Three weeks before Christmas our three brothers traveled to the small town of Elko to hammer out the details on the purchase of a coal mine and take the time to haggle a price on a nice property nearby. They decided to prolong their stay in order to do some last Christmas shopping without the women being under foot, especially nosy Audra for whom her brothers had a special gift in mind.
While Jarrod was drawing up the papers with the town’s attorney at law and Nick was over at the general store to buy a few needed supplies, Heath was doing window shopping looking for the perfect present for his mother. A young boy whose nose was glued to the window of a ladies wear store intrigued him. He ambled up to the scruffy-looking blond to see what was so enrapturing.
“Good looking hat, ain’t it?”
“My mama would like that,” he mused, his attention still riveted on the coveted article. “She’s been wanting it for some time.”
“Yeah I know,” the boy sighed heavily. “I wish I could earn money to buy her lots of things.”
“What’s your name?”
“Hi Jason. I’m Heath.” The boy eyed the offered hand distrustfully before shaking it. “You live around here?”
“Just down the street,” he pointed to a road leading out of town. “A little out of ways.” He pulled out a penny from his pant pocket and proudly showed it to Heath. “I earned this cleaning out a stall today. But the mister said it was not enough to buy the hat.”
“I’m afraid he’s right. But you can buy yourself a nice piece of licorice.”
“I want to buy something for my mama,” he sulked, his bottom lip trembling. Heath was instantly smitten by the little pout that reminded him so much of a boy he once knew; himself. Before he could say anything, Nick walked up to him.
“Heath, how’s the shopping coming along?”
“Not bad. I still haven’t found anything for mother.”
“Yeah, well, join the club. I don’t think we’ll find anything here.” Nick looked down at the boy staring at him quizzically. “Who’s your friend, here?”
“This is Jason. Jason this here’s my big brother Nick.”
“A big brother?” he exulted.
“That’s right,” Nick confirmed. “I’m older and wiser.”
“Harrumph!” Heath hawked and winked at Jason. “Don’t listen to him. I’m the one he listens to.”
“You are delirious, boy,” Nick countered.
Jason’s amused gaze shifted between the two brothers. “You’re funny,” he chuckled.
“You think so, huh?” Nick huffed, playfully tousling the boy’s hair.
Heath caught sight of Jarrod exiting the lawyer’s office across the street. He squinted to read the expression on his brother’s face. “Hum looks like good news to me.” He waved to attract Jarrod’s attention.
“I hope you’re right. I want that mine.”
“Gentlemen, it’s a done deal,” Jarrod announced gleefully. “All we need are the signatures. “
“Well let’s do it!”
“Not so fast Nick. We need all parties present to witness the purchase. We’ll be meeting this afternoon at two to finalize the deal.” Jarrod clapped his brothers on the back and gave their shoulders a squeeze. “What do you say we ride out to the Hadley farm to see about that horse for Audra?”
“Sound fine to me. “ Heath agreed. In his excitement he nearly forgot about the boy who stood with a glum, sadly watching his new friends walk away. Heath’s inner alarm went off and stopped. “Wait a minute guys.” He turned to Jason and walked back to him. “Would you like us to give you a ride to your place?”
Jason’s little face lit up with glee at the offer. “Thanks. I would.” Heath clasped his hand and led him to the awaiting wagon. He lifted him in the back and sat next to him while Nick and Jarrod took seats in front.
Horror struck all three brothers upon arriving at their destination. They each took in the pitiful scene before them, sighing inwardly at the appalling conditions in which the youngster had to live in. Heath sat frozen to the spot, the sight of the decrepit cabin hurling him back in time, but thankfully Jason’s gentle tug on his hand yanked him away from the haunting memory. Heath slid off the wagon and assisted the boy down on the ground.
Jason took the lead by running to the door, leaving the three brothers in his wake who followed at a slower pace.
“Heath, something wrong?” Nick asked, puzzled by the haunted look on his brother’s face.
“I’m all right. It’s sort of a blast from the past. My mama and me lived in a cabin much like this one.”
Jason excitedly pulled his mother out of the house to meet his new friends.
“Howdy ma’am,” Heath greeted with a tip of his hat. “My name’s Heath Barkley and those are my brothers, Nick and Jarrod.”
“Please to meet you. Are you the Stockton Barkleys?”
“Yes ma’am,” Nick replied. “We met this little guy here, “he motioned to Jason, “ in town and offered to take him home.”
“I do appreciate it. I was on my way to fetch him. He’s been helping my employer with his horse.”
“He told us. He is mighty proud of his earnings too,” Heath smiled to the boy who showed his bright shiny penny to his mother.
She bend down to admire her son’s reward and closed his little fist around it. “You keep it in a safe place now. You’ll be able to buy yourself a nice present with it.”
“I want to buy you something mama. I don’t need anything.”
She smiled embarrassingly at the three brothers.
“That’s one generous, selfish boy you have there, ma’am,” Nick said, the comment eliciting a wistful smile out of Heath.
“That he is,” The mother agreed wholeheartedly. “May I offer you gentlemen some coffee? I just made a fresh pot.”
All three look at each other and nodded. “If you’re sure that’s no trouble, ma’am,” Heath asked.
“No trouble at all,” she reassured. “And please call me Marjorie.”
She smiled in acquiescence and led them to the cabin, inside which they sat at the kitchen table. Their looks of disgust at the pitiful conditions mother and son were living in was fortunately lost on the occupants, whose backs were turned to their guests as they busied themselves with coffee and cookies.
