Loneliness is an emotion that he had experienced a lot in his young life.
Loneliness caused by the stigma attached to him because of a liaison his mother had with a man.
Loneliness caused by his lack of friends as a child.
Loneliness because of the harshness of reality his aunt and uncle forced him to deal with.
Loneliness created by himself as an adult.
He had craved for the simple pleasure of playing with no worries as a boy. That was not possible since he had to assist his mother and help earn his keep.
He had craved for the simple pleasure of walking home with friends after school. That was not possible since the parents of the other school children frowned upon such an act of friendship with him.
He had craved for toys on his birthday or at Christmas. That was not possible since they were so poor, money was scarce and those things were not a necessity.
What did he have that kept him going as a boy in that horrible town? He had love. Love from his mother. Her voice as soft as the gentle breezes that tickled your face. Her eyes, a deep brown would shine with love and pride when she looked at him. Her hands, small and strong, could sting his bottom when necessary or caress the hurts away.
His beautiful mother was gone from this world. Her voice, he now heard in his head only. If he closed his eyes, he could see her eyes looking at him with love and pride. If he held his hands palm up, he could feel her taking his hands in hers and gently rubbing them as she spoke.
He was a full grown man, but still a boy in so many ways. He was a man who had made a decision to seek out his father’s family and claim what was rightfully his. He was a man who carried a large chip on his shoulder which masked all the inner turmoil of his emotions inside.
He was a man who stated he wanted what he was entitled to as far as money, prestige and a name. However, when he watched the family from afar after he first arrived in the valley, he felt a stirring deep within him. A stirring he didn’t understand, a stirring that created a longing for human companionship and comfort, a stirring to belong in a family that would surround him with love.
He didn’t understand it any better today than when he lived in the big house.
He didn’t understand how they could affect him as they did in such a short period of time.
He didn’t understand why he cried on the trail after he left the ranch.
He didn’t understand why he could not keep his emotions in check as he had before he came to the valley.
He didn’t understand it and wondered if there was something wrong in his head.
Why else would he be so upset at having left the place where so much anger and hurt had been brought to the surface when he arrived. He had arrived and upset their view of all that they held near and dear to their hearts. He had arrived and been forced to reveal who he was before he was ready. He had arrived and they had invited him to stay. He had arrived and he was working on the ranch which he had grown to love in a short time.
He had arrived, but then left after another argument with his dark haired brother, Nick. It was such a trivial thing that started it. But between him and Nick, that was all that it took to cause a rift as large as the Grand Canyon. Fists would be flying, bodies would be hitting the ground, eyes would see red as soon as the other spoke.
He had always prided himself on being able to work with anybody under any conditions, until he met his half brother, Nick. In all fairness, perhaps he could have been a little more tolerant with Nick. After all, he did shake the man’s confidence in all that he knew before his father’s unknown son had arrived. He tried as long as he could, it was not feasible to try any longer. It was not right to subject the others in the family to the tension that continued to climb in the house.
So, he had left and now was on his way to New Mexico. He had always liked it there. He knew of a couple ranches that would greet him with open arms for his talents in gentling horses and for the person he was. They treated him as an equal, not as a lower person in society. He had been happy there at one time in his life.
With the money he had earned and saved in the short time he was at the ranch, perhaps he could eventually have his own spread. He always wanted that. His goal was to be a successful rancher.
Ranching was the life he wanted and loved. The open air, the feel of a horse under you, the sun shining in your eyes. That was the life for him.
Sitting by the stream and enjoying the morning sunrise, Heath Thomson shook his head at his thoughts. Putting water in his coffeepot, he walked back and built up the fire. Taking some jerky out of his saddlebags, he methodically chewed on it while he waited for the coffee to boil.
Accustomed to traveling alone and aware of the dangers that could he found on any trail, he quickly stepped behind a tree when he heard a horse approaching.
