|Far Away Friend|
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.
|Heath's background causes problems in many places.|
|Beth Erikson snuck into the Barkley party this year as she had every year since she
could remember. After the men jumped down from their horses, she quickly offered to secure
them in the appropriate area. Her brothers and the few ranch hands they still had rushed
off glad she was willing to watch their horses. Her father was already somewhere about the
ranch since he came early with her youngest brother, David. They wanted to make an early
appearance to deliver a few gifts to thank Mrs Barkley for her hospitality.
After she settled the horses, Beth found the observation position she liked from the hay loft in the barn. She'd done this every year and only once had anyone disturbed her. She smiled remembering the shocked looks on that poor passionate couple's faces when she coughed to let them know of her presence. Instead of sitting right down, she took a minute to unpack the small bag she'd brought along this year.
A few minutes later, Beth sat across from the red dress she found in an old trunk of her mother's things in the attic. It was beautiful material and she'd cleaned it up, fixed it, and updated it as much as she could since the only time she could work on it was late at night in her room. She stared out at the crowd gathered throughout the large barn yard and corral area, Beth began to loose her nerve.
Suddenly she looked out and watched Heath helping some of the smaller children carry their plates from the large buffet to the picnic area. Beth closed her eyes and reviewed this man's, her best friend's, wonderful words which she had memorized from his last letter. He ran to help Nick carry out another table and she lost sight of him. Reaching down in her pocket, Beth pulled out the note her godmother, Catlin Sawyer, slipped in the last book she'd sent out to the ranch.
"Where there is love, miracles are always possible. Please, my darling daughter, reach out to him."
Feeling brave, Beth slipped out of her workpants and shirt. It felt odd wearing a dress. She'd been wearing her older brother's hand-me-downs for so many years. She smoothed the gown down and sat watching the party. There wasn't any mirror but she knew her appearance was scattered, to say the least. She fought to pull a comb through her long light brown hair, it was never easy after her hair was stuffed up in her hat. And she couldn't bring much in her bag so these darn old cowboy boots would have to do. Clutching her godmother's note, Beth watched Heath throughout the party never able to get up and join the crowd.
When the musicians took their last break and announced the next set would conclude with one of her favorite songs, Beth knew she must find a way. Her eyes had been riveted on Heath the entire night as he watched the crowd and worked at the various tables. Somehow she knew he was waiting for her but earlier when she finally decided to brave it, she looked up to see her father talking to Heath and his mother.
Heath looked so lost when Victoria walked away with her father and Audra was obviously teasing him but he didn't laugh. Beth made up her mind and climbed down the ladder. Standing behind the barn door, she did her best to straighten herself out and brush off some of the hay. Quickly, she tried to run her fingers through her hair but they got caught in some tangles. She did manage to pull most of the hay out and throw it down.
Beth wasn't built like her small doll-like mother. Therefore, her dress was too short, very tight on top, and none to roomy on the bottom. She was tall, only her brother Steve was taller, and muscular from all those long days working next to her brothers on the ranch. She didn't mind the muscles, but having watched all the tiny women go by she suddenly wished for a few less inches.
Taking a deep breath and pooling every ounce of bravery, Beth put her hand over her mother's stick pin which she'd placed high on her left shoulder. What if Heath didn't know her? What if he laughed or worse when he saw what she looked like? What if he didn't remember the stories they'd exchanged about their mother's only valuable procession being a stick pin? What if ...
Beth took one last breath and stepped out on the far end of the dance floor. When she looked up her eyes zeroed in immediately on Heath. He was standing across the way pouring drinks. For a moment the rest of the party disappeared. As she stared his way Heath slowly looked up and their eyes meet. Now she was standing in some sort of dream world watching him cross through the crowd. Finally he stopped and gazed into her eyes.
They stood in silence until Beth managed, "Are you looking for a far away friend tonight, sir?".
Heath pulled her into his arms and they began to move with the crowd which surrounded them. Her mind was racing as she returned his unwavering gaze. Such strong hands, arms, and shoulders ... He was perfect. She felt tears, but fought them back.
He pulled her closer, whispering in her ear, "Not so far away anymore, Beth".
Beth rested her head on his shoulder and held on tight. She didn't hear the music, instead she replayed Heath's gentle voice saying her name. This must be heaven! Heath did know it was her, he did!
Heath never saw or heard what hit him. One minute he was holding Beth very close while the band played the last dance. Next thing he was aware someone had him from behind with enough strength to lift him straight up, twist him around, then hurl him through the air into the side of the barn. He managed to slide down and land on his feet somehow supporting himself against the side of the barn, but his head snapped back on impact wrenching his neck while giving the back of his head a major clunk.
For a moment the world stood still. Heath heard people yelling, screaming, and fighting but they were all far away, off in the distance somewhere. When he tried to pull himself away even slightly from the barn's support his knees started to give and he rested back where he started. At one point he tried hard to focus on the angry crowd but lifting his head brought instant waves of nausea and he dropped his gaze back to his boots.
Nick's bellow managed to find it's way through his semiconscious haze and Heath tried to look up. All he saw was what appeared to be one of the picnic benches flying towards him. Instinctively Heath lifted his left arm while supporting himself with his right but everything was in slow motion. He felt the impact of the bench, he even heard his own bones snap, but the pain took a strange moment to register. First, he saw a burning white light or did he feel it? It was so terribly hard to focus. Then everything went black.
All Victoria saw was Sam Erikson's enormous frame hovering over her son. Erikson was one of the largest men she'd ever known both in height, shoulder width, and weight ... Heath didn't stand a chance.
"NICK!", she screamed and pushed through the crowd.
As she crossed the floor, her eyes caught sight of Jarrod. Grabbing his arm, the terrified woman kept moving towards Heath.
When Erikson attacked Heath it set off a strange set of events. At first, the dancers parted, almost as if they were making room to watch the brutal scene.
"KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY DAUGHTER, YOU FILTHY BASTARD!"
Sam Erikson left no question as to what set him off. In an instant some of the men moved to pull him away from the injured man. As Sam struggled wildly against those trying to prevent his further attacking Heath, his sons and a few drunks responded by throwing punches. In a matter of seconds, the pleasant evening was turned into an obnoxious brawl. Somewhere in the middle Heath was leaning against the barn apparently unaware he was still in danger.
The women were quickly scattering towards the sides of the large circle of wrestling men. Audra and Victoria met up and dropped to the ground. Punches were being thrown with gusto and the men didn't seem to care where they landed. The two women moved towards the side and once they made it out of the maelay ... They helped others get out too.
Suddenly Victoria reached for a small callused hand reaching out from in-between two angry men. She leaned back and pulled hard. Out popped the young woman who had been dancing with Heath. Her dress was old which made the seams fragile due to the age of the thread. Victoria guessed the frock was borrowed while watching Heath walk over to the woman, it was a poor fit. The young lady had an outstanding figure stuffed into a dress two sizes too small.
Victoria saw the desperation in the young woman's eyes. She quickly tore off her shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders.
"Audra," She looked around for her daughter.
"Yes, mother," Audra moved closer and wasn't even trying to hide her tears as they watched their party turn into a disaster.
"Take her up to the house, NOW!"
Audra took a quick look at the sobbing young woman whose dress was basically nonexistent. The crowd of angry men had been so rough they managed to rip her dress into shreds. Victoria's shawl at least covered her upper body but Audra's heart immediately went out to the girl.
Victoria watched for only a moment to be sure the two women made it across the yard and in the front door. Then she moved around the brawlers trying to make her way to where she thought she might find Heath.
"THAT'S ENOUGH," Nick was standing above the crowd in the hayloft. Everyone jumped when he shot his revolver into the air. Most stopped, a few drunks continued to punch at each other or the air, Nick repeated, "I SAID, THAT'S ENOUGH".
When the crowd quieted, the sounds of the many people who had run for their carriages or horses to beat a trail away from the Barkley ranch could be heard. Those who remained and were able to stand stared up at Nick.
"NOW LISTEN GOOD BECAUSE I DON'T LIKE REPEATING MYSELF," Nick looked around the crowd and noticed when Jarrod nodded for him to continue, "This party is over. I have no idea what happened or how ... Frankly, I don't care. I expect this area cleared in five minutes".
The men rushed towards their horses or the ranch wagons they rode in from across the valley. At first the sudden movement of the crowd was loud and confusing but the area cleared out quickly leaving only broken tables, chairs, bottles, and men lying on the ground. The Barkleys and their able bodied hands moved to assist the injured.
"We'll get him in the house, mother,"
Jarrod assured Victoria who was sitting on the ground with Heath's head on her lap.
His younger brother's face was a distressing ashen color and his left arm hung at horrible angles across his body. His mother's face told Jarrod the injuries were serious.
Nick found Sam Erikson lerking around the barn. He grabbed the larger man by the shirt and didn't flinch when Erikson moaned due to a few newly broken ribs.
"What the hell are YOU still doing here?"
"I'm looking for my son, David. The rest of the horses are gone but David's horse isn't ... Let me get my boy. Don't worry, Barkley, I can't be out of here soon enough!"
Luckily one of the hands came to ask Nick a question which saved Erikson a few more fractures. Nick assigned the man to walk around with the distraught father 'once' and then see him to his horse.
"Your kid probably got a ride with someone else in all the confusion. Confusion you caused, ERICKSON!"
David waited out in a small clump of trees on his sister's horse. He watched until his father rode out of sight pulling along his horse. Then the boy rode back into the Barkley's, he needed to check on Beth. He tried to help her cover herself but the crowd had separated them. Later he saw her running to the main house with the blond lady named Audra.
He felt like the entire mess was his fault. Earlier when Audra was serving at the buffet table, David gladly offered information regarding the number of brothers and sisters in his family. It was a common error throughout Stockton for folks to think all six of them were boys. He made sure his voice carried loud enough for Heath to hear.
David really liked Heath and tried to jaw with him whenever he rode the north fences. A few months ago, when Beth was forced to take her little brother in her confidence in order to get some of her letters into town, he had been thrilled. In his heart David knew these two would make a great couple ... He was on their side.
At one point, before the end of his conversation with Audra, Heath's eyes caught David's and he knew his message had gotten through. They exchanged smiles and the rest of the night, whenever the boy caught sight of his friend, Heath seemed to be waiting around for Beth. Stuck staying close to their father, he didn't have a chance to go flush her out and was relieved when she finally made her appearance. But now ...
The study and the living room were turned into temporary housing for the injured. Extra blankets, bandages, and supplies were brought in from all over the ranch. Dr Morgan was attending the party and quickly recovered from his bruises to evaluate what needed done first. One man suffered a compound fracture of his lower leg and much of the doctor's time was used getting that situation under control.
The rest of the injuries were less serious. Everyone was made comfortable for the night while screens were brought in from the library to offer some privacy to the man with the bad leg. He'd be gracing their living room for a few days since Dr Mrogan would not allow him to be moved. Victoria anxiously assisted the doctor while praying for Heath. She'd given the doctor her assessment of her son's injuries and he decided those downstairs were of higher priority.
"Jarrod is with Heath up in a nice comfortable bedroom, Victoria. I'm sure he's awake and feeling much better by now. I've got my hands full with these men."
Victoria attempted three times to change his mind which only set the doctor further against climbing the stairs. She decided to hold her tongue and depend on prayer ... Perhaps God could ease the doctor up the stairs to her son's side.
David Erikson crossed through the foyer and found his sister, dressed in a skirt and blouse borrowed from Audra, giving first aide to the men sitting on the main staircase. There must have been twenty or thirty people sitting around holding on to sore arms, heads, or whatever. Two of the injured were women and Nick was working with some hands to get them settled in cots they carried over from the bunk house.
