Heath gathered his things hurriedly from the room as he had promised to meet his brothers at the ranch by noon. His brothers. It had a curious ring to it. Yesterday he was an orphan with a morbid curiosity to see how the other half lived; determined he would get his due. Today he was on the verge of becoming the newest member of a family of five; a family he had only become aware of a month ago. He was at once excited and anxious. His stomach churned. Suddenly he didn’t feel so bold as he had when he first arrived.
He nearly burst onto the street with his saddlebags flung over his shoulder. The town was quieter now that the railroad men had left. In one swift, fluid motion, he dropped the bags across his horse’s rump and swung into the saddle. In his hurry, he swung with his head too close to the horse’s neck and tipped his hat from his head. With no apparent effort, he snatched the hat from the air, turned the horse and spurred him into motion then slapped the hat over his thick mat of sandy blonde hair as his mount broke into a trot.
Heath sat tall in the saddle, holding his reins with one hand, the other resting on his thigh. In the gathering heat of late morning, the breeze created by the horse’s swift stride was made pleasantly warm. A broad smile graced his young face. It seemed almost a dream to be here in this place. For a month now, he had thought of only angry things but today…today he would arrive.
He reflected on the last month, a month of grief and regret. He thought of all the things he didn’t do, the time he didn’t spend, the appreciation he didn’t show. But his mother was so young and in his own youth, he never considered the possibility of her loss. She never complained and she never held him back, always encouraging him towards his dreams. He traveled to far-flung places, moving from pillar to post in search of new adventure. She relished the letters he sent describing the places she would never see. In return, she didn’t mention her illness. Only when she was too weak to write did she ask a friend to call him home.
His smiled waned slightly and he drew a deep breath. Though Heath knew that many in Strawberry looked down on he and his mother, as a child he assumed it was their poverty that offended them. His mother was often criticized for not marrying in order to better her son’s lot but Heath hadn’t realized she had never been married to his father. No one spoke of it openly, at least not around him and his mother, who spoke fondly of his father when he was a boy, only mentioned the man when asked by the time Heath reached his teens. Heath assumed a great deal and his mother allowed his imagination to fill in the blanks. As a result, he grew to believe his father disappeared in a mining accident. As an adult, he rarely thought about him at all. Although he often wondered what it would be like to have a father, it was hard to miss something he never had. Illegitimacy never crossed his mind.
Heath pulled his hat from his head and mopped his brow with his shirtsleeve. Replacing the hat, he urged his horse to turn up the road to the ranch, just a mile ahead. His stomach flopped and Heath emitted a loud belch then rubbed his belly with his free hand. He shook his head slowly, grimaced and then swallowed hard. Calm yourself, man, he said aloud then urged his horse into a cantor.
His thoughts turned again to his childhood and his smile returned. Although, they had been among the poorest of the poor, he and his mother had been happy. They worked hard and enjoyed each other’s company. Hannah and Aunt Rachel were his mother’s best friends and to him they were his family. The only real unpleasantness had been his Uncle Matt and Aunt Martha but he didn’t want to waste time thinking about the bad. The road ahead could only be good. Heath resisted the urge to spur his horse into a gallop.
Finally, the ranch loomed in the distance and seemed to grow ominous as it neared. He thought of how he would handle himself. They were sure to be full of questions and rightfully so. How odd, though, that Mrs. Barkley would speak such words to him last night. Did she believe him? He thought she did or else he wouldn’t have shown up at Sample’s farm. But why did she? And that look. She gazed at him with a look of longing, as though she actually wished he were her son, as if she thought that anything that came from her husband was rightfully hers. His heart melted at her words and he felt oddly comforted in her presence. She was as much a victim of Tom Barkley’s negligence as he and his mother and it was for her that he fought the battle this morning.
Heath reined his horse to trot then came to a halt outside the bunkhouse. He slid from the saddle then reached for the saddlebags, removed them, flung them over his shoulder and stepped onto the porch. As he reached for the doorknob, the door was jerked open. The foreman, Duke McCall came through and the two men almost collided. Heath stepped back as did McCall.
“Heath?” McCall asked, more out of surprise than lack of recognition. “The boss said you were to meet him up at the house.” He paused and eyed Heath suspiciously. “And take your gear with you.” He paused again, waiting for Heath to respond. “You better get a move on. Barkleys don’t like being made to wait. I’ll have one of the men take care of your horse and saddle.”