Surprise and shock reflected openly on his face when the rider rode up and dismounted.
“Aunt Rachel!” exclaimed Heath rushing over to the dark haired woman. “What are you doing here? How’d you? Where?”
Rachel grabbed her confused Heath and hugged him tightly. “Heath, I’m so glad we were able to find you.”
Questions were flying through his foggy mind as he walked her over to sit on a log. Heath poured her a cup of coffee and scolded his aunt. “Aunt Rachel, it’s dangerous for a woman to ride by herself. You could’ve been hurt or worse!”
Blowing softly on the coffee to cool it, Rachel nodded, “I know, Heath. I didn’t ride alone.”
Looking at her in surprise, he asked suspiciously, “Who else is with you? Uncle Matt?”
“Goodness, no.” replied Rachel. “One of your brothers brought me.”
“WHAT?” shouted Heath jumping to his feet. “ONE OF THE BARKLEYS? WHICH ONE?”
“I brought your aunt, Heath.” stated Nick walking Coco up to the camp and standing with reins in hand, the unshaded windows to Heath’s soul clearly revealing his shock at the sight of his half brother. Somehow he was not the one Heath would have expected.
“Aunt Rachel, I, uh, you better explain to me why you’re here with him, uh, Nick.” said Heath quietly rubbing his temples, feeling the granddaddy of all headaches coming on. “Nick, guess you better sit down.”
“Coffee ready?” inquired Nick receiving a nod from Heath. Grabbing two cups from his saddlebags, he handed one to Heath and poured coffee for both of them.
“Thanks.” replied Heath looking at his aunt with a raised eyebrow, signifying his desire for explanation to the shocks he received this morning.
“I would have wired, but the telegraph lines are down. I came to Stockton looking for you and Sheriff Maden brought me out to the Barkley ranch. He didn’t know you had left and since you didn’t write, I thought you were still there.”
“Sorry, Aunt Rachel. I wrote a letter, it’s in my saddlebags but I forgot to mail it.” apologized Heath. “I didn’t mean to worry you. Why were you looking for me?”
Squeezing his hand, Rachel sighed, “Hannah’s very sick, Heath. She’s at Pine Crest.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Heath’s voice shook, “What’s wrong with her? Is she gonna be all right?”
“She hadn’t been feeling well. I thought she had a flu virus. When she got worse, I took her over to Dr. Martin. She has typhoid fever.”
“Typhoid?” whispered Heath grabbing his aunt’s hand.
Taking a shaky breath, Rachel nodded, “Her fever became so high, she had a stroke and has been unconscious for several days. Dr. Martin’s prognosis is not promising, Heath. I knew you’d want to be there, so I went to Stockton to find you. ”
Nodding with agreement, not trusting himself to speak from the emotions choking him, Heath’s hand shook when he put the cup on the ground and walked over to his modoc. Grabbing the blanket and saddle, he made short work of saddling his mount.
Nick emptied and rinsed out the coffeepot and mugs. Dowsing the fire, he kicked dirt over it to ensure it wouldn’t re-ignite, receiving a nod of thanks from Heath who was helping Rachel onto her horse.
“Aunt Rachel, let me know when you get tired and we’ll stop. Pine Crest is a full day’s ride by the crow’s path from here.”
Cupping the cheek of her handsome nephew, Rachel smiled slightly, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I can rest after we get back to Hannah.”
Squeezing her hand, Heath nodded and mounted. The three riders headed to Pine Crest with Heath leading the way. His thoughts on the petite black woman who lay in a bed, her life draining out of her. Fearing he wouldn’t get there in time to say goodbye or to let her know how much she is loved, how much she meant to him.
The sun was sweltering and unforgiving as the trio made their way towards Pine Crest. Stopping briefly for a quick lunch, Heath worried over the pace of riding. His aunt, while still an active woman, was not used to riding in the saddle for this duration of time. Rachel, however, would not be swayed from their journey knowing time was of the essence. She wanted to ensure Heath was there in time and did not want to be the reason for a delay.
