of your choosing."
The cowboy blushed even harder at that remark, and was somewhat astounded that this fresh faced young woman would say such a thing. When Heath made no reply Monica said, "I assume you would like me to leave, is that it?"
"If you insist, then I shall. Though mind you I'm reluctant to do so. You're still weak and could take a nasty fall."
"I'll be careful."
"I'm sure you will be. Just the same, I wish Jarrod and Nick were here."
Heath stared at the nurse, sure he hadn't heard her correctly. "Pardon me?"
"Jarrod and Nick."
"How do you know Jarrod and Nick?"
"Me? Oh, I don't know them. But when your fever was at its highest you were calling for them. You appeared quite desperate to have them near. Tess and I felt so bad for you because you seemed so upset,....so frightened. Are Jarrod and Nick friends of yours, Mr. Lee?"
"No." Heath hesitated a moment before finishing his reply. "No, I don't know who they are."
"I see. Well, that does happen sometimes when a person's temperature gets unbearably high."
"The mind makes things up. Imagines people who don't really exist."
"Oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, I reckon that's what happened to me then, 'cause I don't know anyone by those names."
Monica headed for the door with her medical bag in hand. "I must get a move on, I need to help Doctor Wallace. You get yourself cleaned up and dressed, then go out to the kitchen."
"Yes. This door leads to the parlor, and from there you'll be in the kitchen."
"Is this your house?"
"No, it belongs to the doctor. As a matter of fact this is his bedroom. There's another bedroom on the other end of the house where Tess and I sleep."
"Is Tess a nurse, too?"
"No, she's the doctor's housekeeper."
Heath kept a blanket around his waist as he swung his feet to the floor. Before the nurse could walk out the door he beckoned her one last time.
The woman turned to face Heath. "Yes, Mr. Lee?"
"Where am I?"
"I already told you, Doctor Wallace's house. I better come right back over there and check you again. Maybe your temperature isn't as low as I thought it was."
"No, no. I'm okay. What I meant was, where is this place? The town. What's the name of the town?"
"Oh, the name of the town it is you're wanting." Monica smiled at her patient as though he'd be delighted when she told him where he was. "Heaven. You're in Heaven, Mr. Lee."
"Yes. Heaven, Nevada."
And with that Monica left Heath alone to clean up and dress.
Thirty minutes later Heath exited the bedroom. Though he was loath to admit it, he certainly could have used assistance from Jarrod and Nick. He felt well-rested, but still weak. He discovered if he moved slow he could manage pretty well, anything resembling a brisk pace caused the room to spin.
A look in the mirror that was mounted on the washstand told Heath all he needed to know about his appearance.
No wonder Monica called me a Scotsman.
Heath's time in the sun without his hat had streaked random strands of his blond hair red just like he knew it would. And his now full beard was red as well; again, just like he remembered it being back when he worked on the Double A. Heath supposed he was going on eight weeks without a hair cut, that fact was showing, too. On the sides of his head his hair hung over his ears, in the back it touched his shirt collar. Heath's hair was curling in the back, too, something else he'd discovered on the Double A that his hair did if it got long enough. The man couldn't help but smile a little bit. He doubted any of the Barkleys would recognize him if they passed him on the street. But that was okay. Today,.....today Heath Barkley died and in his place Morgan Lee was born.
Heath put on a green shirt and pair of tan pants. The pants weren't his, they felt brand new. Yet they were styled exactly like the pants he favored and were his size. The shirt fit him perfectly, too. Well, maybe that wasn't exactly true. Both the shirt and pants were a bit baggy, but if he was at his proper weight he had no doubt they'd fit him as though they'd been made for him.
Heath wondered if these people who found him had gone out and bought him new clothes. He recalled Monica saying his other clothes were in need of washing. After four weeks on the trail he could imagine that was true.
The man opened the small closet the room contained. His leather jacket and gun belt were hanging there, his saddle bags and boots rested on the floor, while his rifle was propped in a corner. He checked one of the saddle bags and discovered his wallet and money within. All forty three dollars was accounted for which spoke of the honesty of these folks. Before he moved on he'd have to pay them back for the new clothes and the care they'd given. Though it was ranch work he was wanting, he was certain there was something he could do in this town to earn some money for a few days, even if it was just mucking stalls at the livery stable.
Heath pulled on his boots then made his bed so Doctor Wallace's housekeeper wouldn't have to. It was the least he could do in partial repayment of her kindness. He made his way to the door and walked into the parlor.
The main room of the house was small, but comfortable. A stone fireplace took up one wall with two maroon overstuffed chairs angled sideways to the hearth. Each chair possessed its own matching ottoman. Heath could almost picture the doctor stretched out at the end of a long day, smoking a pipe while he read the newspaper. A floral patterned couch sat across from the chairs with a coffee table in front of it. A bay window with a cushioned window seat looked out over a front porch that contained two rocking chairs on one end, and a swing on the other. The small yard was more flower garden than anything else and rimmed by a white picket fence.
The cowboy followed his nose through the room. He could smell eggs frying and easily found the kitchen. A black woman almost as tall as Heath and three times as wide stood at the sink with her back to the cowboy. She wore a gingham dress that was both orange and brown, and had a matching gingham scarf tied backwards on her head. Like Monica, she was humming a hymn, though this one Heath recognized as When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.
The woman seemed to sense Heath's presence. She turned around and gave him a broad smile.
"Well, there you are! Monica told me you'd be out shortly. Have a seat, baby. Tess has your breakfast ready."
When Heath hesitated Tess pulled a chair out from the round table that sat four. "Come on, son, have a seat. Unless, that is, you prefer takin' your meals standing up."
"No, Ma'am. I don't reckon so."
"I don't reckon so, either. And I'm not ma'am. I'm Tess. You just call me Tess, baby."
"And you would be?"
"Yeah. Morgan Lee."
Heath was forced to drop his gaze under Tess's doubt-filled scrutiny.
"Morgan Lee, is it? You don't look like no Morgan to me, nor any Lee that I've ever seen either."
"I don't, huh?"
"No siree bob, you don't. Now with that shaggy hair and beard you're sportin' you look a little like my old friend George Custer, but of course you've got too much red in that mane to be kin to him."
Heath looked up as a plate was set in front of him. Despite the cowboy's efforts to remain isolated from the world around him he couldn't help but raise a skeptical eyebrow. "You knew General Custer?"
"I surely did, baby. But then old Tess knows lots of people. And speaking of that, which Lee's would it be that you're related to?"
"Yes, you know. Like the Rothwell Lee's of New York City? Or the Henry Lee's of Chicago? Or the Franklin Lee's of Boston? Or the Robert E. Lee's of Virginia?"
"Robert E. Lee? You knew him, too, I suppose."
"Don't you go smirkin' at me. If Tess tells you she knew Mr. Robert E. Lee, then you can bet your bottom dollar on that fact."
By now Heath thought the woman was half out of her mind, but kept his opinions to himself as he dug into the plate of eggs she'd put before him. It wasn't until he'd taken the first bite that he realized two things. Number one; he had a healthy appetite for the first time since before he got sick, and number two; she'd made him the exact same breakfast Silas knew he favored. Two eggs over easy, two pieces of toast spread with butter and strawberry jam, three strips of bacon, a blueberry muffin, and fresh squeezed orange juice.
Tess pulled out the chair to Heath's left and sat down next to him.
"Go on, baby, you eat up. You're so skinny old Tess could thread you through a needle."
Heath had seen enough of himself in the washstand mirror to know how gaunt he was. The beard hid his hollow cheeks and the jaw line made sharp by weight loss, but anyone who knew him well would see signs that indicated he hadn't been physically well in many weeks.
The meal commenced without further conversation. When Heath was done he pushed his plate aside.
"Thank you. Everything was very good."
"Well now, aren't you a nice young man," Tess grinned. "Quiet, but nice. Polite and such a gentleman. I bet you do your mama proud."
"My mama's dead." Heath's reply came out quick and terse. He came here to put his past behind him, not to relive it every time he turned around.
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that, I just thought,..."
"Thought what?" Heath asked as he finished his juice.
"Well, Mo,......you don't mind if I call you Mo, do you? Morgan,....Morgan just doesn't seem to fit you. I bet other people have called you Mo a time or two, huh?"
Heath thought of Nick. "I reckon so."
"Does it bother you? 'Cause if it does I won't call you that."
Already feeling like he'd been bombarded with too many reminders of the family he was trying to forget since waking just one short hour earlier, Heath replied, "I'd prefer Morgan if you don't mind."
"All right," Tess sighed. "Morgan it is. But you sure don't look like a Morgan."
"You've already said that."
"I guess I have, haven't I? Such is the affliction of the elderly, baby. The memory is the first to go. And speaking of memory, what were we talking about? Oh, your mama. So she's passed on, you say?"
Heath sighed. Obviously the woman wasn't going to let this subject drop.
"Yes, Ma'am. Almost five years ago now."
"I see. Well, that sure is odd."
"When you were so sick you were talking to her as if it hadn't been that long since you'd seen her. You said, 'Mother, I'll pick up that package for you when I'm in town. You know Nick, if you leave it up to him he'll forget.' "
Heath's eyes narrowed and he set his glass down with a fierce thump. "I never called my mama that. Mother. I never called her that, so I guess it couldn't have been her I was talkin' to, now could it?"
"Goodness gracious, there's no call to get so angry about it. Fever plays tricks on the mind, that's for certain." Tess stood to carry Heath's dishes to the sink. "If you say there's no woman in your life you call Mother then I imagine you know best. Of course, if you want my opinion you sounded like you knew her real well. Like you have a lot of love for her and,...."
"Where's my horse?"
Tess turned around. "What was that?"
"My horse. Charger. He would have stayed with me. Doctor Wallace must have seen him."
Tess started laughing. "You sure are a moody one, Mr. Morgan Lee. One minute we're talking about mothers, then before I know it we're talking about horses. But no need to fret. Your horse is being looked after. He's been stabled at Mr. Thurmond's Livery. Rest assured, Randall is taking good care of him. That little boy has yet to meet a horse he doesn't love, or a horse that doesn't love him back."
"Little boy? I'm not sure a kid should be taking care of Charger."