Heath took another step back and nodded. He turned uncertainly towards the house then glanced back at McCall who nodded in return. Heath marched toward the house and approached the front door. He reached to knock then stopped. He swallowed, licked his suddenly parched lips and then took a deep breath before reaching for the doorknob. He withdrew his hand again and decided it best to knock. He was not one of them…yet.
The family gathered quietly in the parlor, waiting for their guest to arrive. Eugene stood at the window while Jarrod leaned against the mantle. Victoria and Audra each occupied a chair while Nick paced nervously about the room. The clock in the hall tolled the noon hour.
“He’s late.” Nick announced irritably.
“No he’s not.” Eugene said quietly from the window. “He’s standing on the porch.”
“Well, what the devil is he doing?” Nick demanded as he strode toward Eugene.
Eugene shrugged without looking away. “Just standing there like he isn’t sure whether or not to knock.”
“Perhaps he knows he’s about to face the inquisition,” Jarrod said with a wry smile.
“Silas!” Nick called. He waited until the hurried servant appeared. “Would you let our guest in please?”
Silas looked at the door questioningly then back at Nick. “Yes sir, Mr. Barkley.”
As he reached for the door, Heath finally knocked. Silas paused for an instant then opened the door. He ushered Heath in, presented him to the waiting Barkley clan then left with Heath’s saddlebags and hat with instructions from Victoria to wait until she called for lunch. Heath stood in the arched doorway, staring at his newfound yet silent relatives and swallowed. He felt as though he were going to his execution.
“Howdy,” He finally managed. A nervous smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Jarrod glanced about the room and then looked back at Heath as he moved to welcome him in.
“Heath,” he said with a nod and extended hand. “Come on in.”
Jarrod placed a hand to Heath’s shoulder to guide him in. Heath, unsure what to do with his empty hands, slid them into his pockets as he and Jarrod came to a stop at the coffee table.
“I believe,” Jarrod said, “you may have met everyone present but I don’t think we’ve all been formally introduced.” He pointed to each member of the family respectively. “I know you’ve been introduced to my brothers, Nick and Eugene.”
Heath shook hands with each one while Jarrod continued. “As you know, Nick runs the ranch and Eugene here is on summer vacation from college.” He turned Heath towards his mother and sister. “I believe you met my sister yesterday, the somewhat untamed Miss Audra Barkley.”
Audra blushed when their eyes met. Her behavior the night before had been less than ladylike and she had taken quite a tongue lashing from her two older brothers. They nodded to each other.
“Last but not least,” Jarrod said with a slight bow to his mother, “my mother, Mrs. Victoria Barkley.”
Heath found it difficult to maintain eye contact with Victoria and he didn’t know how to interpret the meaning of her expression. “Ma’am,” he said softly.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Heath.” She responded with a clear confident voice. “Now, why don’t you have a seat and tell us a little bit about yourself.”
Heath took the chair opposite Victoria and Audra with his back to the door. Nick and Eugene stood behind the women and Jarrod resumed his place next to the mantle. Heath chuckled softly. “I’m not sure what to say Ma’am other than what’s already been said.”
“Well now, boy,” Nick said. “I’m afraid that’s not good enough.”
Heath eyed Nick for an instant before responding. “It seems to me you folks have already made up your minds.”
"To a degree Heath, yes we have.” Jarrod intervened. “But only based on the information you’ve already given us. We have discussed your claim as well as your actions. Although we aren’t convinced of your story, albeit a touching one, we were impressed with your decision to take up the fight this morning. What we’ve agreed to do is to begin this discussion at the point of accepting that you, at least, believe what you say.”
“If you don’t believe me, why give me that much?” Heath asked.
“Good question.” Nick said with a frown as he crossed his arms across his chest.
“Now Heath,” Victoria said, taking her turn at intervention. “You must realize this has come as quite a shock to us. Remember, you came to us so, it is your responsibility to convince us that you, a total stranger, is telling the truth.”
Heath relaxed a bit in his chair. Once again, he found himself comforted by her words. “Yes Ma’am, I reckon you’re right about that.”
“So, why don’t you start by telling us where you’re from?” Nick said leaning against the back of his mother’s chair. “West of the divide seems a bit vague.”
Heath nodded slightly in agreement. “Strawberry. I’m from Strawberry.”