Rachel had not wanted to leave Hannah, however, had no choice since she could not reach Heath by telegraph and a letter would be too slow. Dr. Martin had assured her he would take very good care of Hannah in her absence. Grateful to the doctor, Rachel hired the Pine Crest’s store owner’s nephew to take her to Stockton. The young man was pleased to earn the extra money and glad to be of assistance.
When his mother passed on, Heath was guilt ridden and angry for not arriving until just before her end on this earth. He had always taken things to heart. Not one to divulge what he was thinking, she had learned long ago how to read her nephew by his actions or inaction. Her instincts screamed out Heath would need to see Hannah and express his feelings in case of her death or he’d end up with more guilt to keep in his inner bottle.
His inner bottle, Leah had called it. The inner bottle inside her little boy housed all his hurts. When Heath was nine, Leah and Rachel could almost see the transformation taking place within him. This was the time he had come to understand if you hid your emotions, no one would know you were hurting and they couldn’t take as much pleasure in it.
Using his new found knowledge, he had learned to bottle everything up inside, keeping the lid tightly on it and never letting anything escape. Rachel silently wondered how long it would be before the bottle burst from all he had stored away over the years.
When Heath had taken off for Stockton, she and Hannah hoped he would find a place in his father’s family and settle down. For too many years, he had been unsettled in his life. For too many years, he wandered looking for whatever it was he needed to make himself whole.
Leah, in her estimation, was wrong in not telling Heath’s father about his existence. Rachel never fully understood but accepted her friend’s decision. Often when Heath was growing up, Rachel had pleaded with Leah to change her mind. Her pleadings fell upon deaf ears, Leah would never alter her decision.
Perhaps Leah was afraid his father would take him away and she would never see him again.
Perhaps Leah was doing it to spite his father for not returning to that god forsaken Strawberry.
Perhaps Leah was doing it because she was selfish and didn’t want to share her golden boy with anyone else.
Perhaps Leah was afraid Heath would love his father more than her.
Leah loved her son more than life itself - anyone with eyes could see that to be the gospel truth. The problem was Heath would never know or understand why. Just another hurt to put in his inner bottle. His departure from the Barkley ranch was another hurt he would’ve buried. Rachel wondered if Hannah’s possible death would create a crack in the inner bottle.
She knew the love that was inside Heath, yearning to be released and bestowed upon someone. She knew what family meant to him. She knew how deeply he cared for those around him and how he would do whatever it took to keep them safe from harm.
He could keep others safe but when it came to himself, he would take it all on himself, not letting anyone share his troubles. Bottling it up in his inner bottle. Some would think he let pain and strives roll off his back, Rachel knew better.
How much pain can one person keep hidden inside before an explosion would occur?
Bringing up the rear of the group, Nick wondered why he was on his way to Pine Crest with Heath and his aunt.
When Rachel Caulfield had shown up at the house with the sheriff the day after Heath had left, the family was stunned. They weren’t aware Heath had relatives left in Strawberry. They knew his mother was dead, but no member of the Barkley family had thought to ask if there was anyone else left in Strawberry for him nor had Heath volunteered the information.
Miss Caulfield explained she was not an aunt by blood or marriage, but by friendship with Heath’s mother. Though her love for him was as deep as a mother’s for her child.
Miss Caulfield told the family, the only living relatives left of Heath’s were his aunt and uncle who owned the hotel in Strawberry. Heath did not claim them as family due to how they treated him and, more importantly, his mother in the past. To them, Heath was nothing more than a reminder of the shame brought onto the couple by his mother’s past actions.
Miss Caulfield was visibly upset when Heath was not at the Barkley ranch, the worry shining out of her brown eyes. Explaining the need for her urgency in finding Heath, the family was stunned again when Nick stated he had headed south.