"Randall's feelings would be hurt if he heard you say that, Mr. Lee."
"How old is he?"
"He's too young to be working in a livery then." Heath stood. "Where is it? I'll go take care of Charger myself."
Tess gave Heath a pointed look. "Mr. Morgan Lee, how old were you when you held your first paying job?"
"Don't cock your head like that and pretend you didn't hear me just to avoid answering my question. You might get away with that with some others in your life, but not with Tess. Now how old were you?"
"I reckon about six."
"And what'd you do?"
When Heath didn't answer Tess prompted, "Mr. Morgan Lee? I asked you what you did to earn money when you were six years old."
Heath finally gave in under the woman's gaze. He was finding her to be just as persistent as Victoria Barkley.
"I worked in the mines. And in,....in a livery stable."
Tess smiled. "A livery stable. So see. You have nothing to worry about. Randall will take good care of your horse."
"That might be so, but I'll go check on him anyway. Just as soon as I pay you folks back for the clothes and care you've given me I need to be on my way."
"I'm sorry to be the one who has to break the news to you, son, but you're not going anywhere."
Heath watched as the woman moved about the kitchen cleaning up the remnants of breakfast as though she hadn't just made what sounded like a veiled threat.
"What do you mean I'm not going anywhere?"
"Didn't Monica tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
Tess looked up from wiping the table and met Heath's eyes.
"This town is under quarantine, baby. We're right in the middle of a diphtheria epidemic."
The room started to spin in a counter clockwise motion. Before Heath could hit the ground Tess had him seated in a chair. Without asking any questions she wet a towel with cold water from the pump and placed it on his forehead.
For a moment Heath wondered how she knew he was on the verge of passing out, but he quickly pushed that thought aside as his entire being cried with despair.
No! Oh, God, please no! No!
For the first time since he'd left home Heath had no where to run to. No place to hide. No means of escape. No matter how hard he tried to be Morgan Lee, when push came to shove God was making certain he was well aware he was Heath Barkley.
Heath Barkley, Tom Barkley's bastard son.
Heath ignored Tess's orders to return to bed and rest. She followed him through the house and watched as he took his wallet out of his saddle bags. He put it in the back pocket of his pants, buckled his gun belt around his waist, then headed for the front door.
"Now just where do you think you're going, Mr. Morgan Lee?"
"I already told you. To check on Charger."
"Your skinny behind don't need to be goin' to check on no one, let alone a horse. It needs to be right back here in this bed. I don't know what kinda spell that was you just had in my kitchen, but I recognize when someone's about to faint dead away on me."
"I'm not gonna faint. I'm fine."
"No, you're stubborn is what you is. Stubborn as the day is long. Well, have it your way then. You just go marchin' right on outta this house and collapse in the middle of the street. And when that happens you just see if ole' Tess comes along to pick you up."
The woman was still predicting a multitude of maladies that were bound to befall Heath as he exited the house. He crossed the front porch in four strides and trotted down three wooden steps. He walked the flower-lined path to the front gate, refusing to take notice of the hundreds of blooming roses that made him think of Victoria's garden back home. When he arrived on the sidewalk he paused, then looked both left and right.
As town's went, Heaven was a small one. To the north Heath spotted a bank, a saloon, a hardware store, a rancher's grain and supply store, the jail, and the undertaker's which also doubled as a furniture store. To the south, and immediately next door to Doctor Wallace's house was his medical office. Beyond it was a barber shop, cafe, a general store, a dress maker's shop, a tiny post office, a blacksmith shop, and the livery stable. Houses were interspersed amongst the businesses, and at the very edge of the town Heath could see a steeple rising above a church. Another building with a bell mounted on a ten foot tall pole stood across from the church. Heath correctly assumed it was Heaven's school house.
Heath walked south toward the livery stable. It was a few minutes before ten on Thursday morning and the town was quiet. Too quiet as far as Heath was concerned. He knew what that meant. Everyone who wasn't sick was helping those who were, and if that wasn't the case then most folks who were healthy were hiding in their homes, too scared to come out. Heath hated to tell them this, but from recent experience he knew they'd all been exposed to the disease long before Doctor Wallace was aware of its arrival. Therefore, cowering in fear while hoping the deadly virus passed them by would do little good.
The stable that housed Charger was so close to being an exact replica of the stable in Strawberry where Heath had worked as a boy, that he had to close his eyes and reopen them twice to make certain he wasn't dreaming.
A man Heath guessed to be sixty-five years old with thinning gray hair, stooped shoulders, and a weary smile approached.
"Howdy, son. Somethin' I can do for you?"
"I was told my horse is here. A chestnut bay gelding."
"Oh, sure. Sure. We got him. Randall's taking mighty fine care of him. So you're the stranger Doc Wallace found outside of town."
"Well, you've got yourself a beautiful horse there, son. Yep, that's one mighty fine lookin' animal." The man held out a hand gnarled by years of hard work. "I'm Jasper Thurmond. I own this here livery."
"Morgan Lee," Heath said while shaking the man's hand.
"Glad to see you're back on your feet. Lord knows we've got enough sick people in Heaven. We sure don't need anymore."
"No, Sir. I reckon not."
"I suppose you've got a hankerin' to see that horse of yours."
"Don't call me sir. Makes me feel old. Jasper will do. Come along then. Follow me."
Heath passed empty stall after empty stall, most of them in need of repair. Jasper seemed able to read Heath's thoughts.
"Not much business right now. A lotta that has to do with the epidemic a' course. Not much travelin' going on as you can imagine."
"I suppose not."
"Now when folks is healthy I'm kept hoppin' come Saturday nights. A lotta cowboys come in from the neighborin' ranches. The saloon can barely hold 'em all. Most of 'em like to drink until they can't walk a straight line. Their horses get stabled here on account of that law the sheriff has in place."
"No drinkin' and drivin' the sheriff says. Ain't that just the most peculiar expression you ever heard?" Jasper winked and elbowed Heath. "But you won't hear me complainin'. Best thing the sheriff ever did for my business. I been makin' money right and left since she started enforcing that one."
"Yep. Sheriff Tess."
Heath stopped in his tracks. "Did you say Sheriff Tess?"
"I surely did."
"As in Doctor Wallace's housekeeper?"
"Yep. One and the same."
A woman sheriff? And a black woman at that? Heath was beginning to think Tess was right. Maybe he did need to go back to bed. He was certain if he could just start this day over he'd find it to be a bit more normal than he had so far.
"But then Tess does a lot of things around Heaven, Mr. Lee."
"Huh,....yeah. I'm gettin' that impression."
Jasper led Heath out the back of the livery. A thin, tow-headed boy stood inside a small corral. Charger pranced around the child, getting his morning exercise.
Mr. Thurmond beckoned the boy. "Randall! Randall, come here, son!"
Randall patted Charger on the nose, then turned and ran for his boss. Charger danced after the boy as though he didn't want to lose sight of his new playmate. As soon as Charger caught a whiff of Heath's scent he threw his head back and whinnied. He trotted over to the fence and nudged his face against Heath's shoulder.
Heath smiled as he patted the horse's neck and stroked his nose. "Hey, Charger. Hey, boy. No, I didn't go off and leave you. I've just been laid up a few days is all."
"He's a right nice horse, Mister. Charger is his name you say?"
Heath turned his attention to Randall, who was scrambling onto the fence. The boy sat down. His small hand joined Heath's in petting Charger.
"Yep. Charger's his name."
"Well, Mister, that's one fine name for one fine animal if you don't mind me sayin'."
Heath smiled at the boy's enthusiasm. It brought back memories of his own enthusiasm for horses when he was the same age.
"No, son, I don't mind you sayin'. Thank you."
"Where'd you get him from? Did you buy him out at the Slater ranch? My ma keeps house for Mrs. Slater so I been out to their place a time or two. Mr. Slater sure has got some top a' the line stock."
"Nope, didn't buy him from Mr. Slater." Heath looked at Charger and smiled. "He was a gift from my family."
"Boy, are you lucky. Your family must love you an awful lot to give you a gift like Charger."
At that moment Heath couldn't help but think of Caroline Atkins. Randall's words were almost identical to hers back on that cold, cloudy April afternoon.
"Wow! Both the chocolates and this pretty coat. Your family must love you a lot, Mr. Barkley."
When Heath finally made a reply he was barely able to mask the pain in his voice. "Yeah. Yeah, I reckon they do, son."
Jasper turned to his helper. "Randall, this is Morgan Lee. Mr. Lee, this is my employee Randall Becker."
Heath held out his hand the child. "Randall. Pleased to meet you."
"Pleased to meet you, too, Mr. Lee. Say, you don't happen to be related to General Robert E. Lee, do you? Tess knew him 'fore he passed on."
"So I've heard. But no, I'm not related to the general. As a matter of fact, why don't you just call me Morgan."
"My ma says it's not proper to call adults by their first names."
Heath smiled. "Your ma sounds like she's working hard at raising a polite young man, but if I give you my permission to use my first name then I think it'll be okay. What do you say?"
"Well,,...all right. As long as you explain it to my ma if she asks."
Heath tousled the boy's shaggy hair. "I'll do that."
It was when Heath lifted the boy off the fence that he noticed the signs of poverty. The pants with the patches sewn at the knees, the lack of shoes on the child's feet, the cuffs of the shirt that rose a good two inches above his wrists, and the fact that the child weighed ten to fifteen pounds less than most boys his age.
So that explains what such a young boy is doing working here. How well I remember.
Jasper put an arm around the child's shoulders.
"Randall, you're in charge for the rest of the day. I gotta be gettin' on home to the Mrs." The man looked at Heath. "My wife's got the sickness. She's doin' poorly. My daughter's been stayin' with her as much as possible, but she's a widow with nine youngins' of her own. Some of them have takin' sick, too. It's all Eunice,....my daughter,...it's all Eunice and me can do to keep up with things in both households."
Now Heath understood the man's weary smile and the worry he'd sensed behind it. As Jasper started to walk away Heath hailed him.
"Tess told me about the quarantine, so since I can't leave town for a while I'll be needin' a way to make some money. Maybe you and I can help one another out."
"Well, I can assist Randall in keeping things goin' here."
