Heath came back into the house with a worried look on his face.
"What's wrong?" Meg asked as she finished putting her bonnet on, making sure her hair was just right under the pretty hat. It was one that Heath had bought her some months back and her favourite of all the many hats she could choose from. For Meg Stanhope Barkley did indeed love hats!
"Somehow I think this animal blessing service the minister is having at the church today is going to backfire grand style." Heath replied and then seeing her exclaimed, "Boy Howdy, Meg! Don't let Matty's goat see that hat. I bought that hat for you and I don't plan on the goat wearing it!"
"Matty's taking the goat?" Meg almost gulped, though remembering how she had enthusiastically sold this idea to the new minister she had to swallow the gulp quickly to ensure Heath didn't detect any doubt on her part.
After fixing her hat at the right tilt, she turned to her husband who was dressed in his Sunday best and took the opportunity to straighten his tie. Though he looked handsome in his suit, Meg knew that to Heath it felt as uncomfortable to him as the day he wore his birthday suit to have his portrait painted. It took him some time to be persuaded to sit for that portrait again after the embarrassment of being discovered, but sit he did, though this time it was in the privacy of their bedroom where she had had to make do with the light. That portrait as she promised was for their eyes only and was hidden carefully away.
Patting him on the chest when she had finished with the retying of the tie, Meg reassured him.
"Trust me, Heath. This will be a wonderful service. And it means so much to the children. Look how they have all been keen to join in."
"It's their keenness that worries me," Heath grumbled. "I'm a rancher, Meg. And our animals belong on the ranch, not in church. I'm warning you, trouble will come of this."
"Pessimist!" Meg teased him.
She took a half-used tumbler of peach juice from the center table bedecked with fruit from the orchards.
"Is that glass half-full or half-empty, Heath?" she asked to emphasise the point.
"Half-empty." He stated, confirming his take on the matter.
"Well to me it's half-full with lots to savor yet. C'mon Grumpy. We have children and animals to load."
"Yes, but in which order?" Heath quipped, twisting his face behind his wife's back as she swept past him.
"I saw that." She commented.
"You were meant to." Heath replied, atypically, managing to have the last word.
"Well don't we all look smart?" Meg exclaimed as she saw her brood and the menagerie of animals out at the front of the house. It was a mottley collection to say the least. Matty was doing his best to keep Ermentrude the goat in line and to stop her from trying to nibble the seat of Little Nicholas' pants.
"Get him away from me Matty!" Nicholas protested, stepping out of the way from Ermentrude's nipping teeth.
"I'm trying Nicholas! Honest!" Matty shot back, getting himself twisted as the tethered goat encircled him with the rope.
Nicholas gave the goat the evil eye and Max, his dog, followed suit, eyeing Ermentrude with great suspicion, unimpressed with the rest of the animals too.
Usually, he only had to share the family with James' puppy and he was not liking the gathering of four-legged friends very much at all. When Ermentrude threatened to come near him, he growled his objection in no uncertain terms, finishing it with a series of barks. The goat looked at him as though to say "Am I bothered?"
"Mama!" Matty protested as he tried unraveling himself from the constant knots his goat was getting him into. "I can't... I can't." He tried again as he hopped over a piece of rope in a way to extricate himself. "I can't get Ermentrude to stand still. What do I do?"
Meg looked at Heath for assistance. Suddenly her normally considerate and gallant husband decided now was the time to study his feet. "This one is all yours'" he mumbled, trying to keep the merriment from his voice.
Meg refused to be defeated. This day would be a success, even if it killed her. She vowed silently under her breath.
"Ermentrude!" She commanded as she took the rope that tethered her from Matty. "We are going to the Lord's house and you ......" She didn't even have chance to finish her sentence. Ermentrude had heard enough and snatched Meg's bonnet from her lowered head.
"My bonnet!" Meg screamed as she clung to her pinned hair.
Too late. Ermentrude was off, closely followed by Matty who was trying to catch on to the rope that was now trailing on the ground.
