For the last three months, Heath, Nick, Jarrod and able-bodied neighbours have donated their time, sweat and money to rebuilding the Stockton orphanage that had been levelled to the ground by a ravaging fire. During that time, the Barkleys volunteered to lodge the twelve young homeless orphans at the ranch. Men and women alike, including friends, neighbours and ranch hands, took shifts in babysitting the pack of little monkeys, some more mischievous than others.
Finally, the new orphanage was ready to welcome its residents. On this morning, the Barkley household was buzzing with activity as Nick, Heath, Jarrod and Victoria were busy sprucing the children up for the ride into town. Audra had gone ahead to make everything ready.
“Heath!” Nick shouted down the hall. “Heath!” his voice raised a decibel when he failed to get an answer.
Eight-year-old Rose bounced out of Jarrod’s room to give Nick a kick in the shin.
“Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuch!” Nick bawled between clenched teeth, bending down to grab his bruised ankle. “Why did you do that for?”
Rose thrust her fists on her hips and glowered at Nick with a curled lip and seething dark eyes. “You yell! Don’t yell!” she scolded, stamping her foot in anger before she walked back into Jarrod’s room.
Nick hobbled after her and found his brother putting on shoes on Rose’s two younger sisters.
“I warned you Brother Nick that this bellow of yours was eventually going to get you into serious trouble,” Jarrod teased.
Nick sat on a chair to rub his sore ankle. “Dammit!”
“Hey, watch it, Nick!”
“Rose here ain’t exactly a dainty little flower.” Nick cringed in pain. “Boy, that hurt!” Nick continued to rub his ankle while he admired Jarrod’s touch at putting on small shoes on Rose’s four-year-old sister’s feet. “You’re doing it all wrong, Jarrod.”
“No I’m not,” Jarrod argued.
“Yeah, you are.” Nick heaved himself out of the chair and limped over to the bed. “See that big toe,” he pointed to the shoe in Jarrod’s hand.
Jarrod studied the shoe from every ankle before glancing up at Nick in confusion. Nick huffed out a sigh of exasperation at his brother’s ineptitude as he crouched down and took the shoe to place in the right foot.
“There! Doesn’t that feel better?” he questioned the little blond girl who nodded shyly.
“How did you know? It’s hard to tell the difference.”
“Experience. I had to put on four pair of shoes in Mother’s room. I got a good scold for each one.” Nick hoisted himself up and hobbled out of the room.
The two little girls started giggling.
“What’s so funny,” Jarrod asked with a chuckle.
“He walks funny.”
“You can thank your sister for that.” Jarrod motioned to Rose who stood by the bed.
“He yells! I don’t like him when he yells,” Rose stated matter-of-factly.
Nick eased on down the hall to Heath’s bedroom to find him lying in bed with his hands loosely tied with a rope. Nine-year-old twin boys were training toy guns on him.
“Heath, what are you doing there?” Nick asked with a touch of annoyance.
“I’m…I’m a prisoner, Nick,” Heath stammered with a feigned terror.
“Untie him, boys. He’s got to get ready or we’ll be late.”
“No!” One on the boy shouted in defiance.
“He’s our prisoner and he will stay that way until he tells us what we want to know.”
“Tell you what?”
At that moment, a six-year-old brunette scampered down the hall, whizzing past Nick as she headed toward the grand staircase.
“Nick, would you bring her back, please,” Victoria asked her son from her bedroom door. “We’re not finished yet.”
“Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrg,” Nick grunted before hurtling down the stairs after the little fugitive. He finally caught up with her in the living room where she hid behind the couch.
“Emma, come here.”
“No!” she shouted.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m not gonna hurt you, Sweetie.” Nick grabbed a hold of her as she scurried off into the foyer.
“Let go off me!” she yelled, trying to wrench herself free from Nick’s grasp.
Nick squatted down before her and took both her hands. “Hey, what’s the matter? Why are you so angry?” he asked in a mollifying tone.
She scrunched up her face in a pout. “I don’t want to go. I want to stay here,” she sobbed.
Nick pulled the snivelling munchkin to his heart and rubbed her back soothingly. “Ahhhhhhhhh, I know, Sweetheart, but you know it’d make me and your uncles Jarrod and Heath very sad if you didn’t come with us to see what we build for you and your friends.”
She slowly peeled her tear-bedewed face off his chest.
“It’s a much bigger home with many rooms. One is a huge playroom with lots of new toys,” Nick described with a broad smile that made the little girl’s eyes lit up.
“New toys?” she repeated between sobs.
“Yeah. You wouldn’t wanna disappoint us by not coming, would ya?”
She shook her head.
“Ahhhhhhhhh, that’s my girl.” Nick stood upright and folded his fingers around Emma’s dainty hand. “Come on, let’s get you all prettied up.”
As Nick and Emma climbed up the stairs, they crossed path with Heath who was escorted down under heavy guard.
“You finally made him talk, boys?” Nick asked the twins standing behind Heath with their toy guns pointed at their prisoner’s back.
“Yep!” they chorused enthusiastically.
“Thanks a lot for coming to my rescue, Nick,” Heath snorted teasingly.
“Hey, it’s war, Heath. Every man for himself,” Nick smirked back, trying to stifle a laugh at his kid brother’s predicament.
“I’ll get you for this, Big Brother.”
The twins ordered Heath down to the kitchen.
“Okay, where is it?” one commanded on a crushing tone.
Heath motioned to the cookie jar on the bottom shelf near the icebox. “Over there.”
The boys lunged at the coveted item and placed it on the table. They open the lid and plunged their hands inside to retrieve a chocolate chip cookie each.
“Now that you have what you wanted, can you release me?” Heath lamented, holding up his bound wrists in front of his captors.
The two boys look at each other as the munched on their cookies and nodded in agreement. One went to Heath to untie the rope.
“Thanks,” Heath sighed and pretended to rob his sore wrists.
“Can we take another cookie, Uncle Heath?”
“Ah! Take the whole jar, boys.”
“Gee! Thanks Uncle Heath!” the boys enthused.
Heath chuckled and tousled the twins’ hair as they headed out of the kitchen with their prized possession.