Jasper chuckled. "Son, your horse is the only one I'm boardin' right now. I think Randall can take care of Charger all by himself. And until the quarantine is lifted I won't have any busy Saturday nights."
"I reckon you're right there, but it looks like you can use a man who's good with a hammer to do a few repairs around here."
Jasper thought a moment, then gave a slow nod of his head. "Well now, that's a fact. The place has kinda fallen apart the last few years 'cause of my bursitis. My body hurts me so bad on some mornings it's all I can do to get out of bed, let alone drive a nail. You a good carpenter?"
"All right, I'll tell you what. You get to work on anything around here you see needs fixin'. I'll stop back late this afternoon, and if I like what I see I'll pay you three dollars a day to return this livery to tip top shape. That wage includes boarding your horse."
Though not since arriving on the Barkley ranch had Heath worked for as little as three dollars a day, he wasn't going to argue with the man. Between the money he already had and what he figured he could earn over the next couple weeks, he'd easily be able to pay Doctor Wallace for room and board, plus have cash in his pocket when he rode out of here.
"Fair enough. I'll get started right now."
"Randall can show you where everything is. I'll see you boys sometime before the sun sets."
Heath watched as the old man walked to a house across the street. He was surprised to feel a hand slide into his. Randall looked up at him with excitement lighting his eyes.
"Gee, Mr. Lee,....I mean, Morgan. Gee, Morgan, I guess we'll be workin' together, huh?
"Looks that way. Now how about if you show me where Mr. Thurmond keeps his tool box."
"Sure. Come on! Follow me."
Without dropping Heath's hand Randall led him to a back room where the cowboy found a well-equipped tool box and a pile of lumber. Within minutes Heath was hard at work with a faithful helper by his side.
It was noon when Heath put his hammer down. He'd repaired all the loose boards on two stalls and replaced the ones that were missing. Randall proved to be a competent assistant. He handed Heath tools before he was even asked for them, and swept both the stalls clean of wood shavings and old nails when Heath was finished.
Despite Randall's earlier exuberance, Heath found him to be a quiet little boy. If he had something to say he said it, otherwise he kept his peace. Something Heath found refreshing after his morning with Monica and Tess.
Heath stood back to admire their work. "Well, Randall, I'd say we've done a good job given the time we've put in so far. After lunch we'll start again."
"Yes, Sir. Mr. Thurmond will be pleased."
"I'm glad to hear that 'cause I can sure make use of the money I'll be earnin'."
The boy helped Heath gather the tools and put them back in the box. "Do you turn your money over to your ma too, Morgan?"
Heath looked at the child as he propped some lumber up against a stall.
"The money you make. Do you give it to your ma to help her make ends meet like I do?"
Heath crouched down so he and the boy were eye level. "My mama passed away a few years ago, Randall. But before that, when she was still livin', yes, I gave her the money I earned to help her make ends meet. As a matter of fact when I was your age I worked in a livery stable just like this one."
"I sure did."
"Was the man you worked for as nice to you as Mr. Thurmond is to me?"
"Yep. Mr. Carver was his name. And he was real nice."
"That's good, 'cause I hear tell there's some mean bosses out there who don't treat kids right."
Heath thought of some of the mine bosses he'd had as a child and how many times he hid bruises from his mother when one of them would kick him or slap him because Heath, at six years old, wasn't working fast enough to suit them.
"I hear tell that, too, Randall. Which makes a man like Mr. Thurmond even more special." Heath stood. "Come on, let's go get some lunch."
"I saw a cafe down the street. Is the food any good?"
"I don't know. I ain't never been in there. Ma and I can't afford to eat our meals out. Besides, I brought my lunch. I'll just wait here for you."
Heath watched as the boy took a dented tin lunch bucket off a low shelf. When all that appeared was a shriveled apple and a hard piece of bread Heath asked, "You got anything else in there?"
"Nope. But I'll share with you." Randall began to tear the bread in half.
"That's mighty nice of you, Randall. But I'm thinkin' that a boy who does a man's job like you did this morning needs more in his stomach than an apple and a piece of bread. So why don't we walk down to that cafe and I'll buy us both lunch."
"Thank you for the offer, Sir, but I don't take charity."
Somehow Heath knew that's what the child was going to say. "Well now, I don't look upon it as charity. You see, Mr. Thurmond hired me to do carpentry work and you helped me. He's not payin' you for the work you did with me this morning, so it seems to me as if I owe you something for that, and for the good care you're giving Charger."
Heath could see the boy was mulling over his words. The child glanced down at his apple one last time, then looked up at Heath and smiled.
"I guess that sounds fair. After all, I did work pretty hard."
"That you did." Heath held out his hand. "Now come on. Put your lunch bucket away and let's go see what that cafe has to offer."
"I hear the food's wonderful," Randall said as he and Heath walked hand in hand into the noon time sun. "But then everyone says Tess is the best cook in Heaven."
"Yeah. Didn't you know?"
"She owns the cafe."
Heath rolled his eyes.
"No, I didn't know. But somehow, Randall, I shoulda' guessed." Chapter 23
The man pushed himself to his feet. It seemed this body was too old to be perching on the edge of low cots. He placed a hand at the small of his back. He'd forgotten what sore muscles felt like.
Abraham Wallace looked around the interior of the makeshift infirmary. The pastor of the United Christian Church had been the first to come forward and donate the use of his building when it became apparent the diphtheria epidemic would be wide-spread.
Pews had been carried to the basement along with the pulpit. Now the large room that had just last week been used to hold church services was filled with cots. Forty very ill people of all ages laid on those cots coughing and burning with fever. Doctor Wallace had at least forty more sick patients that were being cared for in their homes. You could double that number when you considered those who'd fallen ill on area ranches that bordered the town, and the Paiute Indian Reservation beyond it.
Doctor Wallace weaved his way through the cots until he came to a small back room the pastor used as his office. Abraham dipped his hands in a basin of cold water and scrubbed them over his face. This was another thing he'd forgotten since leaving behind his earthly form upon his death - how it felt to be tired.
The doctor reached for the towel hanging on the rack. As he patted his face dry he looked into the mirror mounted on the wall above the washstand. He smiled a little at the face that was reflected back at him. As faces went, it wasn't all bad he supposed, though didn't resemble the man he had been in the slightest. The hair on his head was thick and completely white, as were his eyebrows. The body was lean, though not in the way that spoke of hours of physical labor, but rather in a way that spoke of a man too busy to eat a proper meal on most days. This body was also shorter than he'd been by a couple of inches. He guessed that in his current form he was no more than five foot seven, and didn't weigh over one hundred and forty pounds. Fine lines were etched around the thin mouth and hazel eyes, and his hands were wrinkled and age spotted leading him to believe that 'Doctor Wallace' was in his mid to late sixties. You wouldn't exactly call the clean shaven face handsome, but the term friendly came to mind. Friendly in an almost paternal sort of way. The kind of man others turned to for fatherly advice. That last thought made the angel smile. After all, what did the name Abraham mean but 'father of many.'
This was his first assignment, and Abraham had to admit he was a bit nervous. Prior to his earthly life coming to an end he'd never given heaven much thought. He assumed a person's soul led a carefree existence from the moment it entered the Pearly Gates, and that time passed with little structure and no real awareness. But he'd found heaven wasn't like that at all. Oh, it was just as beautiful and pure as the Bible said, and your soul soared free of the worries and trivial concerns that had plagued you on earth, but there was work to be done in heaven, too, and everyone had a job. That was okay with Abraham. He was used to hard work and ready to take on whatever was asked of him. He'd been surprised; however, when he was promoted to Angels On Earth. Usually one didn't get this far without being part of Search and Rescue first. The crews that made up Search and Rescue were guardian angels. That was straight forward enough and easy to understand. Guardian angels saved people, whose time on earth wasn't over yet, from all sorts of plights. Drownings, fires, falls, you name it, the guardian angels covered it. But those who were part of Angels On Earth didn't always know the specifics of their assignments. As events unfolded the meanings behind them were often revealed as they happened, or so Monica had explained.
Abraham shrugged his shoulders as he pondered this. So far nothing had been revealed to him that he was aware of. But then he hadn't been a doctor in his past life, so maybe these new skills he suddenly possessed without even having to think about them were meant to be put to good use. Maybe he was meant to save those whom God was not ready for, and maybe he was meant to ease the pain of death for those who would ultimately be called home.
He looked up when the pastor stepped in the room. The young man's blond hair was entirely too long to be a member of the cleric as far as Abraham was concerned, but then he supposed that mattered little as Andrew, too, was simply playing out an assigned role.
"Pastor," Abraham greeted as he stepped away from the washstand.
Abraham could read both the sorrow and joy in Andrew's eyes. He knew what that meant. The sorrow was for the family that would be left behind to grieve, the joy was for the soul that would soon be embraced in the arms of the loving Father.
"Another one?" Abraham asked the Angel Of Death, suddenly feeling like a failure, yet not really knowing why. After all, he was simply playing a role, too.
"Yes. Another one. I thought you might like to be there to help the family."
Abraham nodded as he followed the young man out of the office.
I hope it isn't a child this time. I know I shouldn't feel this way considering the beauty and love in heaven, but I hate it when it's a child, Lord. I just hate it when it's a child.
Abraham thought briefly of his own children, all grown now, all healthy and strong as far as he knew. Three handsome sons and one lovely daughter. No,.....no, make that four sons. Four sons and one daughter. Yes, sometimes he had to keep reminding himself.
Four sons. He had four sons. Chapter 24
Heath shook his head and smiled as he looked up at the sign hanging over the cafe's entrance. A Little Bit Of Heaven.
The cowboy held the screen door open for Randall. The boy stopped just as he crossed the threshold. Heath sensed the child's nervousness and understood the reasons behind it. When you grow up poor so many things others take for granted, like dining in a cafe, are beyond your every day experiences. When given the opportunity to partake in some of life's simple pleasures you're not always certain how to act or what to say, which can cause your stomach to churn as you pray you don't embarrass yourself or those around you.
Because it was just a few minutes past twelve the cafe was full save for one table. When all eyes turned to Heath and Randall, Heath didn't give it a second thought. He was the stranger Doctor Wallace had brought in four days ago, no doubt everyone was curious as to who he was and where he'd come from. When Randall leaned into Heath's legs as if unnerved by all the attention the cowboy reached down and took the boy's hand.