Victoria took a deep breath. “Yes, well, and your mother’s name?”
Heath frowned and blinked. It was a painful question. He glanced at Nick before answering. “Leah…Leah Thomson.”
“Then that would make you Heath Thomson.” Audra said.
Heath glanced at the floor then looked up again with a pained expression. “Not exactly.” He said.
“What do you mean not exactly?” Nick asked. “It was your mother’s name, right?”
“So, that would make you Heath Thomson.” Eugene added matter of fact.
“Yes.” Audra chimed in.
Heath looked uncomfortably about him. Victoria looked furtively at Jarrod who glanced at the floor before taking a deep breath.
“I don’t have a last name.” Heath said flatly, holding his rage in check.
“That’s ridiculous,” Nick scoffed. “How can you not have a last name? I thought it was the practice of these women to give their b…um…children…”
“I believe the word you’re looking for is bastard.” Heath fumed.
“Heath,” Victoria said soothingly, “in spite of Nick’s clumsy efforts, we are not here to pass judgment on anyone’s character, least of all, your mother’s. We’ve already accepted that you are illegitimate. What we want to determine is if there is enough evidence to convince us that your father is in fact my husband. If Thomas Barkley is your father then the last thing we want to do is impugn your mother because if we do…” she glanced at Nick, “if we do then we impugn a man that we all hold in the highest esteem.”
Everyone paused and took in the gravity of Victoria’s words. Jarrod cleared his throat and stepped forward, slipping his hands into his pockets.
“Nick,” Jarrod began, “unfortunately Heath is right. He has no legal name, only a given one. According to the law, a child assumes his father’s name but only if the parents are married. That is part of being legitimate. The only way an illegitimate child can legally assume a last name is to petition the court.”
“But what about a birth certificate?” Audra asked.
Heath knit his brow in confusion and Jarrod chuckled. “Audra, most people don’t have birth certificates unless they were born in a hospital and a birth certificate is hardly a legal document. If anything, what most people have is a card signed by a midwife or a doctor.”
“Well, I wasn’t born in a hospital, and I have a birth certificate.” Audra argued.
Nick rolled his eyes. “For cryin’ out loud, can we get back to the subject? Who cares about birth certificates? Even if he had one it doesn’t matter because the name on it would probably be Thomson. And all that’s going to tell us is what we already know!”
“Well, then why on earth wouldn’t he use his mother’s name?” Eugene demanded.
“Heath,” Victoria pleaded. “Surely you used a name growing up? Why on earth would your mother not give you her name, legally or otherwise?”
Heath sat with his jaw clenched. He gritted his teeth and stared back at Victoria.
“Well, what about it?” Nick demanded as he came from around his mother’s chair and approached Heath. “You can tell us, or we can hire someone to find out. Take your pick!”
“Surely, Heath,” Jarrod tried to intervene, “you used a last name, even if you made one up.”
“Yes,” Audra added, “you had to have used something. Surely someone would have questioned you if you never used a last name.”
“Yeah,” Eugene said. “The only people who don’t use last names are people who are hiding something.”
“Maybe you’re afraid if we know the real last name, we’ll find a different story.” Nick said accusingly. “Maybe what we’ll find is a different father. One who left you nothing…but his name!”
Heath glowered at Nick and gripped the arms of his chair. He felt as though the wolves were circling. Nick inched closer with his fists to his hips and stood threateningly over Heath. “A name boy.”
Heath’s head was beginning to spin from the effort of holding back. He looked from one expectant face to another. Why couldn’t he say it?
“Nick,” Jarrod said. “That’s enough.”
“I want to know a name!” Nick bellowed, “Before we make any decisions, I want to know the name you used! If your name was Thomson, how did you make a connection between you and my father? You said yourself that your mother died before she told you what the secret was.” He pointed a demanding finger at Heath. “Talk boy before I beat it out of you!”
“Nick, that’s enough!” Jarrod commanded. He turned to Heath whose grip tightened around the arms of the chair. Heath’s temples and jaw pulsed with anger and his breaths were becoming heavy. Jarrod moved closer and leaned over him. “Now Heath, how old were you when you started your first job?”
“10.” He stared straight ahead at Victoria.
“What name did you give your first boss?”
“I didn’t, he already knew my name.”