When Beth saw David, she rushed over and embraced him before planting a large kiss on his forehead.
"There's a really nice man named Silas in the kitchen. I know he must be overwhelmed with all the dirty rags, dishes, and things. Why don't you go help him and I'll come catch up with you in a bit?"
David nodded and headed the way she pointed. He didn't like tending to sick people and washing dishes was something he knew how to do with his eyes closed. Silas was more than grateful for the young man's assistance. They made a good team.
Finally the doctor worked his way upstairs to see Heath. Dawn was soon going to try to brighten the horizon. Their house was falling into a fitful slumber.
"Well, Jarrod, how's your patient?"
Jarrod's eyes gave the doctor a stern lecture. He'd been down to request Dr Morgan's attention a few times and was rebuffed more roughly than his mother. Afraid to leave his brother for too long, he rushed back to his side.
Heath heard the doctor come in and hung on tighter to Jarrod's hand. He'd been in and out but preferred out at this point. His head hurt more than he could ever remember and everything was magnified. It sounded as if the doctor was screaming at Jarrod, heck, the curtains rustling on the window sill was murder.
Jarrod tried to make his younger brother comfortable with his head sunk down in a stack of pillows. As the night passed Heath continued to perspire heavily although his skin was cold and moaned each time the bed was even slightly bumped. He fell in and out of restless sleep and consciousness. A few times he'd been terribly confused as to where he was but he always knew Jarrod's voice. The only other thing Heath knew for certain was his head hurt too much for him to try and move.
Then there was light. Heath braced himself when the doctor insisted Jarrod turn the bedside lamp back up. The young man began to throw up the moment he regained any of his senses. Since then he'd been so ill his entire abdomen and back were sore from the violent heaves which over took him. At times, Jarrod held him tight as afraid of the horrible situation as Heath himself.
Bracing himself as Dr Morgan loudly insisted the lamp be turned up didn't help. Heath began to heave mercilessly when the increased light hit his face. It didn't even matter as he fought to hold his eyes shut tight, the veil of brightness came through his eyelids as a red glow. Watching for Beth made him too nervous to eat or drink much earlier, Heath was more than thankful for that now as he heaved so hard he thought his toes were coming up next.
Heath heard Victoria's muffled sigh and knew he must be a sight. When Jarrod covered his eyes with a cloth and eased him back into the pile of pillows Heath wanted to reach for her but he hurt too much to move. His voice had failed him for hours what he thought in his head simply didn't come out his mouth. He concentrated on lying perfectly still.
Dr Morgan was working his way through his examination. He'd been tired and expected to find Heath with a mild concussion. Now, seeing the gravity of the situation, he worked efficiently to get a more detailed assessment of the young man's injuries. After checking Heath's vital signs he felt the back of his head. When he moved Heath's neck the young man choked on the air he suddenly sucked in from the pain.
Jarrod settled Heath while flashing angry looks at Dr Morgan.
"Oh please," Heath begged Jarrod barely above a whisper, "Please don't let him move me. Please ... "
The doctor cut away his shirt sleeve while Heath spoke. Heath's voice trailed off as he saw the same burning white light from earlier ... He was hoping the black void would once again follow but it didn't.
Last, the doctor explained he needed to check Heath's pupils. Heath didn't have the strength to do any more than beg Jarrod's hand which was wrapped in his. Jarrod put his other hand on Heath's shoulder and Victoria was cooing something while holding his head in place. When the doctor took off the cloth and flashed light into one eye and then the other Heath was sure he was dying. Before the doctor could finish Heath was once again on his side heaving wildly towards the floor. The effort left him numb.
He might have been conscious or unconscious, Heath couldn't tell for sure. People were talking somewhere nearby as they cut away his clothes being careful not to move his head if possible. He heard Nick and tried to wake himself ... Surely Nick would make everyone leave him alone. But he remained in this odd state of limbo unable to react to those around him or ask his brother for help.
"But why are his eyes so black? It looks like he has two huge shiners but he didn't get punched."
Nick listened to his mother's question and thought the eyes looked a hundred times worse due to the translucent color Heath's face had taken on. He'd never seen anyone a worse color ... That was still alive!
"I'm afraid Heath suffered a grave blow to the head. It is an injury we hate to see. When he was thrown he didn't hit his head first," seeing their confusion, Dr Morgan continued, "The violence of the slam he took into the barn wall probably forced the air right out of him. In those next few seconds, when he went limp while still moving from the force of the throw, his head snapped back and wham he hit it hard. It would be like you or I falling backwards on a wet floor and landing on our upper back but then our neck follows through with a snap which lets your head smack down and bounce".
None of the Barkley's wanted to imagine a clear picture of the injury, but they could understand the serious nature of a blow to the head in this manner.
"We've got to monitor him closely and try to make him respond every hour for the next twenty-four plus I must get that arm set."
Dr Morgan almost let slip his regret at not seeing to Heath sooner but he swallowed those thoughts and quickly moved on. They prepared for a fight when they set the arm. Victoria cried softly as she helped Nick strap Heath's ankles to the bed post, Jarrod moved closer on the bed to hold his shoulders down and his head still, then Nick took Heath's right hand and moved to an angle where he could control his entire arm.
The doctor got up on one knee next to Heath after making sure he had the splint and bandages close enough to reach. Victoria moved up to the top of the bed above the doctor and curled down very close to Heath's ear. She stroked his face and hair while telling him they were sorry but they needed to set his arm and his head injury meant he couldn't have pain medicine. As Dr Morgan merely lifted the arm from the young man's chest he moaned a low, anguished, heart wrenching sound.