"That glass still half-full now, Meg?" Heath chuckled from behind.
Taking a deep breath Meg breathed out with a frozen smile. "It most certainly is!" And then added.
"Mr. Barkley perhaps you would be good enough to round up the goat and our young son. In the meantime I will see that everyone else gets into the wagon."
"Oh this should be fun!" Heath exclaimed. "Remind me again, what time the service is due to begin?"
As they traveled to town, Heath thought the miracle would be if they actually managed to arrive at all. It had been to say the least, a journey to remember with its unexpected passengers comprising Ermentrude the goat, Max the dog, Patch the puppy, Clowance, the family burro traveling behind, Sally, the hen, Goldie the goldfish and Petunia Primrose the piglet, today wearing a bright pink bow. And of course, there were the young Barkleys, the animals' owners - Matty, Nicholas, James, Victoria, Clara and young Rosie.
Refusing to travel with this morning's four-legged church attendees was Cate who was being driven with Leah and the two youngest Barkleys, George and Anna, by Samuel in the surrey whilst Josh and Heath jr rode their own horses bringing up the rear.
No siree, in all his years Heath Barkley had never traveled to town or church as he was doing so today.
"Matty," Heath breathed out as Ermentrude tried to sink her teeth into his backside again.
"Sorry Papa!" Matty exclaimed, crimsoning as he realized his goat was being the most badly behaved of the animals again. He was so trying to get Trudie, as he called her, to behave, but in reality the task was beyond him.
Ermentrude - Trudie was just downright anti-social and bad-tempered to boot, though dearly and devotedly loved by Matty. She was tolerated simply because of that devotion, but she abused the friendship no end with her antics about the Barkley compound. Several times she had met the wrath of Victoria Barkley who even at seventy-seven was a force to be reckoned with.
It was not long into the journey that Max demonstrated his disgust at having to travel with such riff raff, leaving his young master's side and going to sit up top, leaping up onto the buckboard seat between Meg and Heath and then down again on the other side, finding himself a comfortable place to lie on the floor by their feet.
Nicholas did not seem to mind for he was otherwise occupied keeping his bullfrog hidden. When the toad wriggled in his pocket making him jump, and then croaked loudly several times, the embarrassed boy pretended to burp, quickly adding "Pardon me!" to cover the bullfrog's presence. For advisedly he had been told not to bring it along given Clara's particular loathing for the creature. But how could Nicholas leave the bullfrog at home. Maybe if the Lord blessed him, Clara would like his pet better and then not squeal everytime it made an appearance.
James' puppy Patch was a typical playful puppy, not exactly toilet trained and Heath knew that before the morning was out that in itself was going to present problems, but for the moment the puppy was happy to stand on his young master's lap, James' small hands holding him steady so he wouldn't jump out of the wagon. Occasionally, a small bark of approval could be heard as Patch saw something of interest he wanted young James to see too.
Clara's hen clucked and fluttered against her contstraints every now and then but otherwise was well behaved, held as she was in Clara's confident arms, whilst Victoria kept careful check on her beloved pet piglet, the grandly named Petunia Primrose.
The bow the piglet wore was bright pink and somewhat incongruous, but since all the Barkleys were in their Sunday best, it seemed a tad unfair to single the piglet out, at least this was the reasoning Victoria gave her father. When she finished her explanation with a sweet kiss on her father's cheek, there was little Heath could say back, or indeed wanted to.
Heath was glad he had allowed for a longer time to reach town. Several stops were required along the way, though why his boys could not time their stops at the same time, Heath would never know. Even after asking if they needed to go, one would always hang back thinking he didn't, assuring them in fact that he didn't, only to find that he needed to a little further on the way.
The animals were of course a law unto themselves, Heath could only hope that said animal's owner would be quick enough to make sure their respective animal's business was done over the side of the wagon and not inside it.
Ermentrude was the problem. As stubborn as she was to get into the wagon, she was equally as stubborn to get out of it, but out she got with cajolement and one big push.