Audra and Eugene were leaning forward expectantly. Jarrod took a deep breath as Nick stepped back. “All right then, Heath, surely you had a name other than your given one that you used. A name you gave to people, employers who didn’t know you.”
“I didn’t give you any other name.”
“Then perhaps a name you used when you signed a bill of sale.” Jarrod said, stepping up the pressure. “Or to pick up a payroll check?”
“I always did business with a hand shake and cash.” He continued to stare at Victoria who stared back, unblinking. Her own breath was labored with expectation and tears began to well in her eyes.
“What about the army, did you serve during the war?” Jarrod said loudly. “If so, you had to have given a last name!”
Heath suddenly bolted to his feet. Jarrod and Nick moved back in surprise. Eugene and Audra flinched and Victoria jumped in her seat.
“Barkley!” He yelled in an explosion of fury. He trembled where he stood, barely able to control himself. “My name is Barkley! I am Heath Barkley! I have always been Heath Barkley!” He turned to Nick, his fists clenched at his side. “You want to hire someone to check it out? Go ahead! Anyone left in Strawberry will tell you, anyone I’ve ever met will tell you! My name…is Heath…Barkley!”
Victoria emitted a gasp and a hand flew to her face. Audra was instantly at her side. Eugene stepped from around Audra’s chair and stood next to Nick and Jarrod who stood dumbfounded.
Heath took several deep breaths as the room fell quiet. The silence was deafening. His head was spinning and his mouth watered. He swallowed several times and thought he might faint from exhaustion. He took a step back and sat heavily in the chair. He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair, bowed his head with his eyes closed then caressed his hairline and forehead with his fingertips.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. He looked up at Victoria and repeated his words. “I’m sorry.”
Victoria took a deep breath, gave a wan smile and whispered through her tears. “It’s okay…it’s okay.”
“Mrs. Barkley.” Silas called from the hall, taking the silence as his cue but startling everyone in the room.
“Yes Silas?” Victoria answered.
“Lunch is ready, Mrs. Barkley. Do you want I should serve it or just keep it warm for later?”
Victoria looked around at her family and then at Heath. He was starving. Other than a couple of apples, he had not eaten since yesterday. He thought he would be sick if he didn’t eat soon. The clocked chimed 3.
As if she had read Heath’s mind, Victoria finally answered. “Yes Silas I believe we could all do with something to eat. You go ahead and set the table and we’ll be there in a few minutes.” She looked around at her family then at Heath. “I’m afraid we must have lost track of time. We can resume our conversation after dinner.”
An awkward silence followed the Barkleys and their new arrival into the dining room. Victoria directed Heath to the chair next to Audra and opposite Nick. Heath hesitated after sitting, waiting to see how the family conducted themselves before he spoke or acted. When all heads bowed, Heath followed suit.
“Lord we thank you,” Victoria began, “for this food to nourish our bodies, and we thank you for bringing us Heath, giving us the opportunity to welcome him into the fold of our family. Amen”
An uncertain Amen rippled around the table. Heath raised his head and locked eyes with Nick. Nick looked away as platters were passed. He glanced at his mother.
“It seems to me Mother,” Nick said, “that you’re jumping the gun just a little. Don’t you think we have a few more things to talk about before we decide he’s a Barkley?”
Everyone looked at Victoria who continued to fill her plate. After taking the food from the last platter, she sat it aside, leaned back in her chair and addressed her family.
“No Nicholas,” She said. “I do not. I am quite satisfied that he believes he is a Barkley and that he is not running a confidence game.”
“So are we to understand,” Jarrod said, “that you believe his story? Or are you saying that you think he believes his story?”
“What I am saying Jarrod, is that I believe he is your brother.”
Everyone, including Heath, sat up in surprise. Heath had expected more of fight than this.
“Oh come on now!” Nick shouted. “The fact that his mother gave him the Barkley name doesn’t mean Father had anything to do with him! He may believe it himself but that doesn’t make it true!”
“Mother,” Audra added. “Are you saying you believe Father was unfaithful?”
The pointed question gave Victoria a physical jolt. She blinked back tears. Heath looked guiltily down at his plate. When Victoria failed to answer, Heath decided to speak up.
“You know,” he began slowly, “in coming here, it wasn’t my intention to hurt anyone.”
Nick slammed his knife and fork to the table and sat back in his chair to interrupt Heath’s words but Victoria stopped him before he could offer a rebuttal.