"Come on, Randall. We'll go sit at that table back there."
"Maybe I shouldn't be in here, Morgan. I,....I ain't never been in a cafe before and I'm not wearing shoes."
"And exactly what does wearing shoes have to do with being hungry?"
"Well,.....nothin' I guess. Only maybe it ain't proper like."
"Randall, you're too young to be frettin' over what is and isn't proper. We're hard working men and we need to eat. Right?"
Randall couldn't help but return Heath's grin. "Right."
Heath led the boy to the empty table. As he passed three men sitting at a table in the center of the room he heard a sneered, "I didn't know they were lettin' bastards eat in here now."
Even after all these years the words still cut right to his heart. Heath felt his face burn red.
How could they know? How could they know anything about me? I left that all behind. I left everything about myself behind the day I rode off the ranch.
Before Heath could start the first fist fight that A Little Bit Of Heaven had ever witnessed, one of the man's buddies spoke up.
"Maybe that's Randall's daddy, comin' back to give him an honest name. Say, if a bastard's daddy shows up outta the blue, does that not make him a bastard anymore?"
Heath saw Randall's head drop to his chest. By the tight set of the boy's shoulders he knew the child was trying hard not to cry. Just as Heath was about to pounce on the men a frying pan slammed in the center of their table. The troublemakers and Heath looked up to see Tess.
"This here cafe is called A Little Bit Of Heaven for a reason, gentlemen. Like God's house, all who enter are welcome. Even the likes of you three, though Lord knows ya'all would try the patience of a saint. You should be ashamed of yourselves and your cruel words. The Bible says God loves fools and little children, though with fools like you a woman would have to wonder why. Now you git. Go on,....git your hides right on outta here."
"Aw, Tess, we didn't mean nothin' by it. We was just funnin' with the boy is all."
"Well the next time you wanna 'fun' with someone, Harry, you see old Tess first and she'll hit you right up side the head with this here fryin' pan in order to knock some sense in to that empty skull a' yours." Tess pointed to the door. "Now go! Git on outta here 'fore you give me cause to prove I helped Joltin' Joe DiMaggio hit a home run right outta Yankee Stadium!"
The men pushed back their chairs and bolted for the door. They knew Tess well enough to know she didn't make idle threats. Randall watched with wide eyes, then beckoned Heath to bend down. He cupped his hands around Heath's ear and whispered, "Sometimes Tess says stuff a fella' just don't understand, but no one messes with her, that's for sure."
Heath nodded. "I can see that."
Tess glared at the rest of her patrons, daring anyone else to comment about Randall's presence. When nothing more was said she turned and smiled.
"Hello, Randall. Mr. Morgan Lee. Now why don't you boys have a seat right over there. Ole' Tess will be right with you."
Heath nodded his thanks and led the boy to the empty table that sat two.
Randall's eyes never stopped roaming the interior of the cafe, but then neither did Heath's. The walls were pale blue with white, fluffy clouds painted on them. Angels dressed in long, flowing white robes with gold trim floated amongst the clouds. Some carried harps, some carried Bibles, some carried children, and some seemed to be beckoning to the cafe's patrons with outstretched hands. Gold curtains hung at the cafe's three windows, and every table was fitted with a gold cloth giving one the impression that you were indeed, in a little bit of Heaven.
Randall pointed to the wall above his head. "I didn't know there were black angels."
Heath looked up. Sure enough some of the angels were black, while others were white, while some looked to be Mexican, others American Indian, and others oriental.
"I reckon angels come in all colors, Randall."
"They sure do," Tess said as she came to take their order. "Every color you can think of, Randall."
"I'm glad to hear that, Tess, 'cause I'm pretty sure my friend Orra would like to be an angel someday. She sure does cotton to singin' hymns and quotin' the Bible all the day long. I guess that would make her a good angel, huh?"
Tess cupped the boy's chin and looked into his eyes. "It sure will, baby. It surely will."
The woman started scribbling on her pad. "All right, boys, Tess is gonna start you both off with a nice tall glass of cold milk. Then she'll bring you each a bowl of her homemade chicken dumpling soup. Then,..."
"Huh,....Tess," Heath interrupted.
"Would you mind if we take a look at some menus?"
"Menus? Why, Mr. Morgan Lee, you don't need no menu. You'll eat what Tess puts in front of you. Have you forgotten you're supposed to be home in bed as it is?"
"No, Ma'am, but,..."
"I don't wanna hear no buts. You just sit here and keep Randall company until I get back." The woman walked away muttering, "Menus. Don't that beat all? Menus. Hummmf! He must think I'm runnin' some kinda help-yourself, all-you-can-eat, fish-fry-on-Friday-nights smorgasbord here."
Randall hunkered low to the table and giggled. "See what I mean? Tess says some down right funny things."
"Yeah, Randall, I'm beginning to see that more and more."
Heath sat there with the boy and waited for Tess to return. He was a bit put out by the whole thing. After all, if he was paying for his meal he preferred to make his own food choices. Lordy, but did this woman remind him of Victoria Barkley.
Within five minutes time a feast was carried out to Heath and his helper. Cold glasses of milk, hot chicken soup, and plates piled high with roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, and dinner rolls were set before them. Randall's eyes could barely take in all the food.
"Is it a holiday or something, Tess?"
"No, baby, no holiday. Just a special day now that Mr. Morgan Lee brought you in here to eat some of Tess's good home cookin'. Now you boys clean your plates till there ain't a morsel left, then Tess will bring you both dessert."
"Do I get to chose that?" Heath asked with a hint of teasing to his tone.
"No," Tess replied. "But don't you worry none, Mr. Morgan Lee. You'll like the dessert just fine."
Heath didn't doubt that he would. He was amazed that once again, the woman had managed to put all of his favorite foods in front of him. Her roast beef was as tender as Silas's, and her potatoes were light and fluffy, too, just like the ones Silas whipped for Sunday dinner.
Randall and Heath were too busy eating to exchange any words. Tess praised them both for cleaning their plates when she came back to pick up the dirty dishes.
"Randall, I'm glad to see you liked Tess's cookin'."
"Yes, Ma'am. It was wonderful!"
"And, Mr. Morgan Lee, I'm glad to see you finished every bite. We'll fatten you up yet before you leave Heaven. You're too skinny. Just skin and bones is all there is to ya'. And Tess would know 'cause she helped give you a bath."
Heath felt the color rise to his cheeks. Tess threw back her head and laughed as she put a dish of apple pie in front of him. "Oh, but you are a shy one. The ladies find that attractive in a man, you know."
Heath wouldn't meet Tess's eyes as he took his first bite of dessert.
"No, Ma'am, I wouldn't know."
"No special woman in your life, Mr. Morgan Lee?"
"Not right now."
"Hummmf. Well, ole' Tess will have to do something about that. Yes, she surely will. You look like the kinda man who needs a good woman to take care of him."
Heath didn't deem that comment worthy of an answer and was glad when Tess walked away. He wasn't too pleased to hear her mumbling women's names, but decided not to fret over it. He wasn't going to be in Heaven long enough for any matchmaking to take place on his behalf.
The apple pie tasted exactly like the pie Heath's mother had made. Heath didn't protest when Tess brought him a second piece as well as a cup of black coffee. She didn't ask him if he took his coffee black, but like a lot of other things about him, she just seemed to know.
Or more than likely she doesn't care, Heath thought with a good dose of humor as the formidable woman walked away.
Randall sat quietly staring at the table cloth while Heath finished his dessert. Now that the meal was coming to an end the boy's excitement over eating in a cafe appeared to have left him.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Randall looked up. "Huh?"
"I said, penny for your thoughts."
"What's that mean?"
"Well, whenever I get real quiet like you are now my moth,.....someone will say 'penny for your thoughts.' It's an expression. It's a way of one person inviting another person to share what's on their mind."
When the boy said no more Heath let the subject drop. If anyone had respect for the comfort of long silences it was Heath Barkley.
Heath had just eaten his last bite of pie when Randall spoke. The boy looked at him through thick blond lashes with his head half bent toward the table.
"I,....well,....I understand if you don't want to be my friend no more."
"And just why wouldn't I want to be your friend?"
"Because,.....because of what Harry and the others said. Because,...because of what they called me."
"I don't put any stock in what a man like Harry says."
"But it's true. I am what he called me. A,...." the boy dropped his voice to a whisper. "A bastard."
Once again Heath felt the old anger and shame rise within him.
"Randall, when I look at you all I see is a hard working young man who I'm proud to call my friend."
"But do you know what that word means?"
"Yes, I know what it means. Nonetheless, I don't pick my friends based on who their father is or where he's at. Makes no difference to me one way or the other."
Randall grinned with delight. And in that grin Heath saw the boy he had been reflected back at him. He knew the pleased look on Randall's face came from not being rejected, from not being told his new friend wanted no part of him. When you're the town bastard you get used to having friendships pulled out from under you as soon as your buddy's parents find out your mother's an unwed woman.
The boy played with his fork, relaxed now that he knew Heath wasn't going to judge him for something beyond his control.
"My father's a great man, you know. Real brave. My ma says so. I think he fought in the Indian Wars with General Custer. That's why he can't be here with me now. He's in the Army. Works as a scout. But someday,....someday when he can, he'll come back and live with me and Ma."
"I'm sure he will, son," Heath said.
The blond man sat there mulling over the Randall's words. How odd it was that they echoed his own words when he was about the same age. His father was a great man. His father was a brave man who couldn't be with them because he was off doing something far more important than providing for his son. But someday,.....someday his father would come back to him.
Well, for Heath Barkley that day had never come, and he doubted it would come for Randall Becker either. But better to leave the boy with his dreams. In a few more years Randall would come to realize that's all they were, dreams. Dreams of a man he'd never meet. Dreams of a man who wasn't nearly as noble and brave as an eight year old child wanted him to be.
Heath shook the dark thoughts from his mind. So far being Morgan Lee wasn't much different from being Heath Barkley. Boy howdy, would he be glad when the day came that he could ride out of Heaven.
"Come on, Randall." The cowboy stood. "It's almost one and time for us to get back to work. I'll pay Tess for our meal, then we'll be on our way."
