The Fourth July, 1856
"Tom! Please! We are going to be late!" Victoria reprimanded her husband before sweeping upstairs to check if the children were ready. Tom Barkley who had been studying ranch business with his foreman and friend, Duke, lifted his head and checked the clock. He pulled a face, realizing he had lost track of time and hastily went to the door and requested a young Ciego to prepare the surrey and bring it around to the front of the house.
"Si Senor Barkley," Ciego answered, eager to please his new employer.
Upstairs, Victoria met Jarrod rushing out on to the landing. "Young gentlemen walk, Jarrod," she reminded her eldest son, who at twelve years old was already showing signs of the young man he was to become. "Yes mother," he answered respectfully, slowing his pace whilst finishing putting on his jacket.
Walking into her middle son's room, she could find no sign of Nicholas, except for a trail of clothes strewn across the bedroom floor. Sighing at the debris her tornado of a son could cause wherever he went, she continued to the nursery when she heard familiar voices at play. There she found Nicholas on the floor with his baby brother playing with the hand carved animals which typically Nicholas had now organized into a mini-ranch on the floor. Not for the first time he was telling four year old Heath that one day when they were older both of them would help their father on the ranch.
As much as Victoria liked to see her sons playing she was conscious of time and what still needed to be done. "Put those away now, Nicholas," she told her son, adding, "Your room needs tidying before we leave and you need to dress. Your father is about ready to take us to town and will not want to be kept waiting."
"Do I have to wear a suit, Mother?" Nick protested.
"I want my boys to look smart" Victoria replied, smoothing her son's unruly hair down. "We are going to have lunch with the Mayor. After that, young man, I don't mind how you look, but until then I want you to be on your best behaviour and the young gentlemen that you are. That includes you, Heath Barkley," she added, patting her youngest son on his button nose. Heath rubbed his nose as it tickled. Still clingy for his mother he reached out to be picked up. Victoria scooped him up and the child snuggled into his mother who set about finding his clothes.
Nicholas ran to his room and with haste tidied his room, stuffing things into drawers and closets before grabbing the clothes he was going to wear and quickly putting them on. Still trying to tie his tie he returned to the nursery where Victoria was dressing Heath. "Mother, I can't tie...."
"Come here," Victoria said, reaching across Heath to tie Nick's tie, which he then tried to loosen because it was too tight.
Scooping Heath up again, she walked with a still complaining Nicholas down the stairs to where Tom and Jarrod were waiting.
"Are we all reaady? Tom asked.
Victoria surveyed her Barkley men. "I think we're are," she said, satisifed with the turn out of her family. Laughing they walked out to the waiting surrey.
Today was the Fourth of July, 1856 and they were going to town to celebrate.
Victoria listened with pride as the Mayor praised her husband. He was not a perfect man, his affair five years ago had almost ended in them divorcing but somehow they had got through their worst trial and even more strangely the child from the affair, Heath, the existence of whom became known after his mother's death, had brought them together again. It had taken time. First she had fallen in love with Heath, the six month old motherless child, who snuck into her heart and cured the bitterness and hurt there, and then slowly she had begun to fall in love with her husband again. It was not the blind love of before. Too much had happened. Her eyes had been opened and they remained opened throughout the rest of their marriage. But in someways their relationship was more solid, more enduring. She loved Tom Barkley inspite of his faults and that made their love stronger. No, Tom Barkley was not a perfect man but in the fifteen years they had been in the valley, he had gained the respect and friendship of those who had come to know him and had recently been elected president of The Cattleman's Association. He had also regained the love and respect of his wife.
Tom Barkley turned and with him his wife to see a tall distinguished man standing at their side with his hand outstretched.
"Don Alfredo Montoya," the man said, introducing himself with a commanding, imperious air as the two men shook hands. "And this is my wife," he said, turning towards the woman standing next to him who was with child. "I have just bought the property next to yours."
"I'm mighty pleased to meet you," Tom replied, introducing Victoria and his boys standing nearby. As they had been taught, Jarrod and Nick put out their hands to shake the man's hand.
"You have two fine sons," Don Alfredo said, understanding the pride Barkley must have in his boys. A man should have sons. He hoped his wife would give him a son too to continue the Montoya line.
"Three. I have three sons." Tom pointed out, locating Heath who had hidden behind his mother's skirts, shy as he was still in company. Tom held Heath with obvious pride.
"Ah yes." Don Alfredo said, dismissively. "I have heard about this son of yours."
The Fourth of July, 1861
Nine year old Heath Barkley ran his fastest, wanting with all his might to cross the finish line first and emulate his older brothers who had both won this race at similar ages. Heath worshiped his older brothers but it seemed at eight and four years their junior he was always in catch up. He dreamed of the day he would no longer be called "The Kid" and would be regarded their equal instead. Jarrod towered above him now as did Nick. Their mother had said Nick was going through a "growing spell". Heath sure wished he'd get himself one those "growing spells" too.
It was the lot of youngest brothers to concentrate on their shortfalls rather than what made them special. Heath might have envied his brothers their seniority and height but what he did not know was that they envied him his natural athleticism and speed. He ran like a gazelle. Legs that would one day allow him to stand as tall as his brothers now gave him lightness and flight. As he edged past two competitors there was no mistaking the pride and joy on his family's faces, including those of his older brothers who were on their feet, whooping and a hollerin' as the kid shot into the lead and then crossed the line, stumbling to the ground in his eagerness to win.
Eagerly the family made their way forward to congratulte Heath just as Jonny Merar, the doctor's youngest, was helping his friend up off the ground. Despite the large graze on his knee which was bleeding through the torn pants, Heath's face was beaming as he panted out "Did you see me Jarrod? Did you see me Nick?" Their opinion crucial to his win.
"Well now?" Jarrod opined. Looking serious he made great show of scratching his chin and turning to Nick with doubt on his face. Heath's face dropped instantly, feeling sure that they had missed his race. In the same moment something of his victory died, the congratulations of his father and the fussin' from his mother over his grazed knee fading into the background.
Jarrod could not bear to see Heath's disappointment and stopped his teasing. "Of course we saw you! You think we would miss our kid brother!" He exclaimed, immediately seeing a huge smile return to his kid brother's face. "Why Nick and I were whoopin' and a hollerin', didn't you hear us?"
Heath sad face now sung with relief - his brothers had seen him. Still panting after his race, he shook his head, a grin from ear to ear gracing his bonnie face and shook his head. "Nope. I couldn't see anything. I just ran as fast as I could. All I kept seeing was the finish line and I kept heading straight for it!"
"Well son," Tom said with enormous pride. "It looks like we are going to have a third trophy to put on the mantel with those of your older brothers'. That was some achievement son. I'm mighty proud of you son. Win or lose, you did what I expect from my sons. You did your best and that's what the good Lord wants us to do." He scooped his son up in his arms, ignoring the fact that his nine year old son considered himself too old now to be picked up and cuddled in front of his friends, and warmly congratulated his son, carrying him back through town to get his knee fixed at the doctors. Heath's friend Johnny Merar walked on close behind.
"Well what's this, young man?" Doctor Merar expressed as the injured athlete was brought in and placed down on his examining table.