Pushed to explain how he knew Heath’s direction, Nick admitted he had watched him riding out from Lookout Peak. His mother had explained Lookout Peak was the highest point around the ranch. From this point, you could see a good deal of the ranch and the surrounding valley.
Victoria persuaded Miss Caulfield to have lunch before going on the trail to catch up with Heath. It was discussed and decided Nick was the one most likely to catch up to Heath. He had more experience on trails than Jarrod or Eugene. The other members of the family were stunned again by Nick’s compliant agreement to the decision.
After Miss Caulfield expressed her gratitude to his mother, he had headed out with her on the trail of the man who was his half-brother and who had willingly given up all that it meant to be a Barkley.
This action alone by Heath caused Nick to question what he originally thought Heath was after when he had forced him to reveal who he was. No one in their right mind would give up all that came with being a Barkley to work for someone else or wander the countryside working from odd job to odd job.
He could tell Heath did not have much money from his clothes and the outfit he had brought with him to the ranch. The only things of real quality he had were his guns and horse. The boy certainly didn’t have a lot of money to waste on frivolous items.
Why go back to a life barely above poverty level? Why if the wealth of the Barkley family was within his grasp? Why would he do that? He had pondered the questions all day and night after Heath’s departure, unable to reach a conclusive answer.
Recalling the look in the blue eyes when Heath learned of Hannah’s condition, Nick’s gut twisted from the pain and anguish which had briefly flared there. The slight quiver in his voice caused a shiver to run down Nick’s back when he asked if Hannah would be all right.
Nick knew what the quiver in his voice was saying. Heath was afraid of losing someone else he loved. Someone who meant a great deal to him. Someone who was important to him. Someone who had been there for him as a child when his father wasn’t.
Nick shook his head, unsure of what he was feeling or why the little voice in his head told him he should ride along. He knew he could rely on his foreman to keep the ranch going in his absence and the other members of the family were there to assist.
The daylight was quickly fading and night was falling when Heath pulled to the side of the road. Rachel and Nick stopped beside him, Heath took in the lines of exhaustion on his aunt’s face.
“It’s another three hours to Pine Crest. How about if we camp here?” suggested Heath with a side glance at Nick.
“Heath, don’t stop on my account.” stated Rachel sitting up straighter. “I can make it.”
Catching the look in Heath’s eye when he glanced over, Nick rolled his shoulders and sighed, “It’s been a long day, Miss Caulfield. I, for one, could use a break. I’m not too sure I want to travel these trails at night.”
Nodding, Heath agreed, “Nick’s right, Aunt Rachel. I don’t cotton to riding these trails at night either. I’m not that familiar with them. A rest will do us good and we can start out before daybreak in the morning.”
Dismounting, Heath helped his aunt down and held onto her as she swayed slightly. Smiling gratefully, Rachel let him walk her over to lean against a tree stating she was to rest and he would put together a fire and then dinner.
Nick unsaddled the horses and led them to the stream for a drink. Picketing them on some grass, he gathered an armful of wood and brought it back to the campsite.
Kneeling down, he stacked the wood close by and barely caught the words whispered by Heath while he started the fire, “Thanks.”
Nick whispered back, startled by his own words, “That’s what brothers do for each other.”
Looking sharply at the dark haired man, Heath grunted and walked over to his saddlebags to retrieve the fixings for dinner.
Nick watched the retreating back wondering why those words slipped out. What exactly had he meant by them? What was Heath’s response to those spoken words meant to convey?
Heath spread the sheet, folded his coat and smiled when he handed his aunt the blanket.
“Thank you and good night, Heath.” smiled Rachel placing a kiss on his cheek.
“Night, Aunt Rachel.” drawled Heath heading to the stream with the plates and silverware.
“Good night, Mr. Barkley.”