Tess looked up from behind the counter where she was tallying figures in a ledger book.
"Pay? You ain't gonna pay, Mr. Morgan Lee."
"I promised Doctor Wallace I'd look after you. You shoulda' been takin' that meal in bed today. So you don't owe me nothin'. You and Randall just get on outta here now."
"Look, Tess, I don't take charity."
"And I ain't offerin' you charity. I'm offerin' you three square meals a day like the doctor said I should. Whether you eat them at the doctor's home, or here at A Little Bit Of Heaven, don't make no difference to me. Tess's only job is to get you strong and healthy again. Now go on with you, Mr. Morgan Lee, and don't be arguin' with me. If you don't do as I say I'll put a needle in your arm and feed you through a tube."
Heath looked at Randall who shrugged his shoulders. Evidently this was another one of Tess's odd sayings. Heath couldn't imagine how such a thing would work, but by the look in the woman's eyes he knew he didn't want to give her reason to carry out that threat.
"All right, Tess, Randall and I will be on our way. Thanks for the meal."
"You're welcome. And I expect to see your skinny hide at the dinner table tonight, you got that?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I got it."
Randall took Heath's hand again as the two walked back to the livery stable. "Ain't Tess a corker, Morgan?"
"Boy howdy, Randall, I'd have to say she is." Heath shook his head and mumbled, "Feeding a person through a tube. Whoever heard of such a thing?"
Before the cowboy had time to contemplate that further he and Randall were hard at work.
At four o'clock that afternoon Jasper Thurmond returned to the livery stable. He eyed Heath's work, then whistled with appreciation.
"Mr. Lee, I'd say I'm getting more than my money's worth out of you. You're hired."
"Thank you, Sir."
Randall ran over and took Jasper's hand. "How's Mrs. Thurmond feelin'?"
Heath could see the fear behind the old man's smile. "She's fine, son. Just fine. Thank you for askin'."
"And what about Benji and Paul? How are they?"
Jasper looked at Heath. "Benji and Paul are two of my grandsons."
"They're my best friends, Morgan. Well, them and you. They're like my brothers. Do you have any brothers?"
Pushing all thoughts of his siblings aside Heath answered, "No. No, Randall, I don't.
"Me either. Or sisters. So I pretend Benji and Paul are my brothers. They don't mind, do they, Mr. Thurmond?"
"No, Randall, I don't reckon they mind a bit."
"So how are they?"
"They're sick, son. They're,....sick."
"But they'll get better, won't they?"
"Sure, Randall." The old man refused to meet the boy's trusting gaze. "Sure. They'll get better."
Mr. Thurmond handed Heath the three dollars he owed him. "You come back tomorrow morning, Mr. Lee. Things aren't,.....things aren't so good at home so I'd be much obliged if you'd do the work we agreed upon until the worst of this epidemic has passed."
"I'll be happy, too. Thank you."
After Mr. Thurmond left Heath picked up his tools while Randall saw to Charger's needs. When both boy and man declared their working day over Heath took Randall's hand and led him down the street.
"Where we goin', Morgan?"
"To the general store."
"I told you earlier that I owed you something for the good care you've been giving Charger, and for helping me today. Since Tess wouldn't let me buy you lunch I still have an obligation to you."
The child looked up with puzzlement etching his features, but when Heath said nothing further Randall kept his questions to himself.
The visit to the general store lasted thirty minutes. Heath was relieved to find this was one establishment Tess didn't own. The last thing he needed was her hovering over him while he saw to Randall's needs. When the pair left the store Randall was wearing new trousers, a new shirt, and a pair of tan boots almost identical to Heath's. The boy carried a wrapped package under one arm that held an additional shirt and pair of trousers. In Heath's arms was a wooden crate filled with everything from flour, to sugar, to coffee, to fruit, to canned goods, to penny candies. On his head was the only thing he'd purchased for himself, a new cowboy hat exactly like the one he'd lost in the desert.
"Seems like I didn't do enough work for all you bought, Morgan," Randall commented as he led Heath toward his home.
"Well now, I don't see it quite that way."
"My ma might not like it. We don't take charity, you know."
"I know. And don't you worry about your ma. I'll make it right with her."
Randall ran ahead of Heath, chewing on a licorice stick. When he came to a tiny, run down house with weathered boards in bad need of paint he burst in the front door.
"Ma! Ma! You'll never guess what!"
Heath followed the boy. The front room was both living room and kitchen. The place was tidy, but small. He could see a door that led out to the backyard, and another door that led to a bedroom.
A young woman barely out of her teens lay on a cot in the center of the room. Her pale orange hair fell in thick waves to the middle of her back, random strands were stuck to the sheen of perspiration dotting her forehead. A black woman who had to be to seventy if she was a day was tending the ill woman.
The sick woman's waxy face was stained ruby with fever, making her freckles hard to see. When she coughed Heath cringed. He knew exactly what was wrong with her. As memories of the Stockton graveyard came to the front of his mind all he wanted to do was set the crate down and flee.
Randall didn't seem to sense the severity of his mother's illness. He walked over to her cot and bent to kiss her. "Hi, Ma."
The woman's smile broadcast her enormous love for her child. When she spoke her voice was raspy and harsh, just like Heath recalled his being only a few weeks ago.
"Hi, sweetheart. How was your day?"
"Just dandy. I made me a new friend."
"Yep." Randall beckoned Heath in from the shadow of the front door. "This here's Morgan Lee. And a' fore you ask him, no, he ain't related to the General Robert E. Lee that Tess knew. But he's stayin' with Tess at Doc Wallace's."
Randall's mother tried to sit up straighter against her pillows. "You must be the man Doc Wallace found a few days back."
"Morgan, this is my ma, Josie Becker. Her real name is Josette. Josie's just her nickname. Don't you think Josette is about the prettiest name you ever heard?"
"Oh, Randall, don't put our guest on the spot like that."
"That's okay, Ma'am. The boy's right. It is a pretty name."
"Well thank you, Mr. Lee."
"Morgan. Please call me Morgan."
"Only if you'll call me Josie."
"All right. Josie it is."
Randall ran over to the black woman who was filling a pan with fresh water from the pump. To all intents and purposes the old woman acted as though she wasn't even aware Randall and Heath were in the room.
"And this here's Orra. She's Ma's friend from ages and ages ago."
The skinny old black woman turned to greet Heath. "I be happy to meet you, Mr. Lee. Mighty happy."
"Nice to meet you, too, Miss Orra."
Josie took notice of her son's apparel for the first time since he'd walked in the door. "Randall, where'd you get those clothes?"
"Morgan bought 'em for me, Ma." The boy held up the package he still had tucked under his arm. "And he bought me an extra set, too. And food. He bought food."
At the mention of food Heath walked the crate into the kitchen area and set it on the counter. Josie gathered all her strength and tried to sound firm. Fire flashed from the twenty-two year old's blue eyes.
"I don't know what Randall's told you about us, Mr. Lee, but we don't need your sympathy, or your charity."
"Randall, that's enough. I won't have any back talk."
The boy hung his head, embarrassed to be bawled out in front of his new friend. "Yes, Ma."
"My name's not ma'am. It's Josie Becker. Miss Josie Becker," the sick woman emphasized as though to test Heath's character. The cowboy didn't even blink.
"Look, Miss Becker, I didn't buy Randall the clothes or bring the food out of sympathy or charity either one. Truth of the matter is Randall's been taking excellent care of my horse while I've been laid up, and then today Mr. Thurmond hired me on at the livery to do some carpentry work. Randall worked with me all day and I felt it was my obligation to pay him for the hours he put in."
The woman turned to her son. "Is that true, Randall? Did you work with Mr. Lee today?"
"Yes, Ma. All day long. And you know what?"
"We even ate lunch at Tess's place. At A Little Bit Of Heaven. Oh, Ma, it was wonderful. The only thing that woulda' made it better was if you and Orra could have eatin' there with us."
The black woman looked at Randall from where she was unpacking the crate. Her words made Heath think of Hannah.
"Oh go on with you, boy, talkin' foolishness like that. Go on with you now."
"No, really, Orra, we did eat there. Didn't we, Morgan?"
"We sure did."
"And Ma, Morgan said it was okay if I call him by his first name. Is that all right with you?"
Heath could see the woman was quickly tiring. She fell back into her pillows. "Sure, son. That's fine with me as long as Mr. Lee said it's okay."
When Josie was wracked by a coughing spasm that left Randall wide-eyed with fear. Orra shoved a dish pan into his hands.
"Randall, you git on outside and pick the beans for supper, then fill the wood box. Go on, now. Hurry along."
Heath placed a hand on the boy's back. "Come, Randall. Let Orra tend to your ma. I'll help you with your chores."
Josie flashed Heath as much of a grateful smile as she could muster. To the sounds of her harsh coughs Heath and Randall left the house.
A healthy garden sprouted in Josie's back yard just like the garden Heath's mother had in Strawberry. The vegetables they'd harvested during the summer months got them through many a long lean winter, just like Heath was certain this garden did for Josie Becker and her boy.
Randall and Heath were sitting on the back steps snapping beans when they heard Orra's cry.
"Miss Josie! Miss Josie! Oh, Miss Josie, you gots to breathe! You gots to breathe!"
Heath threw the beans in his hand aside and raced for the house, Randall at his heels. As soon as Heath entered the kitchen he could tell Josie was much worse than she had been just a short time ago. He recalled one of the first days of his illness and how one minute it seemed like Victoria was leaving his room to get him lunch, and the next minute Jarrod and Nick were restraining him while trying to feed him. He'd later been told his fever had climbed dangerously high with a speed Victoria had never seen before in all her years of tending sick children.
Josie's body twisted and withered on the small cot as she tried to draw in air. Her face burned Heath's hand. He leaned her over his knees like he vaguely remembered his brothers doing to him and used his palm to thrust between her shoulder blades. Heath blocked out Orra's hysterical screams of, "Miss Josie! Miss Josie!", and Randall's frightened cries of "Ma! Ma!", as he worked to get the woman air. She finally coughed hard three times, then drew in a deep breath before collapsing against Heath's legs. He turned Josie and scooped the unconscious woman up in his arms as easily as if she was Randall.