"T'ain't nothing Doctor Merar," Heath replied making light of it. "I just fell after I won my race."
Doctor Merar shot a sympathetic look at his own son. Heath's win meant Johnny had lost. He had not been able to attend the race that morning as he was on call. Johnny's mother was out of town, visiting her sister who was about to give birth which meant their son had no one cheering him on. But Johnny Merar understood. Not only was he a good son, destined to follow in his father's footsteps one day, but he was also a good and generous friend to Heath. Johnny had wanted to win the race, for sure, but knew that Heath was faster. He had won fair and square and he rejoiced for his friend. Doctor Merar ruffled his son's hair in a gesture of fatherly love and understanding and then set about tending to Heath as Johnny watched on.
"Okay Heath. Well let's have your pants off so I can look at that leg wound properly. Looks like you have got a lot of dirt in there which will need cleaning out."
Heath objected to the removal of his pants. Johnny Merar giggled at his friend. "It's not like there are any girls about," he joked.
"It's okay for you," Heath glared back. "It's not you who has to take his pants off!"
Tom Barkley, not wanting to waste Howard Merar's time, stood Heath on the floor and began loosening the boy's suspenders so Heath could take off his pants. He was aware that Jenny Simpson was due to give birth and that Howard would be wanting to go as soon as the call came.
Heath swallowed his embarrassment and began dropping his pants to the floor. He was just about to lift one leg out of a pant leg when the door opened and in walked Don Alfredo Montoya with his wife and daughter, a little girl called Maria, who was now five years old. Never had a pair of pants been pulled back up so quickly as Heath tried to recover his dignity. Johnny could not help laughing at his poor friend's misfortune. Heath glared, promising to get his own back. It didn't matter that the girl was only five. She was a girl, wasn't she?!"
The Fourth of July, 1869
Seventeen year old Heath Barkley was walking with his friend Johnny Merar moving from site to site at the year's Fourth of July celebrations. As usual the town was decked out with banners and flags and filled with people, townspeople, neighbouring ranchers and visitors, filling out their usual numbers.
The two boys came to a sudden halt as a fine carriage - finer than that of the Barkleys, or the buggy that belonged to the Merars and which could be described as serviceable at best - stopped a few yards away from them.
Both munching an apple each, Heath and Johnny paused mid-bite as they recognized the grand family crest of the Montoya's appear on the side of the door which then opened under Don Alfredo's gloved hand to allow the family to get out.
The recently widowed grandee barely acknowledged the boys and instead took some considerable time brushing the dust from the road off his fine clothes before turning back to help his daughter out of the carriage. She was Maria Montoya and she was now thirteen years old.
A third occupant alighted, a young man of about eighteen. His first words concerning the town and its occupants were not flattering. His clothes were extremely fine and he seemed to give the air that he felt the person who wore them was a cut above everyone else.
"Uncle! Did we have to come here today," he complained loudly, making equally exaggerated work of brushing the dust from his clothes.
"It is expected," replied Don Alfredo, giving his daughter his arm and accompanying the beautiful dark haired girl to the sidewalk. "We shall be here only as long as we have to be. Enough to perform our social duty and then we will go home."
"We're among peasants!" the young man declared, clearly contemptuous of his surroundings and the people he would be mixing with.
"We're among people!" Maria Montoya reprimanded her cousin. "People who are no better, no worse than you or I," she continued, giving the air that this was not the first time the cousins had quarelled.
"Don't be ridiculous, Maria," Don Alfredo scolded. "You have a heritage that goes back a thousand years. It is what makes us what we are. You cannot ignore it. Breeding is important."
His tone silenced Maria, who though spirited and disagreeing with his views, knew better than to show her father disrespect. She fell in between her cousin and father as both held out their arms to jointly escort her down the sidewalk.
Together, the group proceeded down the street to the main festivities, greeting neighbours as they went including Tom and Victoria Barkley who stood with their young daughter, Audra, watching Nick arm wrestle his own brother.
Johnny Merar who had witnessed the Montoya's arrival with Heath, regarded his young friend closely and smiled. His young friend was well and truly smitten. Not that he wasn't smitten himself but with Heath, who he had known since first grade, it was obvious to see and when teased about it, Heath blushed deepest red, confirming to Johnny that he was right in his assessment.
"I am not!" Heath declared forcefully, shaking off Johnny's arm from around his shoulder and standing back from his friend.
"You are too!" Johnny shot back. "Mind, I can't say I blame you. She's going to be a beauty."
"Don't be ridiculous, Johnny!" Heath objected, growing redder by the minute. "She's only a kid."
"Heath, my friend," Johnny continued with a friend's wisdom. "Children grow up." Then he tested his friend a little. "I hear her father's sending her back east to go to school."
Heath's sun-kissed blond head immediately shot up at the news.
Johnny had been right. He said nothing more as the two boys continued back down the main street to where their families were gathered. There, in a jovial mood after defeating his brother in the arm wrestling match, Nick looked at his kid brother's face. "What's up with you, boy?," he asked.
"He's in love!" Johnny declared, beating a hasty retreat as Heath chased after him at full speed.
Victoria Barkley smiled as she heard laughter coming from the bathroom. It was Nick's laughter. Nick and Heath had vied for the bath, their competitiveness fuelled by a good day out on the range in which they had worked hard and well together. Nick had, in fact beaten Heath to the bathroom and had started running the water into the tub. Whilst it filled, he went to his room to fetch fresh clothes in which to change after his soak and that's where his plan went awry. For Heath, more concerned about getting a hot bath and less about what he would change into afterwards, had stripped his dirty clothes and got into the tub first.
"Nice of ya to fill the tub for me, Nick," he said with mischief as Nick stood decidedly unimpressed and not quite believing he had been so stupid to leave the equivalent of the barn door open. Heath had taken full advantage and he really couldn't blame him for that. He would have done the same. Still Heath may have won the battle but the war wasn't over yet. Nick made a sweeping grand gesture, signifying that he was happy for Heath to take the tub. He would wash at the wash stand instead. Heath, knowing his brother, naturally grew suspicious. He washed quickly, washing his hair in the process, rinsing off fully, before standing up and looking around for a towel. "Nick, hand me a towel, will you?" He asked, having forgotten to collect one before getting into the tub.
"A towel?" Nick replied, as he finished getting dressed, his fully dressed state in sharp contrast to Heath's wet and naked one. Heath drew back his hair with his hands to get rid of some of the excess moisture and then flicked some water out of his eye. "Quit messin', Nick. Just hand me a towel."
Nick took a moment to comb through his hair and then collected the bale of freshly laundered towels, scooping them up into one arm. "Oh I ain't messin', little brother. I'll just put these in your room. You can get one from there." He opened the door and immediately ran into his mother. Behind him, Heath quickly covered himself up with the only thing he had to hand - his hands, though far more of him was on show than was covered. It was not a situation a young man of twenty wanted to find himself in.
Victoria resisted the urge to smile at her youngest son's predicament, though he did look extremely funny, his face taking on so many changing expressions of embarrassment. Not wanting to prolong his embarrassment or fuel Nick's fun at his brother's expense she directed them both, "I'll expect you two boys downstairs in two minutes. Our guests will be hear shortly. Heath!" she added.