“Good night, Miss Caulfield.” replied Nick quietly turning slightly, watching Heath til he couldn’t see him in the darkness. Nick’s thoughts took him over the earlier whispered words, he lay down and stared up at the stars, looking for answers that could only be found in his own heart.
The darkness of the night surrounded Heath as he walked to the stream, the moon lit the way. Reaching the bank of the stream, he washed the plates and silverware, rinsing and piling them on a small rock. The rays of the moon cut a path across the water, it was beautiful and tranquil. Soaking in the sounds of the night, he let the still night air work it’s magic on him.
Pulling out his tobacco pouch and rolling a cigarette, he lit a match. He cupped it in his hand almost as if he were afraid a sudden flare of brash light in the darkness would somehow diminish the scenery before him. Blowing it out, he inhaled deeply on the cigarette letting the smoke even out his nerves while he thought of Hannah.
The tiny woman with hands half the size of his. The tiny woman that could create shame in him as a boy with one look of disappointment. The tiny woman who loved him without conditions, without reservation. The tiny woman whose voice was quiet but could bring down the rafters when she sang a gospel song for her maker.
Closing his eyes, he saw his Hannah. The image, his mind conjured up of Hannah was as clear as the last time he saw her on the stoop, before leaving for Stockton. When he saw her, Heath didn’t see color, he saw love.
The tiny woman he would be taking back to Strawberry from Pine Crest, one way or another with Aunt Rachel by his side. Typhoid could be a killer to someone Hannah’s age, her body had become frail with old age and hard living.
Grinning, Heath realized he didn’t know exactly how old Hannah was. He estimated she must be over fifty, maybe even sixty. If he had ever asked, she would’ve shook her finger and scolded him for asking such improper questions.
Hannah and Rachel were the only family he had left. When Hannah got better he would take her back to the little cabin and then look for a place for all three of them. A place far away from Strawberry, Aunt Martha and Uncle Matt.
Staring at the red fire on the end of his cigarette, he wondered why Nick Barkley was on the trail with them. Nick’s responsibility ended when he had brought Aunt Rachel to Heath safely. Why did he stay with them?
‘That’s what brothers do for each other.’ Why did he say that? Why would someone with so much outright hostility for me say something like that?
Thinking back on his time at the ranch, Heath grudgingly had to admit the rest of the Barkley family had extended kindness to him. Victoria Barkley had been the first and the others followed, except for Nick.
He had known from the very start where he stood with Nick. Nick, was after all, not a quiet person. He let his opinion be known and boy howdy, it was quite clear. No hemming or hawing with him. No straddling the fence with him. No skirting of issues or receiving lip service from that man.
The disagreements between them were sometimes no more than words, other times, the men would be pulling them off each other as they fought tooth and nail. Neither of them could be in the same room without rubbing the other wrong. Why was he still here?
Nick had admitted when his mother showed them a picture Heath was a spitting image of his uncle at a younger age. Even that admission from Nick had caused an argument between the two.
The last straw had been when Heath had not stacked the piles of feed to Nick’s specifications. In the area of the loft where it was normally stored, Heath found some rotting boards. He moved the feed to the other side and caused the bull of the family to see red, when he returned later in the afternoon. Not waiting for an explanation, Nick flew off the handle with Heath following shortly afterwards.
After cooling down, he realized no good would ever come of their association. Heath packed his saddlebags and left the Barkley family behind. He took his time on the trail, planning what he would do next.
Stopping that night, he slept soundly. Waking in the morning, he was surprised he did not have a repeat of the nightmares.
Nightmares of Carterson prison which he thought had been buried long ago.
Nightmares which were fueled by the tension he had undergone each day.
Nightmares which could reduce him to cowering in a corner of his bedroom.
Nightmares which made him feel as if he were that terrified boy again.
Nightmares which had only started again after it was revealed he was the bastard son, was asked to move into the mansion where eggshells lined the floors and his steps were tentative, unsure and faltered.