They all took a deep breath and held on tight as the doctor jerked at the arm. It was a difficult injury because it was caused by blunt trauma from the bench. The amount of soft tissue swelling was enormous. Although the room was quite cool, everyone was in a full sweat as they clung to Heath. The doctor felt the fracture and gave the arm one last audible snap then grabbed the splint and began to bandage it in place. Victoria, Jarrod, and Nick eased their grip having been prepared for a fight which never materialized. As a group they looked at Heath's face praying for him to be unconscious. Instead they watched as tears rolled steadily down his cheeks and hit the pillow.
The two men stood up and walked outside in desperate need of some air. Victoria fell back down beside her son wiping his tears and hers while quietly whispering her love and pride in his ear. Dr Morgan went out to repeat his instructions to the men. His mother quickly blew out the lamps and made sure the shades were down after she mercifully put the cloth back over his eyes. The next twenty-four hours were going to be long for the entire family.
Beth served some more coffee and looked up the stairs anxiously but none of the Barkley's appeared. She and the ranch foreman ran things downstairs, Audra took care of the two injured women, but the other's never came down from Heath's room.
When she realized it was getting quite light Beth knew the only way to keep the situation calm, at least on the Barkley ranch, was for her to get home with David. She found Audra getting fresh water from the kitchen pump to let her know her intentions.
"Are you sure? I mean, will you be safe?"
"Yes, we'll be fine. You needn't worry about us. The Erikson's have caused way too much trouble around here already."
Audra put her arms around her new friend. They'd talked on and off throughout the night and Audra sensed the gentle soul in Beth which so attracted her quiet brother.
"Would you like to see Heath?"
Beth tried to think what to say ... Her heart and mind froze, she hadn't allowed herself to consider the possibility.
"I'll be right back. Why don't you get David to saddle one of our horses. Jim will tell him which one. We'll get it later."
Beth wandered to the corner and woke David. His face reminded her of the trouble waiting for them at home, but it was time to go before their father came to get them and the situation exploded once more.
She washed her face and hands then took a long drink of water. Everything after Heath began to dance with her was a blur. Smiling at the memory she should have known David tipped Heath off ... One more time she replayed his voice whispering her name.
She shook herself into reality. Audra was standing on the back stairs holding out her hand. Beth took it and followed her up and through the long hallway. They entered Heath's room which was cool, dark, and very still. Nick and Jarrod had gone to help Jim figure out where to start with the mess outside. Victoria sat on a chair by Heath's right side holding his hand. She looked up and smiled without making any noise.
Beth crossed the room and knelt down being careful not to disturb Heath's left arm which rested on some pillows with the largest bandage she'd ever seen. He was motionless and she really couldn't see him since there was a cloth over his upper face. Straining for control she gently touched his shoulder and bowed her head to say a prayer.
"Beth?", Heath voiced sounded like a sick kitten's.
She glanced over at his mother for guidance. How did he know? David wasn't here to tip him off this time! Victoria smiled and nodded.
"I'm here, " she whispered while moving closer to him, "You rest now and get better. I'll be back to make sure you're following your ma's orders".
He wanted desperately to hold her or at least say something, but he simply couldn't. With great effort Heath slightly nodded his head then grimaced back into the pillows as a mountain of pain made him pay for his efforts.
Beth crossed to the door where Audra waited for her. Turning back she quietly rushed to Victoria's side and fell to her knees. They embraced for a long moment and when they pulled back Beth looked deep into Heath's stepmother's eyes.
She started to apologize while tears streamed down her face, "I'm so sorry ...".
Victoria took her free hand and gently covered Beth's mouth. She smiled and leaned forward planting a sincere kiss on the young woman's forehead. After a moment Beth gathered herself, accepted the hand Audra offered, and went to find David.
Her little brother stayed way behind as they rode home. Poor kid was terribly brave to have helped her and now he needed to be brave once more ... Samuel Erikson was not going to make this easy on either of them.
Beth happily stayed in the lead knowing very well what lay ahead wasn't pleasant. She stopped worrying years ago about something she couldn't control. Instead she concentrated on Heath and how she was going to fulfill her promise to him. She was going back to check on him. All she needed now was a plan. BVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBVBV
The next seven weeks seemed a lifetime to Heath. With Victoria's impeccable care and the help of his entire family he slowly made it back from an extremely dark place. The first two weeks were basically a blur which he remembered only as constant stark pain. Victoria's voice, gentle touch, and reassurances were his only other memory. Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Silas all took turns sitting with him. Heath was too ill to be alone at any time, but it was truly Victoria who stubbornly fought the sea of pain and darkness which often Heath himself felt too overwhelmed to fight. Victoria stayed with him constantly and insisted he repeatedly down water, broth, juice, or anything else liquid he could swallow. When the desperately weary young man immediately brought things back up his mother showed no mercy insisting Heath rinse his mouth, take a few deep breaths, and once more drink while willing himself to keep something down.
Heath lost all sense of day versus night. He slept for hours on end rarely making peace with his persistent headache being lifted from a strange, deep, dark obis back to the present by familiar voices often accompanied by gentle nudges to bring him around. There were no dreams he remembered or thoughts of what happened or what was to come ... He slipped away then was brought back on a schedule set up by Victoria and Dr. Morgan.
Finally Heath recovered enough to sit up in a chair or be walked to the bathroom by one of his brothers. These efforts left him limp with exhaustion but still his mind fuzzed out any sense of worry or apprehension even if he occasionally recognized his family's faces or voices showing their state of distress regarding the severity of his injury. To him one terribly long, painful, and confused day was slowly passing ... To Victoria and the others watching him suffer through weeks of pain was becoming almost unbearable.
Then there was a change. Heath woke up hungry late one night and stayed awake to eat some warm porridge after drinking, and keeping down, two large glasses of water. He fought hard for a comfortable position due to his headache and sore neck but moved on his own versus vainly fighting any movement in an effort to remain still. He talked to Victoria with more of a sense of what was happening to him and tried to figure out why she was emotional over a bowl of porridge.
"Have you heard from Beth?", Heath whispered.