“Much like home,” Heath sighed heavily to his brothers who could only offer a sympathetic smile in return.
“These are cookies mama and me made together. They are awful good,” Jason informed proudly as he placed the platter on the table next to Heath and Nick.
“I’m sure they are, but wouldn’t you like to keep them for yourself?” Heath suggested to the boy who shook his head.
“I have plenty. You go ahead. Eat one.” He egged on, anxious to know their reaction.
“Ummmmmmmm, they have chocolate chips in them, don’t they?” Nick asked.
“They do. You don’t like them?”
“Sure I do. A whole lot. I love chocolate chip cookies.”
“That’s it Jason. There won’t be any left when we leave,” Heath joked.
“I don’t mind. Mama and I will make more,” he enthused, ecstatic to see that his achievement was such a success.
Heath caught a glimpse of Marjorie making inventory of her cupboard and saw the desperation in her face. He then discreetly warned Nick to rein in his greediness, hinting that they most likely couldn’t afford to make another batch.
“I got to tell you Jason, I’ve eaten a whole lot at breakfast. I’m quite full,” Nick fibbed to avoid disappointing the child.
“You can take some with you.”
Nick glanced at Heath and Jarrod who both shook their heads. “Awwww no. I’d better not. These cookies are so delicious that I might gain too much weight and wind up being a lazy cowpoke.”
“And we wouldn’t want that to happen.”
The next hour whizzed by without their knowledge as the brothers listened with keen interest to Marjorie’s tale of the misery she endured once her husband passed away, leaving her penniless to raise her son. She got by with a job as a maid at the town’s hotel, but the meager pay had never been enough to make ends meet. She added that she studied to become a nurse but that no doctor would take a chance on hiring her.
“I had to sell the only horse we had to get some money for food,” she explained.
“Would you be willing to move away from this town if you had, let’s say, a better paying job elsewhere?” Heath’s question caught everyone unawares, including his brothers who raised a brow in puzzlement.
“Yes, I guess, but I can’t afford to leave here and look for that perfect job.”
“Maybe I can help. Can’t promise you anything but I know a doctor in Stockton who might be looking for an experienced nurse.”
“I’d be in your debt Mister Barkley, but please don’t go to any trouble on my account.”
“No trouble ma’am…I mean Marjorie. Like I said I can’t promise anything but I sure as hell will try.” Heath said with a stern determination that took his brothers by surprise.
Once out the door Jarrod and Nick accosted Heath with his sudden offer to help the woman and her son. The blond needed not provide a lengthy speech on the reasons behind his wish to bring them out of abject poverty. The doleful look in his eyes was explanation enough.
“Okay Heath, what do you want us to do?” Nick asked his little brother whose face lit up at the offer.
A few hours after sending the telegram, Heath got his answer from Dr. Merar. He agreed to hire Marjorie on a trial basis to test her skills and see how she handles herself with patients, both medically and socially, before putting her on the permanent payroll.
Heath rode back to the cabin with the good news. Halfway down the road he met with his brothers returning from the Hadley farm where they had haggled a good price on two mares. After giving his seal of approval on the fine piece of horse flesh, Heath led the way to the cabin where he delivered the good news to Marjorie.
“I don’t know, Heath,” the woman said hesitantly, glancing at her son whose eyes pleaded with her to accept. “This is all so sudden. I’m not sure if I’ll be up to the task.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Jarrod emboldened, joined by his two brothers who nodded in agreement.
Marjorie’s gaze roamed over the four pair of eyes staring at her with great expectation. “How can I refuse with all of you ganging up on me,” she conceded amusedly.
Jason threw herself in her mother’s arms, hugging her with all of his might before he turned to Heath to do the same. “Thank you Mister Heath.”
Heath squatted down to return the hug. “You’re very welcomed Jason.”
“Jason, we still have one more surprise for you and your mother,” Nick informed with a sly grin that shot Marjorie with a small dose of trepidation. “Come with us.” Nick grasped both puzzled mother and son by the hand and led them outside. “You see those two mares?” Both Marjorie and Jason nodded. “One is for you. You pick the one you like and it’s yours.”
“Oh no! We can’t accept. This is too much. You’ve done plenty for us already.”
“Not nearly enough,” Heath cut in. “Go on, make your choice.”
Marjorie hemmed and hawed, her mind still reeling from the initial surprise. She looked down at Jason whose beseeching smile told her he had already made his choice. “Which one do you want, Jason?” The boy pointed to the sorrel. “I thought you would. That’s the one I would have picked myself.”
“Great choice. The sorrel it is.” Nick lifted Jason in his arms and brought him to the horse. “You two have to get acquainted.”
In Nick’s arms Jason was high enough to run his hand over the animal’s mane. The mare neighed her pleasure at the gentle touch and turned to nuzzle the boy’s arm as though she encouraged him not to stop.
“See, she likes you already.”
A few days later, the gang was back in Stockton. Audra joined her brothers in helping their new neighbors settled in their home, which Heath promised would only be temporary until Jarrod could find them a nice property to call their own.
Dr. Merar was impressed with Marjorie’s work and before long she was hired as his full-time nurse.
She and Jason were invited to celebrate Christmas at the Barkley ranch. With Heath’s help Jason was able to offer his mother the hat he had longed to give her. Although she was genuinely happy with the present her most precious gift of all this Christmas was the bountiful feast the Barkleys had given her and the light in Jason’s eyes shone the brightest in her heart.