Heath thought seeking out his father’s family had been the right choice, now he knew he had been wrong. Old feelings of unworthiness, shame, distrust of others and old fears long forgotten, returned with a vengeance to slap him in the face, causing him to see the reality of the situation.
Stealing his confidence, stealing his breath and stealing the peace he had slowly formed within himself over the years.
He was only twenty four years old and he had lived more than most fifty year olds. He had killed more men, seen more blood shed and violence than most people. He had never outwardly looked for violence, but it seemed always to be dogging his heels.
His first feel of violence had come from his aunt and uncle. His last over a man’s treatment of a young woman serving drinks in a saloon on the Klamath, just before he headed back to Strawberry to be with his mother when she passed on. His natural prowess with a gun saved his life on many occasions and even gotten him jobs as a deputy in a couple of towns.
How was it he had come to this place in his life? This impasse, this place where he wasn’t exactly sure where to go next.
Where do you go with a past like his?
Where do you go to find peace?
Where do you go to find some meaning in your life?
Looking up at the stars, Heath Thomson knew it wasn’t in Stockton.
He knew he’d never go back there.
The three riders reached the outskirts of Pine Crest at seven the next morning. Rachel led them directly to the office of Dr. Martin. Knocking at the door, they were greeted by his nurse and daughter, Hope. Leading the three into the waiting area, she returned with her father.
“Miss Caulfield. I was worried about you.” said Dr. Martin, his gray eyes lighting up with relief. “Miss James is alive but still unconscious. I’m afraid it won’t be much longer.”
Heath’s deep sigh echoed throughout the room. His prayers had been answered, he had arrived in time.
“Dr. Martin, this is my nephew Heath Thomson. This is Nick Barkley.” informed Rachel.
Both men shook the hand of the doctor, nodding their greeting.
Heath inquired, “Dr. Martin, can we see Hannah?”
“Certainly. This way.”
Heath and Rachel followed the physician towards the inner door. Stopping, Rachel turned to look at Nick, standing alone and twirling his hat.
“Mr. Barkley, thank you for your assistance.” smiled Rachel, nodding to Heath’s words in her ear. Patting his arm, she followed Dr. Martin through the open door.
Walking back to his half-brother, Heath slowly held out his hand and Nick took it in his.
“Thanks for bringing Aunt Rachel. You can head back to Stockton now.” stated Heath releasing the hand and heading back to the door.
Finding his voice, Nick stammered, “Heath, I, uh, well we need to talk.”
Staring at the dark haired man, Heath shook his head. “Go back to your family and I’ll stay with mine.”
Strong, confident, forthright Nick Barkley stood watching the tan vested back disappear through the open door. The wind taken out of his sails by Heath’s simple statement, the clear dissection and splitting of the family units.
He thought over his actions last night and came to realize that whether he liked it or not, he had another brother. One that was a man, but his brother nonetheless.
A man who was entitled to what came with being a Barkley. A man whose quiet words just spoke volumes, dismissing him and the Barkley family from his life. That man would walk away from it all and Nick knew he shouldn’t, no, he couldn’t let that happen.
Sitting down on the couch in the waiting area, Nick ran his fingers through his hair. Nick was a man who took the bull by the horns, running full steam ahead driven by his inner sense of right and wrong, respected by those who worked for him, capable of leaving a lasting impression on all he met, leader of the biggest ranch in the valley.
He was a rancher and a man’s man. The feel of a horse, the calluses on his hands and the daily strain on his muscles were things he knew about, things he could feel, things he could understand.
He was a man who knew his path in life but now, was unsure of what to do, how to proceed. This situation was out of his league. Talking about feelings, striving to be persuasive – Nick had no idea how to do that or what words to use.
How does one talk to a brother who came to their family with twenty four years of living under his belt?
How does one talk to a brother who came to their family with twenty four years of anger and hurt at their father who was responsible for his birth?
How does one get his new brother to accept what the family had to offer?
How does one do that?