"Yes, Mother!" Heath replied sheepishly.
"Get some clothes on, dear."
"Yes Mother. That's just what I plan on doin'," Heath replied emphatically, glaring at his brother and getting out of the tub, dripping water everywhere. His embarrassment complete, he walked past both his mother and brother clutching himself in the front and ignoring the fact that he was completely naked everywhere else.
Watching her long-limbed son pad naked down the hall Victoria cast her middle son a look which censored the fun he was having at his brother's expense. The wide grin on Nick's face immediately turned downwards on receiving the look. Inwardly, Victoria sighed. "No matter how old they got, men would always be boys in some respect. "See he gets a towel, dear," she instructed.
"Yes Mother," Nick replied.
A few minutes later the two brothers ribbed each other as they went downstairs. They hadn't bothered to ask their mother who the guests where this evening. They had been too busy and guests were frequent at the Barkley ranch. As they reached the Parlor and joined their father and mother and the rest of the family, they were poured a drink by their father and laughed and joked until the guests came, their curiosity still not peaked.
Outside, the carriage rolled up to just in front of the verandah steps and Don Alfredo Montoya alighted, pausing a moment to turn back to the carriage. Today, he would discuss the prospects of a marriage between his daughter and Nick Barkley, the alliance of two strong blood lines and the two biggest ranches in the valley. He did not expect to be refused.
Later that evening, after their guest had gone home, Nick Barkley's strides swallowed up the carpet of his father's study with the anger that he felt.
"I'm not marrying her, do ya hear!" It was the third time he had expressed his loud and vocal refusal. "When I want a wife, I'll do my own choosing, not be party to some ancient and outdated agreement between families."
"Nick," his father quietly interrupted, but Nick wasn't listening. Standing still only for a moment the young man of twenty-four years, spread out the fingers on his right hand and pointed to each one outlining his own forceful views on the matter that had been discussed between his father and Don Alfredo Montero.
"One, she's a child. Why there's eight years difference between us. For heaven sake, father! My future bride is still at school! What I am suppose to do, drop her off each morning and carry her books home after school?"
Tom Barkley could not resist letting a smile play on his face, though he was thankful that his beard kept much of it hidden from his volatile middle son.
"Two, she's not even here to have her say on the matter. I'm Nick Barkley, father! No woman will be instructed to be my wife. She'll come of her own accord, or she'll not come at all."
"Nick?" Tom Barkley tried interrupting again, but Nick was on a roll and nothing would stop him now.
"Three! Who does Don Alfredo think he is? Why his way is no more than selling his daugher into marriage! Will he dictate how many grandsons he wants from the union too?"
"Four! As of this morning I had no intention of asking anyone to marry me and right now, believe me, nothing has changed! I'll do my own courtin' and in my own good time!
"And five! And this is the most important factor as far as I am concerned. I know for a fact Heath has feelings for the girl. Has done since he was seventeen years old."
Tom Barkley's head shot up. "Heath has? For Maria Montero? I didn't know they had met. She's been away at school."
Nick stood awkwardly for a moment. "He hasn't. They haven't. I mean," he stumbled out. "Ah heck, it was a school boy crush. The kid's never met her, but he saw her one day at the town's Fourth of July celebrations and well let's say Cupid didn't have to try hard landing his arrow. He don't say anything, but you know with Heath, that's when you worry about what's churning over in that sensitive head of his.
"Look father." He sighed, "I'm not looking for a wife and I sure ain't going to consider one that my brother is interested in. Perhaps not now, but one day."
Tom Barkley stood up and walked over to his son.
"Are you ready to listen now, Nick?"
Nick looked up surprised, then realized that he had been speaking for the last fifteen minutes. He nodded, somewhat apologetically.
"Good," Tom Barkley continued. "Nick. I'm telling you what Don Alfredo said tonight because you have a right to know what was said concerning you. Don Alfredo's customs are different to ours and I made that plain to him, but he made an offer concerning you and it was not my position to keep that information from you. I knew exactly what you would say, but the words had to come from your mouth not mine. Now you have said them I will communicate your views to Don Alfredo tomorrow and that will be the end of it."
Nick looked sheepish. Not for the first time he had engaged his mouth before thinking. He should have known what his father's reaction would have been to Don Alfredo's suggestion. "Sorry father," he said, his apology sincere.
Tom Barkley patted his son on the shoulder. "I know, son. I know you are. Now my only problem is to know what to do with Heath?"
Upstairs Heath lay on his bed, staring into no where. He'd overheard just one thing. Nick was going to marry Maria Montero!
The next morning, Tom Barkley regarded the behavior of his two younger sons at breakfast, one talkative, one silent, one eating, one not, one looking forward to the day, one seeming to dread it. What was wrong with his youngest son? For indeed there was something wrong. Heath's expressive eyes, a conduit for his often unexpressed thoughts, were soulful and reflective, his mouth set firmly against talking or eating, and in all this he had barely acknowledged his older brother, Nick, who sat next to him.
His behavior was all the more strange since his and Nick's relationship was normally so good - the hero worship and younger brother's love still very much present, but tempered with a nicely developing understanding of his larger than life brother whose valuable character his own quieter one balanced well.
Tom could see that down at the other end of the table Victoria had also noticed their son's subdued behavior. They shared a concerned look and with it a silent agreement that Tom would have a word with Heath and try to get to the source of the problem. He was going with both sons up to the north range this morning, providing opportunity to talk. If that didn't work, Victoria would talk to Heath herself. Quietly and away from the family.
Nick gobbled his food up quickly anxious to get going. "C'mon Heath. Day's a wastin'" It was a remark said without thought or malice, nonetheless Tom saw Heath's mouth tighten and thin. 'So it's something to do with Nick,’ Tom surmised.
He watched Heath dutifully put down his napkin and get up from his chair, then excuse himself from the table, courteous to his mother as always and with a nod to his father signify that he would wait outside for his father.
With Audra staying with friends and Jarrod away in San Francisco, Victoria and Tom were left alone.
"Have Nick and Heath argued?" Victoria asked her husband.
"I don't know. but if they have, I don't even think Nick is aware of it," he judged. "Not by the way he was acting. I don't even think he was aware Heath was upset."
Tom got up and moved away from the table to kiss Victoria before leaving to join his sons. They held hands exchanging parental concern.
Tom watched his two sons riding on ahead, Nick leading the way, Heath following. He followed behind. As they reached a fork in the road, Tom suggested Nick check something out ahead before they rode on. Nick willingly agreed, leaving Tom and Heath alone on the road.
Dismounting, he suggested Heath did the same because he wanted to talk. They tethered their horses and took a short stroll down to the river where Tom sat on a nearby rock and took out a cigar. He watched Heath roll one of his own cigarettes and then skim a stone into to the river when it was done still holding the cigarette.
"Son, come and sit by me. Over here." Tom requested.
Obediently, Heath did as he was asked taking seat on nearby rock.
"Son. What's wrong? You've worn a hang dog expression all morning. And you've barely spoken two words to Nick. I normally leave you two to sort your own problems out, but this time I want to know what's happened between you two."
Heath shook off his father's concerns. "There's nothing wrong, father. I'm just quiet, iz all."