“Let him finish,” she said. “We will hear him out to everyone’s satisfaction…Go ahead Heath.”
“Like I said,” he continued. “I didn’t intend to hurt anyone. But I was so angry when I found out…well…I guess I didn’t think. At least not clearly.”
“Do you have any other family Heath?” Victoria asked. With that question, the mood relaxed and everyone slowly began to eat as they listened and questioned.
“No ma’am. My mother had a couple of close friends who were like family and I have and aunt and uncle in town but we were never close. Fact is, I hardly ever saw them.”
“So what have you been doing for the last month?” Nick asked calmly though still with an accusing tone.
Heath glanced up with a knowing look and the corner of his mouth twitched as if he were resisting a smile. “What anyone would do when their mother dies. I made burial and funeral arrangements, settled the last of her affairs, grieved for a spell, wondered why the world didn’t seem to notice, then moved on. What did you do when your father died?”
Although Heath’s tone was not smart or condescending, the question stung nonetheless. Understanding the point of Heath’s question, Jarrod was the first to speak up.
“Heath, I’m sorry if we have been insensitive to the fact that you have recently lost your mother, but as it was pointed out earlier, this whole thing has come as a shock to us. Nick’s question isn’t an unreasonable one.”
“It certainly isn’t.” Nick asserted. Jarrod shot him a warning glance.
“I remember how I felt.” Audra said in answer to Heath’s question. “The next day, it seemed like the world was continuing as if nothing had changed. I wanted to find the highest place around and shout, don’t you realize what’s happened?”
“I know how that feels,” Heath said. “But thousands of people showed up for your father’s funeral. The only people at my mother’s were the remnants of a dying town…minus my aunt and uncle. I wanted to shout alright.”
Nick took a deep breath and clenched his teeth. “Now I am sorry about that Heath. I mean that. But I still don’t believe that my father was unfaithful.” He looked around the room to garner support and spoke with a rising tone. “Is it just me, or does anyone else find it difficult to believe that he would have committed adultery?”
After a pause, Victoria spoke up. “There is a curious set of double standards that exists in our society. We expect that women will keep themselves pure for their wedding night. However, the man is expected to be experienced. In our churches, we preach that there should be no sex before marriage but a man is expected to have many conquests before he ever reaches the point of marriage. And where he does he get his experience? The women he is expected to prey upon. However, the woman who gives into his seduction is considered weak and sinful. I would put to you Nick, and to everyone else, that we are not offended by such behavior until there is physical evidence of it. And, it is the woman who withstands the worst of that offense because she bears that evidence. The presence of Heath and children like him is the stark reminder that we often do not practice what we preach. Most people, Nicholas, do not like to be reminded of that.”
Victoria paused to allow her words to sink in. She glanced around the table to observe their expressions as they all stared at their plates then continued.
“I will also put it to you that our society expects men to be unfaithful, especially when they are away from their wives and family. According to what I hear and read, it is likely that more than fifty percent of married men are unfaithful at one time or another. Yet few women would ever admit [I]their[/I] husband could be one of that majority. Now we can all sit here and be like most people, confident in our belief that our father or husband would never be one of those men.” Victoria’s voice cracked. “However, as great a man as your father was, he was nothing if he wasn’t human.”
Eugene reached out and patted his mother’s hand before taking it in his. Nick rested his elbow on the table and rubbed his chin, while Heath and Audra continued to stare at their plates. Jarrod leaned back in his chair and smiled at his mother. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly then allowed an appropriate amount of time to pass before speaking.
“Mother, I can’t argue with any of that and your point is well taken. However, I have a feeling that there is more to your quick acceptance that Heath is in fact Father’s son.”
Everyone glanced at Victoria in expectation and Victoria returned Jarrod’s knowing gaze.
“Yes, Jarrod, you could say there is.” She pulled her hand from Eugene’s and folded both in her lap. “In the early years, your father went on many extended business trips. So, certainly the opportunity was there for an affair. After hearing Heath’s story last night, I remembered at least one time when I suspected it. But Heath didn’t say where he was from.” She breathed in and continued. When I saw Heath later, which was the first time I had a chance to see him close up, I saw something familiar.”
Heath arched a brow in question and waited for Victoria to continue. Nick seemed to suddenly deflate. He sighed heavily and slumped in his chair in a manner that drew everyone’s attention.