"Where's the doctor working out of?"
"The church," Orra answered. "He's got most a' the sick people there. But you just leave Miss Josie be. She won't be welcome."
"Welcome or not, that's where she's goin'."
As Heath started for the door the black woman grabbed his arm. "Mr. Lee, you can'ts take her there. You can'ts! They'll just make you bring her on back, they will. They say she's not a good woman 'cause she ain't got no husband. Orra knows that's not true, Miss Josie is a good woman, but no one cares what Orra say and they'll make you bring her back."
"I don't mean any disrespect, Miss Orra, but no, they won't make me bring her back. She'll get the care she needs if I have to stay there all night and give it to her myself."
Randall ran along behind Heath clinging to his belt as the cowboy's long strides headed for the church.
Everyone looked up when Heath burst in the front doors with Josie. He moved for the first empty cot he saw, but was stopped by two men who blocked his path.
"You just take her right on outta here, Mister!"
"That's right. Git her out! If she'd spent more time in church long before she beget that there boy, she wouldn't be in need of the Lord's help today. Now go on! Git!"
Heath glared at the men. How he hated their ignorance. A spiteful ignorance born of cruelty he'd known his whole life.
"I'm not going anywhere. Now get out of my way."
"Evidently you don't know how things is done in Heaven, stranger. I hear tell you already had the boy in the cafe, like you can waltz around bendin' the rules to please yourself. Well, you can't, and I ain't got no problem in teachin' you that."
Heath's jaw clenched in a way that his brothers would have recognized signaled the end of his patience.
"I've never punched a man in a church before, but if you don't move out of my way you'll be the first."
"Oh yeah? Well, let's just see you,...."
Before the fight could escalate further Doctor Wallace appeared.
"Gentlemen, that's enough. We've don't need anymore trouble than we already have. Now, Burton,...John, move out of the way and let this man pass."
"I said move!"
Burton Hughs and John McClafferty stared at the doctor a moment longer, then reluctantly did as he ordered.
"I bet you're cut from the same cloth," pudgy Burton Hughs sneered as Heath passed. "Probably somebody's bastard yourself. I suppose you all stick together."
Abraham saw the muscles in the stranger's back tighten, but the young man didn't say another word to his tormentors. The doctor was ashamed of these people who lived in a place called Heaven while he watched as one after another, those who were healthy sat on empty cots to prevent Heath from placing Josie near their loved ones. Finally, a woman stood and beckoned from the last row.
"Sir, please! Bring her back here."
Heath walked a straight line to the woman. He placed Josie on the cot nearest the wall. He glanced to his right and saw six children lying on cots of their own. The oldest couldn't have been more than eight, the youngest a baby of twelve months. They all had varying shades of brown hair and just by looking at their features Heath knew they were brothers and sisters.
"I'm Della Crawford," the woman introduced. "This is my husband Frank." A man who had been tending two of the children looked up and gave Heath a tired nod. "And these,...these are our children."
"Pleased to meet you, Ma'am. I thank you for your kindness."
"Don't thank me for offering Miss Becker the common decency she deserves."
Heath moved aside while Doctor Wallace examined Josie. He placed a hand on Randall's back.
"This is Randall. Miss Becker's son."
Della smiled. "It's nice to meet you, Randall.'
Randall could barely take his worried eyes off his mother long enough to acknowledge Mrs. Crawford. "Nice to meet you, too, Ma'am."
Doctor Wallace stood in short order. "She's a very sick young woman. We can only offer her what we've offered the others. A clean bed, warm broth, cold cloths in an attempt to reduce the fever, and quinine."
"Quinine!" came a cry from the front of the room. "Not for the likes of her! You're not taking quinine away from my family in order to,...."
Heath drew his gun as he whipped around to face the speaker. Men stood in stunned surprise and women cried out with fright while covering their children with their bodies.
Heath ignored the upset he'd caused. "She'll get what she needs just like everyone else in this town! If you try to keep it from her you'll answer to me."
"Son." Abraham reached out and placed a hand on Heath's wrist. "Son, now that won't be necessary. You just put the gun away and I'll handle things from here."
Heath glared at the doctor until he dropped his hand. "Don't assume it won't be necessary just because you've never experienced the ugly side of people. I been a lotta places and seen a lotta things, and people are people no matter where you go. Miss Becker needs help, that's all that matters to me. Who she is or what she's done shouldn't make a difference when she's in need of medical care."
"And it doesn't. At least not to me." Abraham cocked an eyebrow at the stranger that he just now recognized as being the man he'd found in the dessert outside of town. "After all, I stopped to help you, didn't I? A man I know nothing about."
Heath stared at the doctor a long moment, then slowly reholstered his gun. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess you did. Or so I've been told."
Monica arrived on the heels of the excitement carrying a pan of cold water and a cloth. She sat down on the edge of Josie's cot and began sponging the woman's face.
"And you were told right," the nurse said to Heath. "Doctor Wallace, this is Morgan Lee. Mr. Lee, this is Doctor Abraham Wallace."
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Lee. I'm glad to see you're up and about. Monica told me you were doing better."
"You don't seem very pleased about that fact."
Heath simply shrugged under the doctor's scrutiny. "Maybe I just don't like being in a church full of sick people."
"Ah,...I see. Scared of getting the disease I take it?"
"No, I'm not scared. Got no reason to be. Already had it."
"Oh, then maybe,..."
"Doctor, just take care of Miss Becker please."
Monica looked up at Abraham and stage-whispered, "Mr. Lee's not much for talking about himself, Doctor."
"Well now, I don't suppose there's anything wrong with a man who keeps his own counsel."
The doctor turned to his patient, forgetting all about the stranger behind him with the fast gun.
At seven o'clock that night Monica urged Doctor Wallace and Heath to go home.
"I'll be stayin' here tonight, Doctor. You need to rest."
"Now, now, no protesting from you. I've got plenty of help. I don't need another pair of hands just getting in my way. Besides, Tess will have supper waiting, and you know how crabby she gets when her cooking isn't given proper attention by two hungry men."
Abraham smiled at Monica's words, then looked around the church. She was right, plenty of the town's people who were healthy were on hand to help those who weren't.
Heath had taken Randall home so Orra could feed him supper, then walked back to the church with both the woman and the boy. Orra was now tending to Josie while Randall sat on the floor beside her. Monica saw Heath's eyes travel to the blond child.
"I'll take care of Randall, Mr. Lee. I'll make him a pallet right here beside his mama."
"Thank you. I appreciate it."
When Randall realized his friend was leaving he jumped to his feet and wrapped his arms around Heath's waist. "Thank you for fightin' for my ma, Morgan. No one's ever spoke up for her before 'cept me."
Heath knelt down and ran a hand through Randall's hair. "You're a good boy, Randall. Don't you ever let anyone tell you different now, ya' hear. Speakin' up for your ma is the right thing to do. I spoke up for my mama many a time when I was no bigger than you. Earned a few black eyes for it, but that never mattered none to me."
As Heath stood Josie beckoned him over with a weak hand. "Thank you, Mr. Lee. I appreciate all you've done for us today. The clothes for Randall, the food, bringing me here, being a friend to my son, looking past,....looking past who I am."
"There's no need to thank me, Ma'am. And I don't need to look past anything. When I look at you all I see is a hard working woman who loves her son very much and is doing the best job she possibly can to raise him right. That's nothing to be ashamed of, Josie."
"Lots of others won't agree with you on that."
Heath smiled. "There have been a number of people who haven't agreed with my view on things over the years, a few more don't make much difference to me one way or another."
Josie coughed as she grasped Heath's hand. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
Doctor Wallace stood by silently observing this unusual exchange. When Heath stood the older man walked with him through the church and out the front doors. As they made their way to Abraham's house the doctor said, "So I take it you're not Randall's father?"
"What makes you ask that?"
"Well, from the rumors I heard today some of the town's folks are speculating on it."
Heath's disgust shown from his eyes. "Just because I gave Randall and his mama the respect they deserve simply for being the good people they are, doesn't make me the boy's father, or his mother's lover."
"I know that, it's just,..."
"Doctor, if you had to ask then you don't know a damn thing." And with that Heath stalked off.
Abraham shook his head and smiled. "For a quiet one he's sure not afraid to speak his mind when riled."
By the time Abraham had washed his hands and changed into a fresh white shirt Heath was already seated at the table. Tess and the doctor sat down together. Heath stared at his plate as Tess said grace, then accepted the platter of fried chicken she passed him.
"You don't believe in thanking the Lord for your food, Mr. Morgan Lee? And don't give me that look. I saw you sittin' there with your eyes wide open scowlin' at the table all angry like as though you got a bone to pick with God. So do you?"
"Do you have a bone to pick with God?"
"Hummmf. I know a lie when I hear one, Mr. Morgan Lee. What about you, Doctor? Do you think Mr. Morgan Lee just might have himself all upset over something he's blaming God for?"
"Don't know, Tess," Abraham said as he dug into the fried chicken. This was one benefit to being in human form again, reaping enjoyment from good cooking. "If Mr. Lee says no, then I suppose he means no."
"Well, that's just like you men. You always stick together. And say, Doctor, take a long hard look at Mr. Morgan Lee for me."
Abraham glanced at Tess. "What?"
"Look at Mr. Morgan Lee. Go on, do it."
Heath wondered what the woman was up to. He was feeling pretty good for a change. He hoped he didn't look like he was running a fever or something. The last thing he wanted was to be put back in bed.
Abraham did as Tess instructed and studied Heath from across the table.
"So? What do you see?"
"Well, now,....I guess I see a young man who's a bit on the thin side, who's been sick recently, and by sick I mean long before he came to us, so he probably had no business being on the trail to begin with, who might be in need of a shave and hair cut unless, of course, this is what his normally favors. If so, there's nothing wrong with that. Kinda makes a person think of George Custer, doesn't it, Tess?"
Heath resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Great. Here we go again.
"No, no, no," Tess scolded. "That's not what I mean. Take a goooood look at our guest. Does he look like a Morgan to you? Or a Lee?"
"Tess, he looks like he looks. Sure, I suppose he looks like a Morgan Lee about as much as I look like an Abraham Wallace. Why the fuss?"