Tom Barkley stood up and walked towards the water's edge. He was an imposing man, the type whose appearance alone forced you to look at him. A handsome man, he'd sired three sons and a daughter by two women, but Leah's son, Heath, was the only one to favor him strongly in both features and colouring, Audra's resemblance was in coloring alone. Strip away the years between them, the blond, graying hair and the thickness around the waist which had appeared in the last few years and Tom was Heath . In appearance the similarities were unmistakable; in character they were very different. Heath's sensitivity marked him out. It was seen as a strength, not a weakness, but it left Heath wide open to hurt.
"There is something wrong Heath." Tom insisted, not accepting his son's wish to avoid the subject. "We are all use to your quietness son, but this is different. I don't think Nick is aware of your upset with him, but I certainly am. Now spit it out. What's churning over in that mind of yours. If you don't tell me, your mother will start on you when we get home."
The pincer attack was not unknown to Heath, and he knew from experience he would be cornered either way. But how could he say what was troubling him? What right had he to say anything at all? He'd never even spoken to Maria Montera. He hadn't even seen her since she was thirteen, but his seventeen year old heart had been affected severely. Three years later he had harbored a hope that she might return one day and that he might even have a chance to try and win her heart. Now all his hopes had been dashed and it hurt in a way he had never known. How could he talk about all this to his father?
"Heath!" his father's voice grew more insistent. "We're not going any where until you tell me what's wrong. You can tell me now, or you can tell me in front of Nick, but we are not moving until you speak."
Heath reddened, threw his cigarette away and then threw a rock into the river to expel some of his anger and frustration he felt. He knew he was going nowhere until this was sorted.
Tom waited, wondering what was coming.
"Nick's getting married. I overheard you last night." Heath eventually said, in words so soft, his father barely heard.
"Overheard or were you listening?" Tom queried, knowing his son was an honest man but trying all the same to establish how much his son had heard.
"Overheard." Heath confirmed. "I came to your study door to speak to you but then I heard you and Nick talking. I didn't mean to hear but then I heard you mention Don Alfredo's proposal concerning his daughter."
Tom with the experience of having loved two women deeply in his life, recognised the love-lorn way his son spoke.
"And why would a marriage between Nick and Maria Montera be of interest to you, Heath?"
Heath grew deeply uncomfortable and paced the ground. Even though he was speaking to his father, he felt foolish and as though he didn't have any right to even voice his feelings for Maria. Not now. Not with Nick and Maria engaged."
"Heath? Have you an interest in Maria Montera?"
Heath grew even more uncomfortable, eventually saying, "She's promised to Nick."
"And that seems to make you very uncomfortable. Now I will ask you again, son, do you have an interest in Maria Montera?"
It was a long time coming but eventually Heath nodded his head, just as Nick returned to to join them. Seeing his brother, Heath began running towards his horse.
Tom was up on his feet instantly to go after Heath, but instinctively Nick's younger legs scrambled up the hill towards where the horses were and caught up with Heath first. His rather over-exuberant tackle of his brother had them both tumbling down the embankment, landing them both squarely at Tom's feet.
"Let me go! Let me go!" Heath screamed, fighting Nick who had got hold of him again. "I know I did wrong. I'm sorry Nick. Let me go! I'm sorry Nick. I'm sorry..."
Nick fought to keep Heath pinned if only for his own safety. Blood was running from a gash on Heath's head, but Nick ignored it, concentrating all his efforts on keeping Heath down. His younger brother though still skinny and not yet filled out was still a force to be reckoned with when in a temper and feeling cornered. Nick had four years on him and he made all those years and extra weight count. When he finally got Heath stilled, their faces so close they could feel each other's breath, their chests both fighting for air, he panted out, "What the hell are you sorry for? Will someone please tell me what's going on?"
Tom now intervened, pulling Nick off Heath but patting him on the shoulder to signify he understood his actions. Nick brushed the dirt off his clothes and then ran his hair back, exasperated with his younger brother but wanting to sort out whatever had caused him to act in this way. Unlike his own, Heath's anger was not a part of his everyday personality. It had roots, deep set roots. So whatever had set this off had to be big. Not only that but it obviously concerned him. For Heath had apologised to him, not his father. The question was, why?
Tom next went to Heath and pulled him up into a sitting position. The gash, probably from a rock, flowed freely now and was now staining his shirt. "You okay Nick," he asked first checking Nick wasn't hurt in the fall. "I'm okay," Nick acknowledged from where he stood. "It's Heath that's hurt. See to him. I'm fine."
"I'm not hurt." Heath objected wiping the blood from his eye in order to see. "It's just a gash."
"That's as maybe, son, but we'll get it sorted out before we take this any further." Tom insisted, "Nick, get me some water will you," he said, pulling off his bandana and wiping the blood from Heath's face. Heath's blond hair was now stained, but Tom knew that head wounds tended to look worse than they actually were and kept his concern in check. It wasn't the first time Heath had been hurt and it wouldn't be the last.
Ten minutes later, Heath's head was bathed and the wound cleaned. In the process the blood stop flowing and much to Heath's objection his head was wrapped. "Feeling okay, Heath?" Tom asked. The response was mute but affirmative. Tom sighed. "Okay, well let's get this sorted out here and now."
Objecting Heath stood up but his head injury made him imediately sit down again. Tom waited a moment from where he was standing to check Heath was alright then continued to direct proceedings between them all. "Nick, sit down, please."
Nick obeyed, casting looks Heath way, but Heath refused to meet his gaze.
"Well," Tom began. "It seems we have a situation here."
Both boys looked up, Heath's look embarrassed, Nick's blank, for he genuinely didn't know what was going on.
Tom continued. "Nick, it appears that Heath overheard part of a conversation we had last night."
With those words understanding dawned on Nick. He was tempted to put this straight right now, but one look at his father told him to stay silent. There was more to this than just admitting no understanding had been formed between him and Maria Montera.
"Heath." Tom continued, "Overheard us discussing the possibility of a marriage between you and Maria Montera sometime in the future, Nick. Of course, Maria is still at school, but in two or three years possibly."
Despite his resolve, Nick's mouth was less discliplined than his brain,
"And I told you...." he started before realizing that he'd forgotten to remain silent and let his father handle this.
Tom glared at Nick, said nothing but continued to address the problem.
"What it seems Heath did not hear was your rejection of that offer Nick and more important your reasons why."
Heath's head shot up. He was dumbfounded. He felt sure, provided an opportunity to marry the beautiful Maria Montera, Nick would not be a fool to refuse. What man wouldn't want to marry Maria? Catching Nick off guard, he threw himself at his brother with his full weight, demanding to know what was wrong with Maria!
Tom quickly separated them. "Enough, Heath! If you can't discuss this like a man, then you are not fit to consider Maria for a wife!"
Heath was stunned into silence whilst opposite him, Nick just smiled. 'Oh nothing embarrased his younger brother more than having his love life discussed out in the open. He was going to enjoy this.'
Later that evening after the boys had retired to bed and Tom and Victoria were alone in the parlor, they discussed the dilemma of their youngest son.
"He's awful young, Tom," Victoria cautioned.
"Victoria, they haven't even met yet. All we know is how Heath feels about her. We know nothing of how she might feel."