“We tend to remember lost loved ones as we last saw them. But Nick, your father wasn’t always a 60-year-old man with gray hair and all the injuries, aches and pains common to a workingman his age. Once upon a time, he was young, clean-shaven and blonde headed. When I saw Heath at the fire…I knew. Earlier, when he said he was from Strawberry, well, that was all the evidence I needed.”
Everyone was looking at Heath, who blinked rapidly as he looked with admiration at Victoria. She continued and addressed Heath as she spoke.
“When Tom returned from that last trip to Strawberry, I knew something had happened. He was different. I could see it and he knew that I could see it. I asked him once if there was something he needed to discuss and he said no. I felt that, as his wife, I had to respect his decision to keep whatever troubled him to himself. Given that I had a suspicion as to what it was, I wanted it to go away as much as he did. Life returned to normal and he never spoke of it.”
Everyone sat thoughtfully for several minutes. Only occasional eye contact was made. Heath felt as though all eyes were on him, so he kept his head down and pushed the food around his plate. A few bites were taken but they al seemed to have lost what little appetite they had.
“I think,” Victoria finally spoke up, “that one of the saddest aspects of an unwedded union is that few appreciate how wonderful it is that another child has graced our presence.” Everyone looked up at Victoria in surprise. Heath’s brow was knit in question. “No matter painful it is that our husband or father might have been unfaithful. Or that our mother might have had a moment of weakness, a child is always a blessing. No matter what may have occurred or why, Heath, you are not to blame.”
Heath didn’t know what to say. He looked around the table and was surprised by the accepting nods and smiles. Even Nick appeared to concede. “That’s mighty gracious of you Mrs. Barkley. I’m not sure what I expected when I headed this way, but it sure wasn’t this.”
Nick leaned forward. “Well, just what was it you wanted when you decided to come her.”
“Well,” Heath said with a nervous laugh. “I wasn’t sure what I’d find, but I knew Tom Barkley had a family. If Tom Barkley had a family, then I had one too. I guess I wanted to know what my family was like, see how you lived.” Heath paused and shifted in his seat. “I hadn’t planned to tell you folks so soon.” He cocked his head and smiled. “Fact is Nick, if you hadn’t beat it out of me, I might have lost my nerve and never said anything at all.” Heath looked down and nervously picked at his food with his fork. “Fact is you all seemed like good folks. I think if I’d had a chance to get to know you before this came out, well…I would have lost my nerve. Like I said before, I didn’t intend to hurt anyone.”
“Well Heath,” Jarrod said grandly, “if there is one thing we all know about brother Nick here its this. He can undoubtedly foul up the most well thought out plan!”
This brought out a hearty laugh from all. The family finally settled into their meal and the conversation took on a more cordial tone. Heath answered their questions with little or no hesitation. They were curious about his life, what it was like growing up in the mining camp. There was relief among the Barkleys that, although poor, Heath and his mother had been relatively happy. As Heath kept pointing out, its hard to miss what you’ve never had. Even Nick found himself liking this new younger brother.
As the conversation slowed and the meal was eaten, Silas finally entered and suggested they retire to the study where he would serve cake and coffee. They all agreed this was a wonderful idea. Victoria and Heath led the way and the family settled into discussing Heath’s place in the family. Since his work experience was that of manual labor, he would naturally work with Nick. Heath’s pay would be generous but a lot was expected of him. The family would officially introduce him to the men in the morning. When the clock tolled ten, Heath rose to excuse himself.
“I reckon I better be getting’ on.” Heath said. “The sun rises early and I haven’t had much sleep since I got here yesterday.” He looked nervously around the room.
“Well, we still have many things to discuss Heath.” Victoria said. “But I’m sure there will be plenty of time for that. I’ll have Silas show you to your room.”
“You’re staying here of course?” Audra said.
Heath was stunned. He shook his head. “Now I don’t want to impose.”
“Heath, your family,” Jarrod said. “And this is where our family lives.”
Heath was overwhelmed. He stood looking from one smiling face to another. Nick stood with his arms crossed across his chest. Heath faced him when he finally spoke. “I promise you folks won’t regret this.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see about that.” Nick said.
“Jarrod,” Victoria said. “I believe some start up funds are in order. After Heath is properly introduced, why don’t we take him into town to open an account?”
“Of course.” Jarrod said.