Victoria sat in the dimly lit room smiling broadly. Just before he asked this question she secured a promise from Heath ... He would go back to sleep. There was an extraordinary feeling in her heart at the moment. For over two weeks the young man couldn't stay awake, fighting with every bit of his normally vast store of energy to merely open his eyes and participate in his care. She had a feeling when he tightly grasped her hand and smiled earlier in the day Heath was about to turn a corner in his recovery but now she had proof.
"Yes, she's been here to see you twice. Go to sleep, you promised!"
It was as if he fell asleep with his next breath. Victoria watched and waited fighting severe anxiety until dawn when Heath awoke again and appeared even more alert. While he ate some more breakfast his mother requested Audra sit with him. She excused herself from the room and went to her bedroom closing the door. Overwhelmed Victoria dropped to her knees, gave in to her tears, and prayed long and hard trying to express her gratitude to God for allowing Heath a chance to regain his health.
The past few weeks had been a severe trial for the entire family. Victoria never admitted her true fears to the others, but there were many times since Heath was hurled across the barnyard when she felt they would lose him. Victoria knew God must have intervened for him to pull through this injury and she'd always be thankful for this extraordinary gift.
After she washed her face and tried to make herself presentable Victoria's eyes settled on a picture of her late husband, Thomas. The anger was long gone replaced with the joy of knowing Heath and calling him son. Smiling, she used her index finger to stoke Tom's face and quietly thanked him for Heath. She let out a laugh ... There wasn't another soul in the entire world who would understand her feelings right now. Victoria's heart burst with joy and she walked back up the hall to check on Heath.
The next few weeks as the rest of the family happily settled back into their routines time began to drag mercilessly for Heath. His strength drained, he found it hard to allow himself the time to recover. The headache remained constant but at times eased in intensity. His movement remained severely guarded as he fought to learn how to get around without turning his neck the wrong way which sent him to his knees in pain.
Early on Heath learned his lesson and only went out to walk about the ranch after the sun disappeared behind the horizon. During the day he continued to prefer dim lighting but slowly was becoming more tolerant. At night he found himself enjoying the dark but allowing the lamps to be lit with increased brightness with each passing day. As his mind cleared his frustration with his situation grew. Reading, writing, or prolonged focus on objects of any sort led to a severe penalty ... Headaches which sent him to bed for hours. Audra and Victoria read to him or tried to include him in their activities but there was no getting around the fact Heath was bored.
Each day his appetite improved but Victoria fought with him constantly. Heath never knew when turning his head a particular way or a sudden burst of light was going to take his breath away, blind him with headache pain, and create a wave of unrelenting nausea. They finally agreed to small meals every few hours. This seemed to keep the peace while helping Heath gain his strength.
Nick's constant teasing regarding Heath's absence from his ranch chores was reassuring but nerve wracking. Some days as he lie on his bed fighting to keep his stomach under control while straining to fall asleep with the hope his headache would ease with rest Heath feared he would never return to the active outdoor life he loved. His left arm ached after he exercised it and the swelling remained a concern although the discoloration was finally disappearing. He used Beth's weekly visits, Victoria's strong words of encouragement, and his family's strength to make it through many days.
As Christmas gradually approached Heath found himself on a roller coaster of good and bad days. Good days he ate well, gladly walked up and down the stairs multiple times to strengthen his legs, tried to write his feelings down in letters for Beth, and walked for hours around the yard spending as much time as possible with the horses. Bad days he would find himself in a state of total, unexplainable, and complete exhaustion. After fighting to get out of bed and join the others downstairs for breakfast he'd wake up on the couch only to find the entire day gone.
Victoria assured him the good days were winning out over the bad but Heath wasn't always sure. The positives he tried to hold on to were Beth's visits, his increasing tolerance of light, a growing acceptance of what he recognized could be a lifelong headache, and the gradual reduction in the unannounced and unwelcome but devastatingly complete bouts of nausea. Heath worked and prayed for the day when he would walk outside into the glorious sunshine and feel well.
Beth couldn't believe her luck. She sat crossed legged in her closet long into the night writing a letter to Heath. It was now fourteen months since she started writing and her father hadn't found out, yet. As far as Sam Erikson was concerned, Heath Barkley was someone his daughter met once at a dance and would never see again. She smiled and thought of the day she would be Mrs Heath Barkley ... They only had a short time to wait.
Heath met her weekly in the Barkley's far north pasture. Luckily he was well enough to ride out to meet her in one of the ranch's buggies. Soon Heath would be able to ride Charger alone once more and perhaps they could meet more often. But for now his unpredictable headaches and dizzy spells meant he could only ride Charger if accompanied by one of his brothers. When they were able to visit, they walked and talked but never lingered. It was too dangerous.
Their letters continued to make it through the library mail system which helped the days in-between visits march by faster. Now it was very early Christmas morning and Beth sat writing a letter knowing in her heart they would be together the following year and, God willing, for all the rest of her life's holidays. It was times like this she could hardly contain her joy and keep her secret from her father. Heath's marriage proposal sang in her ears, but she tried to block out the pain in his eyes when she said no.
After a long talk Beth happily changed her answer to yes but not until she could leave her home and never look back with any guilt. Her brother, David's, eighteenth birthday became their wedding date. Beth wanted to stay with him until that time. They grew up together and besides Heath, David was the person closest to her heart. She refused to leave the ranch until her little brother was legally able to leave also.
She leaned back and thought of the one big change since Heath's injury. Beth acquired another ally. Much to her surprise Steve, her oldest brother, followed through on some suspicions and figured out her mail system. Luckily he knew how to keep a secret and regarded their father with disdain. He warned his sister of the danger, saw her determination, and began to help her conceal her letters and rendezvous.
Christmas afternoon Sam Erikson begrudgingly gave his family the afternoon off. While he worked on some problems with the kitchen water pump his family enjoyed the only day all year they could relax with each other. The few ranch hands they had rode out to visit with folks around town. The ranch was at peace and full of heavenly quiet.