"Nevertheless, he has never forgotten about her." Victoria responded, "I seem to remember a similar situation."
"You mean us," Tom suggested.
Victoria nodded and then smiled. "It took you a whole summer to speak to me, if I remember. I was beginning to think you were never going to. And we were young too, Tom, remember?"
Tom blushed, something he did rarely now, but as with Heath's it was endearing. "I won you in the end though, didn't I," he said sincerely and with a twinkle in his eye, remembering the love between them that had spread out over the years and had helped build this family and life he loved so much. He wanted more time with them but if he died tomorrow he would be content. Not many men could say that.
Victoria acknowledged her husband sentiment by getting up from her sewing and sharing a kiss with him, one that belied their thirty years together and made them young again.
"But will Heath win Maria?" Victoria asked as they broke away and made ready to retire upstairs.
"That my dear," Tom responded, "Is for the future to decide. The future and Don Alfredo."
The next day Tom Barkley whilst riding on his land was shot dead. Grief overtook the house and all its inhabitants. It would take them a long time to recover and life would not be the same for any of them.
Victoria swept into the Parlor with a vase of freshly arranged flowers and put them down on a small table, adjusting them slightly as she settled them down and stood back to admire her work. Before moving away from the table she turned to look up at the portrait of her husband which was hung somewhat grandly over the fireplace, a piece of vanity he would have disapproved of in his lifetime, but something Victoria and the family wanted since his death. It was if gathering in the parlor, they were, briefly, a complete family again.
It had been three years since Tom had been killed. For a long time Victoria's acute, crushing grief had been a permanent companion, occupying the space that Tom had filled once, robbing her of memories of his love and their happy life together. For to remember was only to feel pain, the pain of his violent taking with no time for goodbyes, the pain of a half empty bed in which she only now slept, the pain of going on alone without the only man she had loved. Now, thankfully, the acute pain had dulled. Tom, not pain filled her heart once again and with the change she found the strength to become the strong matriach of a family fractured by loss.
Each child felt his loss strongly and each had handled their grief differently. Jarrod, not wanting to step into his father's shoes as the head but finding others naturally gravitating towards him in the role of "Pappy", Nick, loud and unforgiving in his grief, frustrated at not being able to find his father's killers, Heath directing his grief inward and Audra only sixteen when her father was killed, unable to comprehend how someone could take her beloved father away from her. Her spoilt character changed gradually into a caring one, finding an outlet for her grief in helping others, particularly children who were themselves without parents and with whom she could empathise.
"Oh Tom," Victoria sighed heavily. "Do you know how much you are missed?"
In the intervening years, Nick and Heath had become closer than ever. Though Nick still called his brother, 'boy' sometimes, they were now more than ever equals, their equality having been achieved by running the ranch together, just as an eight year old Nick had promised his four year old brother all those years ago.
Today, they were out on the range branding cattle and were engaged in a joint effort to capture a calf getting away. "Two's better than one," Heath grinned as they both pinned it down at the same time. Nick's grin was a wide as his own.
A sound of gunfire sounded in the distance and both brothers turned round sharply, their good mood replaced with concern. Running to their horses they were soon riding towards a carriage that was being followed by horses and gunfire. They reached it shortly after it came to a halt. On it's heels an angry Bert Hadley, Mel Coombs and Dave Willems followed, ranchers refusing the carriage to cross their land. The carriage bore the Montero name and inside was Maria Montera.
Heath was only vaguely aware of Nick talking to Hadley and the other ranchers, for his eyes remained solely on Maria Montera who half-stepped out of an open door to introduce herself and thank the Barkleys for their assistance. She was heart-stopping beautiful. Heath's calf love, undimmed over the years, gripped his adult heart and would not leave go.
As the carriage went on its way safely using Barkley land this time, Heath's gaze remained fixed on the receding carriage. He'd barely said two words, but his emotive eyes spoke volumes. Nick smiled at his brother. He tried speaking to his brother but his words could not even penetrate the world in which Heath now inhabited. Still smiling, he slowly took up the reins of Heath's horse and led the lovesick cowboy away.
After having been informed that dinner would be ready shortly by Silas, Victoria thanked him and finished dressing in her room, leaving it shortly afterwards to go downstairs to join the family.
As she made her way down the corridor, she was amused to hear whistling come from Heath's room. Reaching the top of the staircase she heard his door open and waited for her whistling son to join her.
"Going my way," Heath asked gallantly, offering his arm.
"Indeed I am," Victoria responded with a smile. "Well now, what puts you in such a low spirits this evening?" She asked.
"Low spirits?" Heath queried back, and then realizing he was being teased, he chuckled and together mother and son went down the stairs.
The family gathered in the Parlor for pre-dinner drinks and Victoria continued to observe Heath's exceptionally good mood. Nick saw her curiosity and whilst Heath helped himself to a drink, his mood sparkling, Nick chose to enlighten her and the rest of the family.
Learning of Maria Montera's return, Audra began with the questioning. "Is she pretty? Is she tall, short, fair, dark?" she enthused, desperate to know the latest fashions Maria was wearing from back east, completely ignorant of Heath's interest in the dark-haired beauty.
Audra, now nineteen and in love with the idea of love saw Heath blush deeply and struggle for words. "She is!" she declared, seeing the confirmation in his face, her own face lighting up at the prospect of romance taking place.
Victoria steered the attention away from Heath who though happy that Maria Montera had now returned to the valley, was nevertheless embarrassed at his sister's endless questions.
The conversation turned to Bert Hadley and the ranchers and both Jarrod and Victoria sensed growing trouble, particularly as Jarrod had heard that Don Alfredo's case for evicting the ranchers may be upheld. Don Alfredo was insistent that the land, which had been sold to Hadley, Willems and Coombs by Tom Barkley did in fact constitute part of the Montero land and he was determined to reclaim it through the courts.
Victoria seeking to calm the situation between her neighbors suggested a visit to Don Alfredo to try and smoothed things over.
"Good idea, Mother," Heath agreed quickly. "I'll ride over there in the morning."
Nick gave his brother a skewed look, placed his hands on his hips and stood and stared.
"What?" Heath asked, feeling all eyes upon him and blushing even more deeply. "I just meant..."
"Oh we know what you meant," Nick replied loudly and theatrically whilst everyone else around smiled. "We'll both go."
"Ya don't have to, Nick." Heath objected, trying to minimize the true reason for his wanting to go. His face took on a 'kid brother', pleading look but Nick was immune.
"Oh, I think I do." he responded. "At the rate you spoke this morning, the conversation will consist of two words, that's if you can get your eyes past the beautiful Maria Montera. Besides, I'll act as chaperone."
"Chaperone! Nick, I don't need a chaperone!" Heath objected loudly, looking around the room for support.
Coming to her son's rescue, Victoria intervened. "I think since the incident was witnessed by both of you, Nick and Heath, it is as well that both of you represent the ranch and Jarrod will come with you. Is that settled?"
All her sons nodded and the family went into dinner, Heath unmercifully teased by Nick along the way.
Victoria turned to Jarrod. "Do try to keep the children in check tomorrow Jarrod, will you?"
Jarrod smiled at his mother's wit. "I'll try Mother. But I'm not promising anything."