“Silas!” Nick called.
Silas entered in a hurry. He always seemed to be rushed at the tome of Nick’s voice. “Yes Mr. Barkley?”
“Silas,” Victoria answered. “Would you show Heath to his room please?”
Yes Ma’am, Mrs. Barkley. This way please,”
Heath said good night and left the room. The rest of the family waited until they were sure he was out of earshot to continue.
Nick turned to face his family. “Well?”
“Well what?” Victoria asked. “Are you still unconvinced?”
“So what if he is a Barkley?” Nick asked. “We still don’t know him. He wasn’t raised a Barkley!”
“Well we have to a least give him a chance.” Audra defended.
“I agree.” Eugene said. “It’s not his fault he wasn’t raised a Barkley. Besides, you’ve always said you needed a partner to help you run things. Isn’t that why you were disappointed when I went to school?”
Nick grumbled under his breath as he walked to the table and poured himself a whiskey. He downed one glassful then poured another as well as one for Jarrod and Eugene. As he handed out the glasses, he made his feelings known. “Well, it’s going to be trouble, I can tell you that much. There are going to be men who won’t appreciate it and if he thinks that he can sit back like a gentleman rancher, he has another think coming! Andlet me tell you this. It takes some nerve for him to waltz in here and demand his due, Barkley or not!”
“Correct me if I’m wrong brother Nick,” Jarrod said, “but aren’t you the one that tried to beat it out of him?”
“Yeah,” Eugene said. “If it wasn’t for that we may never have known who he was!”
Audra giggled. “Now just what’s so funny?” Nick demanded.
“He’s right Nick, it is your fault.” Audra said.
“My fault?” Nick shouted.
“Nick, please lower your voice.” Victoria said through a yawn. “Audra dear, I believe it’s time we went to bed.”
After the ladies excused themselves, Nick dropped into a chair and propped his feet on the table. Jarrod lit a cigar, handed one to Nick then took a seat on the sofa. Eugene sat on the desktop with his legs crossed at the ankles.
“Well,” Jarrod said. “I would say we are in for a few changes. From what I’ve seen of this kid already, I think he’s going to do his best to prove himself.”
“We’ll see about that.” Nick muttered.
“I just can’t believe it.” Eugene said, staring down at the floor. “I just can’t believe Father would do such a thing.”
Jarrod nodded slightly, his eyes had a far away look. “It is rather unbelievable. But mother had a good point. And if she believes it…well, so do I.”
“More than the affair.” Nick said as he rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He dropped his hand, looked down at the floor and shook his head. “Why would he leave a child in that situation?”
“He couldn’t have known,” Jarrod stated. “I have to believe that much. Besides, how many indiscretions have we had? Nick, have you gone back to check on every woman you known to make sure there isn’t a child?” Nick shook his head but didn’t answer.
“Still,” Eugene said, “this doesn’t speak well of Father.”
“Why?” Jarrod asked. “Because you learned something that makes him human?” Jarrod stood and extinguished his cigar. “It doesn’t change anything as far as I am concerned. Our father was a good man and this does not change my memories of him at all. It does make me sad for him and Heath. It’s a shame they never had a chance to know each other.”
Nick and Eugene both had to agree. “It’s amazing,” Nick finally said, “how one day you’re just sailing along, one day is pretty much like the next. Then all of a sudden, bam! You’re whole world is turned upside down.” Nick rose as did Eugene and the three brothers headed for the stairs. “I’ll give him a chance.” Nick announced. “But I better see something fast. I have too much to do to put up with someone that thinks he can get a free ride.”
Jarrod slapped a hand to Nick’s back as they ascended the stairs. “Yep, I’m sure you’ll break him in good and proper.”
Heath lay awake in his room, listening as each family member retired to their rooms. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. He was here. They had accepted him and he was here. He knew he faced an uphill battle as far as the men accepting him, but he could handle that. Now he just had to prove he was worthy of being a Barkley. It may take time, he thought, especially where Nick was concerned. But he would do it.
He smiled at the ceiling and listened to the house fall silent. He was still trying to comprehend what all had happened to him. Just a month ago, the only family he had ever known died. Just yesterday, he was content to do little more than work on the Barkley ranch just so he would have a chance to see how the other half lived. Now today, here he was, one of them, living in their house. Oh, he would show them all right, this is where he belonged. What a difference a day makes.