"Who's that riding up the drive?"
Everyone gazed out and recognized Victoria Barkley at the same moment.
Beth nervously ran to the door, "Good afternoon, Mrs Barkley. Won't you come in?".
"Merry Christmas," the confused Erikson children glanced around at one and other.
"Well now, I brought a few things. Could you boys bring those packages in from the buggy? And Steven would you mind announcing my arrival to your father?"
The boys hustled different directions and Victoria quickly opened the large basket in her hands. She smiled and handed Beth a big package tied with beautiful red ribbon.
"Run up and hide this in your room, my dear. You can open it later but please be careful."
Beth enthusiastically threw her arms around Victoria. During these past few months the young woman expanded her letter list to include Victoria and the family. When she visited the ranch they all made her more than welcome.
"Thank you. Oh, thank you so very much. How's ... "
Victoria smiled and cut her off, "Run now before we're discovered!".
Knowing she was right the young woman ran to her room and quickly found a hiding place for her treasure. The Eriksons hadn't exchanged gifts for years and the excitement was going to be hard to contain. Hearing her father talking in the living room with Victoria, Beth slipped down the back stairs and reappeared with a tea tray and some Christmas cookies.
"Now, Sam, you and I know family feuds lead to no good end. As I said, I'm here to extend the hand of friendship. Christmas seemed the best time to make an offer. Please, let the young people keep our gifts and you enjoy the whiskey. I'll be on my way if that is what you prefer."
Beth began pouring tea feeling the tension in the room. Her brothers sat holding their brown paper wrapped gifts never taking their eyes off Samuel. She knew her father was moving towards asking Victoria to leave.
"Cookie, Mrs Barkley?" Beth reached over with the tray of cookies.
"Oh, I remember these. Your mother's recipe isn't it?"
Her future daughter-in-law couldn't hide her delight. She and Victoria had spoken of her mother during her visits when Beth sat holding Heath's hand while he slept. The two women were becoming close and Victoria already welcomed the opportunity to considered Beth her daughter which made it hard to see her at the Erikson ranch. She wanted to get her away from the meager world Samuel provided for some unknown reason ... His ranch was as much or more successful than her own.
When Victoria proceeded to tell a story about their mother and her famous baking abilities the boys became enthralled. Even Sam Erikson was charmed by her story of a woman long gone from their lives. They passed several hours before Victoria took her leave. Thanks to the Barkleys, especially Victoria, the Erikson's enjoyed the best Christmas they had in years.
Riding home Victoria smiled thinking of the ranch when Beth's mother was still alive. How awful Sam allowed his bitterness to prevent their children from living in the warm, loving, and laughter filled home their mother created. It was these bitter changes which created an urgency in Victoria's heart. Victoria grew as anxious as her quietly determined son to bring this young woman, her daughter, home.
"Nothing in common?", Had been Beth's reaction when Nick allowed his ample skeptical side to question her relationship with his brother one morning when Victoria begged her to stay for a meal.
"No, Victoria, I want to answer. Thank you but I don't mind."
Beth sat forward and stared directly into Nick's eyes. She had five brothers and wasn't afraid to stand her ground against any man, not even Nick Barkley.
"I know you aren't interested in any of the romantic stuff like how much I love, respect, and care for your brother so I'll skip to something which might interest you."
Nick suddenly felt sheepish in her stare and sat back to listen.
"Heath and I grew up in unusual home situations. Mine devoid of love or a sense of being of value to my father. His devoid of life's basic necessities food when you are hungry, warmth when it is cold, and clothes on your back. Plus Heath was saddled with a sense of being unwelcome and unworthy throughout his community. Heath did know he was loved, loved beyond measure from what he's shared with me. For this blessing we can all thank Leah.
"But Nick, here's another thing we share which separates us from most. We've both spent our lives being measured by what our father's did, not by our own deeds. Because of this, and so much more, Heath and I can understand each other and realize the importance of our dreams. Dreams others, like yourself, take for granted such as a home, a family, and building a life with someone you love. Does any of this help you understand?"
Nick was no longer sitting back he listened intently then reached across to touch Beth's hand. A wonderful smile crossed his face.
"I understand Heath is one lucky guy! That's what I understand."
Beth knew joking was Nick's way of coping with a situation where he didn't know what to say. He crossed and kissed his mother's cheek then suddenly came back over and kissed Beth's forehead. When he left she and Victoria smiled and shook their heads. The last hurdle, Nick's doubt, was successfully defeated and from that morning on Beth was a member of the family.
As her buggy moved back toward the ranch Victoria thought back on these and so many other times when she'd learned more and more about Elizabeth, Heath's Beth. Her new daughter's obvious joy in her unbridled love of Heath warmed Victoria's heart. The words they shared in person and in writing united the women in their mutual respect and love of her son.
Beth was an intelligent, quick witted, and refreshingly beautiful woman, but Sam Erikson created a formidable barrier for a smooth transition into her proper role as an official Barkley family member. Victoria wondered if her Christmas attempt to ease the way with Sam would help the young people at all? Even if it didn't, it was wonderful to see the expression on everyone's faces as they opened their packages. Victoria took a smaller package of riding gloves for Beth to cover the fact her main gift was hidden upstairs.
Heath, Victoria, and their family were becoming impatient with the secrecy. One morning, Beth always visited early in the day, the entire family rejoiced in Beth's agreement to finally publicly announce her acceptance of Heath's marriage proposal.
Gathered around the breakfast table they listened as the excited young couple explained their need for assistance to arrange their wedding plans. Although everyone understood and respected Beth's loyalty toward her brother they feared for her safety as she played a waiting game. Beth would not consider moving out before she made sure David was legally an adult and able to choose to stay or leave the ranch.
From what everyone could tell from her stories Beth negotiated peace around the Erikson ranch quite often. The place could be a powder keg without her calm influence. They understood her logic but they all worried. Before she left that morning Beth begged for everyone's assistance in helping Heath wait ... His anger knowing the woman he loved was in a dangerous, unhappy, and too long endured situation was a constant strain for him to contain.