All three brothers rode out to the Montero ranch the next day reaching it shortly before mid-morning. Heath didn't feel like he had one chaperone now, he felt like he had two. He was determined to shake off his brothers at the earliest opportunity. He only hoped that he would have the chance of meeting Maria that day so the journey would not be wasted.
Riding into the finely manicured lawns of the ranch compound, Heath immediately spotted Maria sitting under a tree and decided the moment had come for him and his brothers to part company. Rearing his horse up, he pretended that Charger had caught a burr.
Nick's disbelieving look was a picture to see but he had no opportunity to say anything as Jarrod suggested they carry on to the house and let Heath catch up when he could. He was in effect, clearing the way for Heath and Maria to meet and Heath shot him a grateful look.
Tethering Charger to a nearby post, the prospective suitor brushed the dirt of his clothes, straightened his hat, pulled down his vest and took a deep breath before walking the few yards back to the lawn where Maria Montera sat reading a book.
Heath swallowed deep and evoked a sense of confidence he did not yet feel. Nevertheless, his voice and manner masked it well. Strolling on to the lawn where Maria Montera read, he sat down on a nearby rock and said:
"Just plain good manners to say hello."
Maria Montera looked up from her book and turned to the speaker, "Forgive me, hello," she replied.
"If I remember your name would be Maria Montera." Heath continued, remembering their brief introduction at the coach.
Maria smiled in reply. She had noticed Heath ride in with his brother and stayed staring at him long after he ridden past before returning to reading her book. Only the words on the book seemed all jumbled up now and she found herself reading the same line all the time, progressing nowhere. Her thoughts were on other things.
Despite the pair being affected by their meeting of each other, both outwardly appeared calm. Maria went on to explain her full name to the handsome cowboy whose eyes were tender and startling blue and whose words were spoken softly.
The couple walked and Heath tried repeating the various names back, counting them on his fingers, the number was so many. "Boy Howdy! And I was just getting use to Maria Montera," he teased. She laughed back and they grew relaxed in each other's company, boy meeting girl, girl meeting boy, neither aware of the severe, disapproving look of Don Alfredo who observed them through the French windows. With eyes only for each other Heath and Maria continued to walk in the garden whilst Don Alfredo was forced to return to his guests.
His welcome of Jarrod and Nick Barkley had been cordial, despite the land dispute between them. In his opinion, the older Barkley brothers were fine men and he had been very disappointed that a marriage had not been agreed between Nick and Maria. At the time he accepted that the Americans had different customs but still hoped for an alliance. Maria was now nineteen and he would not give her to just anybody. Her return home, a grown woman now and not still a schoolgirl, could make Nick Barkley think differently. That was if he could get 'el bastardo' out of the way. He almost spit the words out. Why had Jarrod and Nick brought him along. It was an insult to his hospitality and to his daughter. He had never understood Tom Barkley taking the child in as a baby, or worse, Victoria Barkley raising him as her own.
Unaware of Don Alfredo's train of thought, Jarrod spoke eloquently about the land dispute that was threatening the valley. Mindful of Don Alfredo's strong views about the land, he tread carefully. He tried diplomatically to explain that when the land had been sold to Hadley, Willems and Coombs, who had originally worked for Tom Barkley, his father believed he was selling Barkley land in good faith. The ownership still unresolved, he appealed to Don Alfredo to look sympathetically on the rancher's grievances and effectively forget seeking a legal claim.
Don Alfredo was dismissive but polite in his rejection. He could not understand their concern over what was at most 16,000 acres when separately and collectively the Barkleys and Montera's owned thousands. His words made it clear that he could not understand the importance a small piece of land could mean to one individual. His grandee arrogance chilled both Barkley brothers.
Nick bristled. "Sixteen thousand acres which mean a whole lot to Hadley, Willems and Coombs," he observed bitterly, not liking the superior air of Don Alfredo. The nobleman was a snob of the worst possible order and if there was anything Nick hated more it was people who thought they were better than anyone else. The Barkleys had more land than Montera, had been resident in the Valley longer than Montera, but Montera still looked down on those he considered inferior.
Outside, Heath changed subject when the conversation turned to his own name. He was desperate to meet Maria again. "Will you be coming to town Saturday?" he asked.
"Saturday?" Maria queried back, not understanding its significance.
"For the Fourth?"
"The Fourth of July." Heath went on to explain how the town would be celebrating the nation's birthday and that Maria being American might want to come. "It'll be fun," he said, adding, "It'll be fun for me too."
Maria was caught up in his enthusiasm and wanted to see Heath again, but remained cautious of needing her father's approval.
As they reached the house and Heath opened the door for her, he asked again, "Saturday?"
Maria smiled, "I'll try. I'll have to ask my father." Seeing her father approach, she said, "Father, this is Heath, the other one who helped us."
Heath took off his hat and extended his hand to shake that of Don Alfredo, "Senor," he said politely.
His hand was left hanging as Don Alfredo simply acknowledged he knew who he was and thanked him dutifully but without grace for what he had done for his daughter.
There followed an awkward silence in which everyone was hurt and embarrassed. Everyone, save Don Alfredo Montero who had scant regard for the feelings of others.
The silence was interrupted by the angry shouts of Bert Hadley outside. A Montero bull had jumped the fence and mixed in with Hadley's heifers, mixing the breeds. Returning the bull in question, Hadley directed his anger at Montero.
What happened next astonished everybody. "I understand how you feel," Don Alfredo replied. He then asked for Hadley's gun and shot the poor beast dead in front of everyone. Returning the gun, he turned and stood looking at Heath, "To keep a line pure is a sacred trust."
Jarrod had to hold Nick back from punching Don Alfredo for the insult done to their younger brother. They both looked at Heath. His face was picture of hurt and incomprehension. Jarrod and Nick both felt his pain. Their parents had not hidden the circumstances of his birth from Heath but it had never come back to haunt him until this day.
Jarrod stayed back as Nick and Heath walked away and mounted their horses, Nick seething, Heath, uncomprehending and hurt. He waited till both had ridden out before turning on Don Alfredo. His normally reasoned voice was enraged.
"Don Alfredo, I am aware this is your home and I am your guest, but your treatment of my brother was unforgivable."
"What do you mean?" Don Alfredo snapped and then with supreme insensitivity continued, "He is not your real brother. He is only half your brother. Your father's mistake. Such mistakes happen amongst men, but they are not openly acknowledged. Why do you concern yourself. I was only stating a truth."
Jarrod had never been so angry and snapped back himself, stating with passion. "Heath may be my half-brother by blood, but he is my full brother in every other respect. When you insult him, you insult not just him, but my whole family, particularly my mother who cares for him deeply as her own son. Heath is not and never was responsible for the circumstances of his birth. Nor does he have to apologize for it or hide away in shame. He is, in fact, the most honorable man I know, far more honorable than many who think themselves honorable simply by the accident of their birth. If people cannot see beyond his illegitimacy, then the fault lies with them and not my brother. I believe, under the circumstances, you owe my brother an apology, Senor."