Tess gave a heavy sigh and tilted her face heavenward. Lord how she hated having to guide new employees through their first assignments.
"Never mind," Tess dismissed with disgust that was plain to hear. "Just eat your supper."
"That's what I aim to do. This is good, Tess. Very good. Reminds me of the Southern food another cook I had used to make."
Heath was grateful the doctor was more interested in eating than carrying on a conversation with him. But just by looking at the man Heath could tell he was exhausted. No doubt the long hours tending to the sick were taking their toll on him. As he watched Abraham reach for his fourth piece of chicken and third helping of mashed potatoes Heath was amazed that someone so slight of build could eat so much. The man's appetite made him think of Nick, though Heath didn't allow himself to dwell on the comparison for long.
When supper was over Tess shooed the men from her kitchen. Before either one of them had time to decide what part of the house they wanted to retreat to, she placed a hand in the center of their backs and pushed them toward the front porch.
"You both go on out there and sit a spell. The sun's goin' down now and the night air has a cool breeze to it."
"But, Tess," the doctor protested, "I was thinking of just going right on to bed. I'm worn out and could really use a good night's,..."
"Doctor, you know as well as I do that there's nothin' more ornery to the digestion than goin' to bed on a full stomach. I ain't gonna have either of you comin' to me in two hours and tellin' me my good cookin' is churnin' around in your bellies. No, now you and Mr. Morgan Lee visit for a while."
Doctor Wallace couldn't imagine having much to visit about with this quiet stranger whom he'd managed to get angry without intending to, anymore than Heath could imagine having much to say to the small town doctor he shared nothing in common with. But because it was wiser to comply with Tess's orders rather than defy her, the men stepped onto the front porch and sat in the rocking chairs. They could vaguely hear Tess humming What A Friend We Have In Jesus as she went about washing dishes.
Doctor Wallace pulled a pipe out of the front pocket of his shirt. He struck a match against a leg of his chair and lit the bowl. He took three longs puffs, then pulled the pipe out of his mouth.
"That woman never stops her humming. She knows more hymns than I think I've learned in a life time."
Heath said nothing as he slowly pushed the rocker back and forth with his feet. His mind drifted in odd directions, first to Hannah. Tess's humming and the sounds of the dishes clattering in the background made him think of Hannah. He pictured Jarrod's face next. It took him a moment to figure out why his oldest brother came to mind, but then he knew. The pipe tobacco Doctor Wallace favored. It was the exact same tobacco Jarrod favored. Heath was willing to bet on it.
"What kinda tobacco is that?"
The doctor took his pipe out of his mouth and looked at his companion. "Pardon me?"
"Tobacco? What kind are you using?"
A slight smile touched the corners of Heath's mouth. He was right. Dunstan Vanilla. Just what Jarrod always used. Just what Jarrod had at one time told him Tom Barkley always used.
"Why?" The doctor asked. "Do you smoke?"
"No. Not the pipe. Cigars every so often. A cigarette now and again, though more when I was in the army than anything else."
"Where'd you serve?"
"Spent most of my time as a sharp shooter with the 17th Regiment in Tennessee during the war."
"If you don't mind me saying, you look a little young to have served in the war."
"I reckon I was. Or at least in years. Fifteen when I enlisted."
"Young in years? What do you mean by that? Fifteen's young no matter how you look at it."
Heath glanced at the doctor. "I started working when I was six years old. Did a lot of different jobs, met a lot of different people. When you start that young by the time you're fifteen you're practically an old man."
"I suppose. What had you working at such a tender age? If you don't mind my asking that is."
Heath gave the man a vague answer as was typical for him. "We needed the money."
Again Heath thought of Jarrod when the doctor wouldn't let the subject drop there without probing further.
"What did your father do? Was he laid up?"
Heath gave a mirthless laugh. "Yeah, he was laid up all right. In another town. With his wife and children."
"Oh. Oh, I see. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."
"No. Not if you couldn't handle the answer."
"What makes you think I can't handle the answer?"
"Doctor, I've been judged all my life based on the sins of my father. Like little Randall Becker, I wasn't welcome most places when I was a kid. You see, like Randall, I was the town bastard. But my father,...well you can bet your last dollar on the fact that he was welcomed everywhere he went. You can bet your last dollar on the fact that he never had to crawl in a mine when he was six years old, or sixty years old for that matter, in order to set explosives just so he could bring home a dollar a day to his mama."
Doctor Wallace shook his head. He thought of his past life and how that was one thing he'd expressively forbid. He'd never allowed anyone under the age of sixteen to work for any of his operations. A six year old child. Six years old and crawling down a mine shaft with dynamite in his small hands. The doctor thought of his own sons at that same age and could hardly imagine such thing.
"I can see you don't approve."
Abraham looked at the man sitting kitty-corner to him. "No, I don't approve. A child that young going into a mine for what,....a dollar a day? Of course I don't approve."
"Doctor, sometimes that one dollar a day made the difference between whether or not we had food in the house."
Abraham mulled over Heath's words, then gave a thoughtful nod. "Yes. Yes, I suppose it did."
The two men kept their peace for a few minutes, Abraham puffing on his pipe and Heath silently berating himself for bringing up his past. The first gray haze of darkness had begun to fall when Abraham spoke again.
"And your mother?"
Heath was startled out of his own thoughts. "What?"
"Your mother? What did she do to earn a living?"
"Near about anything she had to. Cooked at a cafe, washed clothes for miners, did their mending, cleaned houses for rich people, whatever earned us a few bucks."
"And school? Did you go to school?"
"Why do you ask? Are you assuming just 'cause I was the town bastard I was also the town idiot?"
Abraham threw his head back and laughed.
Heath scowled. "What's so funny?"
"Mr. Lee, for a quiet man you've got a temper, no doubt about it. And you also tend to jump to unwarranted conclusions. You remind me of one of my sons in that regard. But to answer your question, no, of course I don't think you were the town idiot. I'm simply asking if you were able to go to school because you mentioned working when you were just six."
Heath looked down at his boots, embarrassed he'd let his temper get the best of him. That was usually Nick's department, though occasionally Heath was an even match for his brother in that area.
"Yeah, I went to school. My mama was big on education. Or at least I went until I was thirteen. Not long after that I dropped out."
"And your mother?"
"What about her?"
"No need to be. People die. You're a doctor. No doubt you know that better than anyone. She had a hard life. Mama,...she had a hard life."
"How long ago?"
"Be five years in October."
"So that's why you identify so strongly with Josie Becker and her son."
Heath felt the anger rise again. "I don't identify with anyone. Miss Becker needed someone in Heaven to stand up for her. It's too bad it took a stranger to do just that."
"Yes," Abraham nodded, his stock in this unusual young man rising another notch. "Yes, you're right. It is."
Abraham shifted in his chair. He studied his companion in the fading light. Morgan Lee's face revealed little, but his eyes,.....the doctor thought of his long-deceased father. Like Abraham's father, Mr. Lee's pale blue eyes held so many thoughts, and words, and feelings left unspoken. The old man changed the subject.
"What I said in the kitchen earlier is true, isn't it? You've been sick recently."
Heath looked at Abraham but refused to say anything.
"Oh, you don't have to answer if you don't want to, but I already know. The fever you had, the congestion in your chest, the cough, the fact that your clothes were hanging off of you,....you're recovering from diphtheria, aren't you?"
Abraham wasn't surprised when his visitor didn't answer again. He allowed the man his silence while smiling his triumph to himself.
Ah,....I've finally figured it out. I finally know the purpose of this assignment. I bet this poor young man lost a wife and children to the epidemic. God wants me to help him see that though the pain and loss are fresh right now, life does go on. That there's more for him out there in the years to come. I know that as well as anyone. I buried a child. My marriage suffered a rocky road or two. I had my share of business failures. Did things,.....did something I was ashamed of later. Because of all that I started over several times in my life.
Feeling every bit like Abraham, the wise father of many, Doctor Wallace leaned forward and patted Heath's knee.
"Son, I'm sorry for your loss."
"By the looks of you I can tell you're grieving. I know a diphtheria epidemic costs many lives. Who did you lose?"
Heath was furious at this nosy old man and his patronizing manner. He stood so abruptly his rocking chair flew into the wall of the house.
"Who did I lose? I lost a good portion of a town, Doctor! One hundred and thirty-five people are dead because of me!"
"Because of you?"
"Yes, because of me. Because I infected them!"
"Oh now, son, you can't blame yourself....."
"Quit calling me that! I'm not your son! I'm Tom Barkley's bastard, that's who I am! And believe me, the people of Stockton, California don't ever plan on letting me forget it!"
The screen door slammed as Heath stomped into the house. Abraham's chair stopped rocking as his pipe slipped from his hand. It landed with a soft 'thump' on the floor of the porch.
Tess walked out of the house with one last backward glance at the angry man who'd flown by.
"Land sakes, you look like you've seen a ghost, Abraham. What's got Mr. Morgan Lee so riled that he grabbed a clean shirt and high tailed it out the back door?"
"I,....." the doctor swallowed hard before regaining his composure. "I don't know, Tess. But you were right about one thing. Our visitor isn't a Morgan, nor a Lee."
"Who is he then?"
"Barkley." Abraham looked out over his rose garden, refusing to meet Tess's eyes for fear his sins were written all over his face. "His name is Heath Barkley."
Tess already knew that, of course, but all she said as she walked back into the house was, "I told you he didn't look like no Morgan Lee. Didn't I tell you that? No siree, I knew he wasn't no Morgan, nor no Lee either."
And now, Abraham knew it, too. Chapter 26
Heath passed a restless night in the livery stable's hay mow. He'd slept worse places so the accommodations weren't what kept him awake, but rather it was his past. The past he couldn't seem to get away from even in a place called Heaven. All it took was one epidemic in a small Nevada town, an unwed woman and her son, and one nosy old doctor, to enable all Heath was trying to run from to catch up with him.
Heath sat on a bale of hay and exchanged his green shirt for a brown one.
This is exactly why I didn't want to be in a town. This is exactly why I wanted to work on a ranch. On a ranch everyone's too busy to be worryin' about where the new guy came from. As long as you do your job no one cares who you are. On a ranch I can be anyone I want to be. The minute the quarantine is lifted from this town I'm gonna get on Charger and ride outta here. I'll head farther north. Maybe into Idaho territory like I was thinkin' the other day.