Heath's recovery began to speed up after the holidays. He was normally quiet which made it hard to differentiate when he felt well or ill, but everyone noticed Heath disappearing into his room less and less. Perhaps, given time, his headaches would slack off or finally disappear once and for all. Although he rode far and often with his brothers, Heath didn't fight them for his independence as long as he rode alone to meet Beth for their weekly visits. Between their meetings Heath's days were full of gradually increasing chore lists and a resumption of his part in the ranch's operations.
One morning every week Beth and Heath enjoyed a ride and spent their time far away from either ranch. Beth wore the small heart pendant Heath gave her for Christmas at all times. He bought an extra long gold chain so she could easily keep it under her clothes.
David's birthday was the first of February. The Barkley's and Beth discussed a small wedding at the ranch but dropped those plans after a incident in Stockton a few days after Christmas. It was painfully clear Sam Erikson wasn't going to approve of Beth's marriage and could still be a threat to Heath's safety. The struggling young couple was severely distracted by their situation and Heath's family stepped in to make the wedding arrangements.
The plan was for Heath to meet Beth on February 1st and take the morning train to San Francisco where Jarrod's friend, a judge, would immediately marry them. Sam Erikson couldn't interfere once Beth was officially, legally, and forever a Barkley.
If anyone had second thoughts about this arrangement the incident in town convinced them an elopement was in order. Victoria and Heath were packing up a wagon of clothing donations at the church to take out to the orphanage. Sam Erikson rode up on his way to the general store while Heath was inside and Victoria waited in the wagon. Victoria and Sam exchanged pleasantries which once more built her hopes for the young couple, but when Heath walked out and offered holiday greetings Sam swung around wildly in his saddle.
A large wad of spittle slapped across Heath's face and shirt.
"What right do you have to talk to me, boy? I thought we had an understanding last October? You must be duller than dirt not to take hold of the sense I slammed into your head that evening!"
"Sam! I thought ... "
Erikson cut Victoria off, "You thought wrong . A few gifts and silly stories don't change some facts for me".
Heath stood holding tight to the side of the wagon, fighting for control while his mother placed her hand on his shoulder in support.
Sam moved his gaze from Victoria and back to Heath, "Trash is trash and just cause you Barkleys decided to take pity on a drunken itch in Tom Barkley's pants ain't none of my business. Unlessen your bastard tries to have anything to do with me or my family".
Erikson waited, watching Heath's struggle for control. Feeling satisfied with his venomous dissertation, the bitter man rode away.
"Heath?", Victoria smiled as she watched her son walk over and wash his face with water from the church's pump.
"It wasn't worth it," He looked up and smiled then watched Erikson ride away.
Heath walked back and got up beside Victoria and took the reins. They headed out of Stockton. Victoria slid over and wrapped her arms around him.
"What did I do to deserve such a great hug?"
"You meant what you said."
"When you told me 'no one can make me feel insignificant unless I let them'. Not too long ago you would have fought Sam."
Heath laughed and smiled at his mother, "I didn't feel good about myself not to long ago and I didn't have Beth. Fighting her father would be a waste of time and more importantly might hurt Beth in some way. He isn't worth it".
Victoria held on tight swollen with pride.
Finally it was the first of February, Beth and Heath's wedding day. The Barkley household glowed with excitement. After a wonderfully joyous send-off Nick rode with Heath to the Erikson's. No words were exchanged after the last farewells. The men contemplated keeping their cool in order to be successful in carrying out their nonviolent plan.
They arrived on the Erikson ranch at sunrise. Heath brought the gorgeous mare Beth had been wildly admiring for months not knowing he bought it as a wedding present for her. Today the love of his life would ride her gift towards their new life. The day seemed almost anticlimactic after all the months of planning.
Sam Erikson met them out front as he crossed the yard on his way back from the barn. He immediately became annoyed beyond logic when Steven and David waved while yelling their excited greetings to the Barkleys. His dander was completely up when Heath ignored his warnings and walked boldly up to the front door.
"Hold on a minute, Sam! You just take it easy now."
Nick sat holding the reins with his gun aimed directly at Erikson's head.
"You're trespassing, Barkley, and so is your ... That bastard!!!"
"We'll be out of here in a minute. Just stay put!"
The five brothers surrounded their father and two of them stood watching wearing enormous grins. Heath knocked on the door and Beth answered. They all stood silent for a long moment when she walked out into the first morning light on Heath's arm.
"Well, what the HELL is going on around here?"
Steven answered as he grinned from ear to ear, "Today is Beth's wedding day, pa".
"OVER MY DEAD BODY!"
Nick laughed and whispered, "That can be arranged, Sam. That can be arranged!".
Heath helped Beth up on her horse and tied her small bag behind her. They were unaware of the other's watchful eyes having already moved into their own new world.
Before he mounted Charger, Heath stopped long enough to rest a hand on Beth's leg. Gazing up, he was floored by her beauty. She looked down unable to stop smiling. Beth felt beautiful in the dress Victoria gave her for Christmas with Heath's necklace proudly dangling outside for all to see. It was the first dress she'd even owned and when Heath looked at her in it ... Chills ran up and down her spine while she felt shockwaves of electricity throughout her entire body.
"Are you sure, Beth?", Heath whispered.
She never took her eyes off Heath and answered, "I'm sure. I love you and I want to be your wife".
Heath smiled and mounted Charger. They took off down the road while Sam spilled profanities left and right. Only Nick heard him.
The train ride was wonderful. Beth and Heath sat close and held on tight. Finally able to be together, their joy couldn't be deterred as they ignored the stares and wrapped their arms around each other. Jarrod met them at the station and quickly walked them to the judge's chambers. They left Stockton early enough to make it to San Francisco before dark. Everything was going as the Barkley's carefully planned.