Don Alfredo had never been spoken to in such a direct terms. In his eyes he was simply stating a truth. His beliefs and ways were the accepted ways of centuries. That Tom Barkley had taken a mistress one day and even fathered a child was not the crime. Acknowledging the child publicly was. It spoke of bad taste. Nevertheless, while indifferent to the feelings of Jarrod's brother and indignant at the attack, he was nevertheless acutely aware of the importance of maintaining good relations with the Barkleys as a whole. He duly apologized for any offence he had caused.
Jarrod was not satisfied. "It is not to me you should be apologizing. It is to my brother, Heath."
Don Alfredo nodded. "I will ride across to your place tomorrow and do as you ask," he said.
Jarrod's horse was brought to him and with barely an acknowledgement he rode away to catch up with his brothers.
It did not take Jarrod long to catch up with his brothers on the road. They had stopped by a river and Heath was stood staring out, his thoughts clearly not on its flow or pattern but on the words Don Alfredo had spoken.
Jarrod dismounted from his horse and shared a concerned look with Nick, who indicated that he had tried to say something but Heath was in no mood to listen. Jarrod and Nick had been Heath's older brothers for so long it was hard for them not to be protective of Heath and Audra, the youngest in the family, only they had to remember that Heath was now a man and no longer a child.
Jarrod and Nick though felt Heath's pain just as strongly as Heath did. Jarrod had been eight when Heath had been brought home one day as a baby and Nick had been four. Well, of course, Nick thought the baby had been brought home for him personally and had never really lost that possessive feeling of Heath. Whilst it could be overbearing for Heath sometimes, it was always well meant and the brothers got on very well. It seemed Nick had been born to be an older brother and for that kid brother to be Heath.
"Let me see if I can talk to him," Jarrod suggested. Nick nodded and watched on as Jarrod walked over to Heath.
"Heath," Jarrod said as he joined his brother.
Heath didn't say anything. Nevertheless Jarrod continued. "Heath, you can't pay any attention to what Don Alfredo says."
"Can't I?" Heath suddenly shot back. "Maybe he's only saying what everyone else is thinking. Has been thinking perhaps all these years."
"You know that's not true." Jarrod replied. "Don Alfredo is of the old school. His customs are different to ours, but that doesn't make it right. And what he said was completely out of order. He is coming across to the ranch tomorrow to apologize personally to you."
"How do I know Jarrod? How do I know that people don't think like he does? Maybe they only treat me decent because of my Barkley name, because of who my father was!"
"They treat you decent because you treat them decent, Heath. Because of the man you are, not because of your name. Oh the name might open a few doors more easily for you, like it does for us all, but it's the man who walks through them that ultimately counts. Look, I'm not going to stand here and tell you that you won't encounter Montero's attitude again from someone else, but that's their ignorance, not yours."
Jarrod was unsure his words were having any effect. He tried another tact.
"Heath remember when you were eight and Mother and Father told you about your birth."
Heath nodded, reflecting back on that day now with adult eyes.
Encouraged, Jarrod continued. "You remember you were all confused and upset. Do you remember how mother explained to you that she could not love you any more if you were her own son. Do you Heath? And do you remember the tears of love she had in her eyes as she told you. We were all crying, you included. And later, do you remember, how you, Nick and I, later confirmed we were blood brothers by spilling our blood and merging it as one."
Heath did remember. He remembered how his blood had been no different to that of Nick's or Jarrod's. How Barkley blood ran through his veins as much as it did theirs'. To his fractured young mind, he remembered how important that symbolic gesture was to him. He remembered how everyone strove to reassure him of how much he was loved and was wanted and how Jarrod later explained it, the sixteen year old to the frightened boy of eight.
"Yes," he uttered. "I remember." His voice was soft and full of emotion.
"Never doubt you are my brother, Heath." Jarrod said forcefully and with sincerity.
"Nor mine." Nick piped up, unable to stand silently by.
"This family," Jarrod continued, "was made complete when you came to us and we are as proud of you today as we were on that day when we gained a new brother."
"Even though you cried a lot. In fact, you cried a hulluva lot," Nick joked, rubbing his ear at the memory and hoping to lighten the mood.
Heath smiled. "At least I didn't yell," he joked back. He'd been shaken to the core that morning by Don Alfredo's words and the slaying of the bull, for in that moment he felt himself slain as well, but he knew his brothers spoke the truth. He had never doubted his place in the family or how much he was loved. Still it was good to hear their reassurances again. His family was his rock. It always had been. The question now was, what did Maria think? Did she think the same way as her father? Would the circumstances of his birth lessen him in her eyes as it had done her father’s.
Heath did not have to long to wait to find his answer. The following day Don Alfredo did indeed come by the mansion to offer his apology and Maria accompanied him. Her smile and warmness to him and his family, confirmed that she did not hold her father's views. For the sake of Maria, therefore, Heath accepted Montero's apology and did so graciously.
In turn, Victoria, deeply angry at Don Alfredo behaviour towards her son, kept her displeasure to herself for the sake of Heath, because he had asked her to. Steeling herself, she forced herself to remain pleasant to Don Alfredo. Though she now disliked the man intensely, she liked Maria and wanted Heath and Maria to have a chance to get to know each other. By offering to show Don Alfredo the ranch she provided Heath and Maria an opportunity to spend some time alone together and the two shot her a grateful look.
Jarrod and Nick made themselves quickly absent whilst Heath escorted Maria into his mother's rose garden. Don Alfredo, was clearly not happy about the situation, but had no choice other than to accept Victoria's invitation to show him the ranch. Whilst he had apologized his views remained the same. Heath Barkley, 'el bastardo', was not fit to court his daughter and he was determined to separate them in some way.
The Barkleys were in good spirits for the Fourth of July celebrations in town. Heath and Nick were both due to take part in a number of events in which they were both expected to do well, the horse racing and wrestling contest in particular. Nick had also entered the arm-wrestling competition against some strong competition.
Heath, of course, had another reason to look forward to the day; he would finally be seeing Maria again, her father, under some pressure from Victoria Barkley, having agreed to bring her to town to enjoy the festivities.
Victoria was glad to hear his tuneful whistling coming from her son's bedroom again as he got ready, interspersed with his singing. Heath rarely sang but his voice was not unpleasant and it signified he was in a good mood. His dressing was taking longer than usual as he fussed over his appearance, and when he finally made it downstairs, a whiff of cologne accompanied him. Getting a whiff of it was all that was needed to get Nick started.
"What are you wearing that for?" he asked, loudly, guaranteeing to get himself an audience. "Hell by the time I've beaten you in the horse race and the wrestling you'll be dunking yourself in a bath at the hotel and washing all that...," he inhaled deeply looking for a suitable description, "stuff off again."
Before Heath could answer, Nick pounced again. "Oh I see. The cologne is for the benefit of Maria Montera. Well, I understand now. My little brother is hoping to see the beautiful senorita again, huh?"
"Might be," Heath acknowledged, taking great care to put on his newly brushed and clean hat, running his long fingers along the brim and tilting it to the right angle.
Nick had to admit Heath was very neatly turned out even if in Nick's opinion he did 'reek to high heaven.' Of course it wasn't that bad, but Nick was in a mood to exaggerate the problem by pointing Heath down wind as they got outside.
"Boy Howdy, Nick. I don't smell that bad," Heath complained, growing nervous that he may very well have overdone things. "Mother?" he appealed, needing a second opinion.