A voice from below broke into Heath's thoughts.
"Hey up there! Hey, Mr. Morgan Lee, breakfast is ready!"
Heath looked down the ladder to see Tess.
"Well, come on with you. I ain't got all day. Gotta open the cafe at eleven, you know."
"Tess, never mind about breakfast. I'm fine."
"Don't you be tellin' Tess never mind 'bout no breakfast. Get yourself down here and get over to my kitchen 'fore I take my wooden spoon to your skinny behind."
"Now, Mr. Morgan Lee, I've just about had me enough of your back talk."
Heath sighed and climbed down the ladder carrying his dirty shirt. For goodness sake, but would this old black woman give Victoria a run for her money. As Heath passed Tess he said, "I imagine you heard from Doctor Wallace that my name isn't Morgan Lee. It's Barkley. Heath Barkley."
Tess grinned. "Yes, the doctor did mention you're one of them California Barkleys, but I been callin' you Mr. Morgan Lee for so long now it's kinda grown on me."
Heath sighed as he allowed the woman to lead him to the doctor's house. Well, his mama always did say no good came from lying. And now he supposed he was going to have to pay for that misdeed by having Tess call him Mr. Morgan Lee for the rest of his stay in Heaven.
Tess seemed to sense Heath's need for silence that morning. She said not a word when she put a plate of eggs and bacon in front of him, nor did she make any comments while he went about eating them.
When he was finished he thanked her for the meal like he had the previous day.
"No need to thank me. I enjoy cookin' for a hungry man. And I just want you to know I don't plan on holdin' my tongue like this through every meal I serve you. But this morning,....well this morning I could tell you needed to be alone with your thoughts, Mr. Morgan Lee."
Heath gave the woman the endearing half smile his family was so familiar with. "Yes, Ma'am. Thank you for respecting that."
The cowboy walked to the back bedroom to clean up. He got his saddle bags from the closet and laid them on the bed that had been his. He dug for his razor and shaving cream. He had no intention of shaving his beard off, but he was going to trim it up a little so it stayed neat and didn't grow past his chin thereby making him look like an old mountain man. As Heath pulled out the razor his hand encountered something else. He knew what it was long before he brought it into view.
The previous September Eugene and his English bride, Anna, came to the States so Anna could meet the Barkley family. Victoria had hosted a lavish reception for the couple, and it was prior to the start of that party that this photo had been taken.
Heath smiled a little as he looked at it. Victoria sat in a chair with Anna and Audra seated on either side of her. The four men were lined up behind the women and turned slightly to the right for the benefit of the camera. Heath remembered that day well. Nick complained loudly about having to be in a suit a full hour before the party was to start, while Audra ran between Heath and Nick fixing their ties. It took her a few minutes to realize that she'd no more than get Heath presentable than Nick would purposely knock his tie askew. Heath did the same to his brother meaning that poor Audra was in tither over what the two of them could possibly be doing that left their ties hanging crooked at their necks. It wasn't until she caught Nick with his fingers on the string of Heath's tie that she discovered she was once again being teased by the two pranksters. She'd tried to sound stern while giving them a lecture, but they were laughing so hard that she finally threw her hands up and called, "Mother! I know of two boys who need a tanning with your wooden spoon."
Heath swiveled, startled by the voice behind him. Since he hadn't seen Doctor Wallace at the breakfast table he assumed the man was at the church tending to the sick.
The old man was leaning against the door frame watching Heath. Heath tossed the picture on the bed, picked up his razor and shaving cream, and walked over to the washstand.
Abraham waited for Heath to speak. When he didn't the doctor entered the room and crossed to the bed. He picked up the photograph.
"You mind if I look at it?"
Using the mirror, Heath eyed the man without turning as he went about trimming his beard.
Abraham studied the picture a long time. "Who are these people?"
"I said I didn't mind you lookin' at it, I didn't say I was gonna answer any questions."
The ever-persistent doctor carried the picture to Heath's side. He pointed at Heath's image.
"This must be you."
Heath's eyes slid to the photograph as he lifted his face to shave his neck. "Yep."
"Without all that hair on your face you're quite a handsome fellow."
Heath didn't deem the doctor's comment worth a response.
"Looks like this was some type of family celebration."
"My younger brother's wedding reception."
Abraham cocked an eyebrow. "Younger brother?"
"Okay. Half brother."
"That's not what I meant. It's just that based on our conversation last night I assumed you didn't know your father's family. But that is who these people are, am I correct?"
Abraham pointed to Jarrod's face. "So who's this?"
Heath sighed. He could tell the man wasn't going to leave until his questions were answered. Did old age give people the right to be rude and inquire about things that were none of their business?
"My oldest brother Jarrod."
"Ah. Jarrod Barkley. I've heard of him. Supposed to be a cracker jack attorney they say."
Heath couldn't keep the pride out of his voice when he said, "The best there is."
"And this?" Abraham said as he pointed to Eugene.
"That's Eugene. The woman in front of him is his wife Anna."
"What's he do?"
"He's a professor at a college in London among other things."
"Smart young man then I take it."
Heath glanced down as he used a towel to wipe his face dry. "Audra. My little sister."
"She's got a twinkle in her eye that tells me she might be a handful at times."
Heath thought of the impulsive nineteen year old girl who had come to his Stockton hotel room three years earlier with the intention of making a pass at him in order to test his claim that he was Tom Barkley's son.
"Oh, she can be a handful when she sets her mind to it, there's no doubt about that. But she's fun, too."
"Oh? Are you two close?"
"We like a lotta the same things. Horses, riding, card games, checkers,..."
"So that means yes?"
"Yeah. I reckon it does."
Abraham pointed to the picture again. "And this strapping fellow?"
"That's Nick. He runs the ranch."
"And what do you do?"
"Yes. What's your job on the Barkley ranch?"
"I'm in charge of mine operations, timber operations, and horse breeding."
"Sounds like a lot of responsibility. Do you and this Nick get along well?"
Heath wanted to say, "What difference does it make to you?" but remembering that he did owe this man something for the care and shelter he'd given him forced Heath to hold his tongue.
"Yeah. We get along fine."
Yeah. Yeah,.... real good friends."
Abraham's finger pointed to Victoria last. If Heath noticed the tremor to the old man's hand he didn't comment on it.
"That's Victoria Barkley," Heath said as if everyone should know a fine woman when they set eyes on her. "She's my moth,......my stepmother."
"You started to say mother. Is that what you call her?"
"Why do you ask?" Heath's eyes flashed as he grabbed the picture from Abraham's hands and laid it face down on the washstand. "Don't you think I have the right?"
Heath's anger didn't bother the doctor in the slightest. "I think what you call Victoria Barkley is between you and her. I don't think it's anyone else's business."
"All right then. Yes. I call her mother. And that's a tribute to the wonderful woman she is. After all, I'm not her son, remember? I'm her husband's bastard."
"I wish you wouldn't say that."
"Why not? It's true."
"Why can't you just call yourself Tom Barkley's son and leave it at that?"
"Because he never asked me to."
Abraham's gaze pinned Heath to the wall. "Did he even know about you? Prior to his death,....he is dead, isn't he? I'm assuming so since he's not in the picture."
"Yeah, he's dead. Been dead nine years."
"So did he know about you?"
Heath turned away, but not before Abraham saw him shake his head no.
"Then how can you blame a dead man for,....."
Heath brushed by the man on his way out the door. "I can blame a dead man for a lot of things, Doctor Wallace. A lot of things you'll never understand unless you know what it's like to grow up dirt poor, only to find out later that your father's the richest man in the state of California."
The doctor's voice caused Heath to stop just as he was about to step into the parlor.
"Son, I can tell you love your family a lot."
"How I feel about my family is none of your business."
"Do they know where you are?"
"No. And don't go gettin' any ideas because I don't want them to."
"Don't you think Victoria Barkley might be worried about you?"
When Heath didn't say anymore Abraham knew the answer.
"You know she's worried about you. You know she's worried about you and you know she loves you. I can see it in your eyes. You do a good job of hiding your feelings, Heath, unless someone takes the time to look into your eyes."
Heath had been told that before on many occasion. But only by one person. Victoria.
The cowboy started out the door.
"Heath," the doctor beckoned in a soft, conciliatory tone that made the blond man think of Jarrod. "Are you trying to run from your past? Or somewhere, deep inside yourself, does the little boy still live who's searching for his father?"
Heath whipped around. He shoved two fingers into his chest. "I killed a hundred and thirty-five people, Doctor! A hundred and thirty-five people that included friends and neighbors. I'm not running from anything, and I sure as hell ain't searchin' for a dead man! I'm just,.....I'm starting over. That's what I'm doing is starting over."
If Heath had stayed in the room long enough Abraham would have told him he sounded like he was trying to convince himself of that last fact. But Heath didn't stay in the room, or the house. Abraham heard the front screen door slam, then the front gate do the same seconds later.
With shaking hands Abraham turned the Barkley family photo over. He stood there gazing at it a long time. He wiped at a tear that ran a crooked path down one cheek. He'd forgotten how it felt to cry. He'd forgotten how it felt to hurt for one of your children. He'd forgotten how it felt to want to protect that child from the cruelties the world so readily inflicted. Now something new was added to those feelings. Guilt. The feeling of guilt that threatened to drown Abraham because this boy had suffered for his father's foolish actions.
The man walked over and sat the picture on top of the dresser. He reached out two fingers and brushed them over Heath's smiling image.
"I'm sorry, son. I'm so sorry."
The doctor turned when he felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder. He looked into a pair of soft brown eyes, and in that moment realized his mentor had known the truth all along.
"I can't tell him, can I, Tess? I can't tell him who I really am."
"You know the rules. Who we were when we walked this earth in human form can never be revealed."
"Then what can I do? How do I help my son?"
"You pray for guidance, Abraham. Angel or not, you do what any man in your situation would. You pray for guidance."
Abraham nodded as Tess left the room. When he exited the house twenty minutes later his joints were stiff from kneeling, but he had prayed. Oh, how he had prayed.