Jarrod stood for Heath and his steady companion, Danielle, stood for Beth. The couple's oldest brother arranged everything in great detail. The marriage license was prepared and only needed signed. Danielle handed Beth a lovely bouquet while Jarrod pinned a boutonniere on Heath's lapel. Finally the words had been said and they were married. Months of planning were paying off.
They shook hands with the judge and Danielle excused herself to attend a party which Jarrod would join later. Beth and Heath were prepared to continue following the plan as they understood it. They got in the carriage expecting a ride back to the station for the late train to Stockton. Instead of heading for the station Jarrod drove the rented carriage out of town then up a long winding hill towards a small, elegant, and marvelously placed inn. Heath and his bride didn't notice his detour until they were almost at their new destination, a wedding gift from the entire Barkley family. Jarrod pulled up the team as the inn's owner and his wife rushed out and welcomed them.
"What are you up to, Jarrod?", Heath looked around and admired the view of the Pacific. The small romantic inn was in a perfect location for quiet, beauty, and privacy.
Jarrod wrapped his arms around Beth and kissed her, smiling as he winked at the owners, replying, "Consider this the family's wedding present. My friends here run a marvelous establishment. It is called Lover's Cove Inn and for good reason!".
Beth stood with an arm around Jarrod's waist and realized he wanted them to stay. Heath walked back towards his brother with a questioning look.
"This wasn't in the plan. Besides, neither of us packed a thing."
Jarrod laughed and pulled Heath into his circle with Beth. The owner slipped a key in Jarrod's hand and the older couple excused themselves.
"Everything mother and I thought you might need is in your bungalow."
"Yes, number six. It is right down that foot trail over there. By the way the bungalow is pretty much self-sufficient. All the food, drink, and anything you may need is provided plus the staff will gladly meet your every desire."
"Oh Jarrod ... ", Beth held on and gave him an enormous hug.
Heath raised his eyebrow high, questioning, "You seem to know quite a bit about the place, big brother?".
Jarrod laughed and kissed Beth once more before shaking Heath's hand then quickly stepping back up in the carriage.
"That's true, Heath. To tell you the absolute truth the view from number six is spectacular. Of course you may not notice it! If I had a wife even half as beautiful as the lady on your arm ... Well, let's just say I wouldn't be sightseeing or out here talking."
"Good night, Jarrod. Thank you."
"Good night. Remember you aren't expected back for at least a week!", Jarrod laughed as he pulled away.
The newlyweds joined hands and easily found their way to the three room bungalow resting on a magnificent cliff over the Pacific Ocean. Heath opened the door and peeked in then turned lifting Beth up in his arms. They went inside and swung the door closed.
Heath held his bride tight while they both looked around astounded to see the wonders of the place. Both fireplaces were aglow, iced champagne on the table, a side board full of luscious food, and a large bouquet of flowers greeted their eyes while the sounds of the ocean below crashing on the cliffs filled the air with magic.
"My goodness, I think Jarrod must have been holding out on me. I can't believe he never mentioned this place!"
Beth smiled, passionately kissed her husband, then wiggled down from his arms and wrapped herself firmly around his waist. They stood for a long moment then Heath turned gazing into Beth's eyes while he absent-mindedly played with her necklace. They made it their life together was now a legal reality!
"Com'on, Mr Barkley!", Beth pulled Heath's hands and used the glow of the living room fire to past through the dining area towards a small staircase up to the landing with it's large bedroom area. The bedroom's glowing fireplace gently enhanced the enormous view of the cliffs and ocean below.
By the time they reached the top of the stairs they were entwined finally allowing their long denied passion to surface while shedding clothing with each step. Heath pulled her into an embrace and then lifted her slightly and walked to the bed. He laid down next to her and took in the sight of the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Beth reached up and pulled him toward her but he hesitated.
"Are you sure, Mrs Barkley?"
Beth returned his smile then pulled him down into her arms.
Heath slept most of the way to Stockton. Beth laughed as she thought back to this morning when they checked out of the Inn. The owners readily admitted quite a few of their customers were as surprised as she and Heath to finally see how lovely the world outside their bungalow was. The Barkleys agreed to return and maybe next time enjoy more than their room.
Laughing to herself Beth reached over and stroked some hair from Heath's forehead. She had no idea what waited for them in Stockton. Whatever faced them she was thankful they'd make it through together. Love like theirs was an uncommon gift and Beth trusted it completely.
Nick jabbered away on the ride back to the ranch but neither of them focused on his words. Instead they held tight and enjoyed the last few remaining moments of their honeymoon. A few times Heath attempted to answer one of Nick's questions but mostly they vaguely listened while concentrating on each other.
They pulled up and Nick jumped down quickly grabbing the bags full of clothes Victoria picked out and sent for each of them. Heath helped his bride down and she melted into Victoria's arms while Audra embraced Heath.
"Welcome home, Beth. Welcome home," Victoria spoke quietly while her emotions made her hold her new daughter tight for a long moment.
Heath, Nick, and Audra were discussing something when the two women took a step back allowing their eyes to meet and keeping their hands tight in each others. Beth's tears matched her new mother's while their smiles expressed the joy they both felt in their hearts. The others continued to congratulate, hug, and tease Heath but the two women ignored them all and held each others gaze.
"Victoria ... "
"Mother, please. If that's all right with you, Beth?"
"Oh, yes! I would be proud ... "
Victoria placed one of her hands gently over her daughter's mouth preventing further words. They melted into another long embrace.
Beth whispered, "Thank you, mother. Thank you".
They laughed when Nick complained about all the tears and took the last few things from the buggy inside. Audra and Victoria wrapped their arms around each other and followed close behind. The entire family headed for the living room and the first of many champagne toasts they had planned.
Hand and hand, Beth and Heath Barkley entered the house with their family. This day and the many years to follow would be the realization of many dreams they were to share. This was the beginning of a long, fruitful, and happy life.