Victoria who had been busy getting her hat and purse, leaned up to kiss him and patted him reassuringly on the chest telling him he smelled 'very nice'.
"See!" Heath shot back at Nick. "Must be you that you are smelling."
"Let's ask Audra?" Nick suggested. "Audra, You're a woman,"
"Oh Nick, how nice of you to notice, " Audra observed, dryly, showing a humor very similar to Heath's. Being the youngest, Audra and Heath could get away with a lot and had done since they were children.
"Tell us Audra," Nick continued. "Is our brother here, likely to make a woman swoon with his dashing good looks or kill her dead at five paces with the amount of cologne he has splashed on."
Heath stood still so Audra could use her delicate nose to determine the fact. Dressed in a white dress and hat, Audra let her small nose and feminine sensibilities form a woman's opinion. "Oh Heath, you smell absolutely wonderful. That's the cologne I ordered from New York for you, last Christmas. I'm so glad you like it." She exclaimed, bringing a smile to his face.
"I reserve it for special occasions," Heath responded, grateful for her response.
"And is this a special occasion, Heath?" Audra whispered.
"I hope so," Heath whispered back close to her ear. He let his lips move to her cheek and he gave her a brotherly kiss.
Audra turned to Nick and rebuked him for suggesting that Heath smelt anything less than wonderful and for suggesting that her choice of cologne for Heath "reeked!" as he put it. "Don't worry Heath, Nick's only jealous because he doesn't have a girl to swoon in his arms," she added.
"Good thing too," Nick shot back. "A girl who swoons all the time is no good to me. I like my women conscious."
Heath escorted his sister to the buggy and helped her climb up into her seat, sharing another joke with her. "Usually it's the women who want to be unconscious, Sis. It's that magnetic charm of his. Its never fails. Why it works on me a treat when I want to go to sleep on the trail. I sleep just like a baby."
Despite the teasing he had endured, Heath enjoyed that particular Fourth of July, 1876 enormously, even if he was tricked by Nick out of helping Maria from her carriage when she arrived in town with her family and chaperone. He was left to carry Angelina instead, but his annoyance was only short-lived, especially when Angelina soon proved she was on their side and worked to see that Heath and Maria were able to meet as often as they could without her actions becoming suspicious to Don Alfredo.
The day was a good day all round for the Barkleys. Heath jointly won the horse race with Nick and then watched his brother win the arm wrestling contest. When it came to the wrestling Heath and Nick both won their individual bouts and met in the final.
Victoria and Audra watched on, unable to cheer either one on because of their loyalty to both. They laughed as everyone did when Heath was slapped on his rear by Nick with a towel, a warning to the young pretender that Nick was not ready to give up his role as reigning champion any time soon. Both competitive, no quarter would be given to the fact that they were brothers. Heath, distractedly, searched to see if Maria was in the crowd, but could not see her. He was disappointed, of course, but his attention was soon forced to return to the ring when the bell sounded for the wrestling to begin.
On the sidewalk, Victoria watched on with as much enthusiasm as a mother could when one son was wrestling the other. Her mind went back to when Heath was eight and had got into a fight with Nick who was older and stronger at twelve and they had wrestled on the floor over some argument long since forgotten. She had gone to separate her quarrelling boys and tears had followed from the younger of the two warriors as Heath was not only told off but also lost the fight too. Now she watched the two same boys and wondered at how little things changed. She was almost relieved to see Don Alfredo approach with Maria to divert her attention from what was going on in the ring. They talked for a few moments before returning their attention to the match.
In the wrestling ring, there followed a sprawling entanglement of bodies and limbs as first Nick was thrown over Heath's back, landing on the floor, then a swift retort from Nick had Heath flipped over and in the same position. With the temporary advantage Nick moved quickly to pin him down but found his legs swept out from under him as Heath's feet made contact with his shins. Now instead of Nick pinning Heath down, Heath was somehow on top and proving hard to budge.
For a moment Nick felt the contest slipping away from him but with renewed strength he pushed with all his might and rolled Heath over and off him. Both brothers were quick to their feet, but then somehow Nick ended up on the floor again and Heath was holding his arm outstretched, covering his body with his own and stopping him from getting up.
Heath had him beat for sure. Then out from the crowd came a cry "You've got him, Heath!" Heath's concentration was lost but he didn't care, a big grin broke out on his face as he recognized the owner of the voice. It was Maria and she had come to see him fight.
The moment of triumph last only a second as feeling Heath's grip loosen on him, Nick seized the opportunity to flip Heath over and this time he wasn't going to let his brother break free. With all his weight he kept Heath pinned as the referee began the count. A few moments later, Nick had won the match.
Letting his brother go, the winner stood up triumphant and then hauled Heath to his feet by his belt like a child. Heath didn't care. His eyes remained on Maria. Not stopping to dry himself off with a towel or grab a shirt, and with sweat running from his well muscled torso, dappled here and there with red marks from where Nick had gripped him or where he had hit the floor, he made his way to the ropes.
Jumping down he walked straight over to Maria where he lifted her down from the sidewalk, escorting her down the street and effectively claming her in front of her father. It was a defining moment for all those present. Inside Don Alfredo raged. He did not know that his words of subsequent anger on the subject in the hearing of his young nephew were to have far reaching account.
Heath and Maria enjoyed carefully orchestrated time alone to eat supper together that evening as the sun set on the Fourth of July. Well, not quite alone. They sat at a table which could seat six, but at which only two white-haired spinster sisters sat opposite, simply charmed by the young couple who were still getting to know each other.
Heath, gallantly got up to get fetch a plate of supper for each of them as well as for himself and Maria and as they talked, they were aware they were being observed by the ladies but in a kindly, sympathetic way.
When the dancing began, Heath did not hesitate to ask Maria if she would like to dance and the two excused themselves from the old ladies and took to the dance floor, making a handsome pair.
"Such a sweet couple," Estelle said to her sister, Hope.
Hope nodded and clasped her sister's hand. Together, they watched the young couple dance, and as they did so, their own tiny feet began dancing where they sat.
Their eyes weren't the only ones observing Heath and Maria together. Victoria watched on with love and hope and so did Audra. Nick's eyes held a touch of jealousy, earning him some teasing from the sanguine Jarrod. Finding himself on the defensive, Nick declared" "Well, she's damned pretty. A man would have to be blind not to see that! But she only has eyes for Heath, anyone can see that."
"Yes, that's what I am afraid of," replied Jarrod. "It won't be easy for either of them. Not with the way Don Alfredo feels about Heath."
"You don't think his apology was sincere?" Nick queried.
"Did you?" Asked Jarrod throwing the question back.
Nick looked across towards the stone-faced, Don Alfredo whose eyes bore into Heath dancing with his daughter. "I guess not, but I hoped for Heath's sake."
Fortunately, Heath and Maria were unaware of the tension they were causing. Their world had narrowed for the evening into one in which only the two of them existed and the troubles did not. They agreed to meet the next day, and the next, and the next. Heath had fallen deeply in love and knew now that Maria was the only one for him.
In his happiness, he danced two dances with the old ladies, twirling them around the dance floor at a gentle pace and making their evening and their fondness for him complete.