Ermentrude's main problem was that she got bored. And having made a meal of Meg's bonnet - one that Meg had replaced with a less decorous one in case that too was eaten, Trudie was now interested in the large blue bow that was tied at the back of Meg's dress. With its two tapering ties trailing down the back of the skirt, it was just sitting them ready to be eaten.
Whilst the children were occupied by another outburst from Nicholas trying to cover his bullfrog's presence with a series of "Pardon Me's!", the goat took its opportunity.
Nick and Jenny were in conversation with the Lomax family when Nick spied his younger brother and family arrive at the church. His eyes sparkled and his mouth broke into a wide mischievous grin when he saw what his brother had let himself in for. Excusing himself, he walked with his youngest daughter Mary over to the wagon as Heath brought it to a stop.
"Well what have we here?" he exclaimed in a booming voice which had only grown deeper over the intervening years and which in tone indicated that he was going to have fun with the situation. "Looks like you brought half the ranch with you. You got the herd following close behind too?"
"Only my half," Heath teased back, "I reckon your half are heathens."
Both brothers sported big grins on their faces. The banter between them being something they both enjoyed. Heath added insult to injury by jumping to the ground like a man in his twenties. Nick could not miss the agile display.
Landing near Nick, Heath shook the hand of the brother he had not seen for over two weeks, while giving Mary a ruffle of her curly hair at which she giggled.
"Good to see you Nick. When did you get back?"
"Business go well?"
"We got a good price. I'll be out your way tomorrow. I'll tell you then. If Jenny catches me talking ranch business on the Lord's day, it won't be the Lord's wrath I'll be fearing, it will be hers'."
As if on cue, Jenny turned to see where her husband was and seeing Heath gave him a warm smile. Heath nodded. Then whilst Heath went round the wagon to help Meg down, Nick approached the wagon.
"Now I know's I got me some nephews and nieces in here, but I'm danged if I know which is which." He teased seeing the mix of animals and children.
"It's us, Uncle Nick. Matty, James and Nicholas. Look we brought our animals for the blessing."
Immediately a loud and untimely croak could be heard from Nicholas' pocket and Nicholas spluttered non too convincing, "Pardon me!"
Something was up and Nick suspected he knew what it was. He beckoned his young nephew over to him and whispered into his ear.
"Have you brought that bullfrog with you?"
Nicholas immediately reddened and then unable to lie, nodded, wondering if he and the bullfrog were going to be made to sit out the service. He'd been told not to bring it along and he had. That alone was deserving of a telling off, but he really didn't want to miss the animal blessing. It seemed along with Matty's ill-behaved goat, Nicholas' pets, Max and the bullfrog were the next most in need of prayer.
"I did, sir," Nicholas said, and then with worry entering his voice he added. "Are you going to tell Papa?"
"Did he tell you not to bring it?" His uncle asked.
Nicholas nodded. "He said it was better if I leave it at home."
"Must have had a good reason?"
Nicholas whispered into his uncle's ear for even at this stage he did not want to give away the fact that he had brought along the bullfrog just in case there was a reprieve.
"Clara doesn't like the bullfrog." He said, with a warm breath which tickled his uncle's ear. And then in mitigation he added. "But, she's a girl, Uncle Nick and you know all about girls."
It was a loaded statement. Nicholas at six may have not fully realized it, but it was definitely a heavily loaded statement. The kind that said "We men should stick together."
"Oh I do. Indeed I do." His uncle agreed. "But you see, Nicholas. If your father told you not to bring him... it, you should have done what you were told. No argument. You're going to have to tell him and I reckon you're best doing it now. You know, man to man and before the service begins."
There was no reprieve.
"Yes sir," Nicholas agreed.
Resigned to his fate he shuffled his way down the end of the wagon, he got down and toddled over to his father and mother. It was then he saw the state of his mother's bow. It was all chewed up and frayed, no longer pretty like it had been before.
He looked up at his father who immediately put a finger to his lips to indicate for Nicholas to keep quiet. In silent communication they conspired to keep it a secret from their mother.
Heath hands were around Meg's waist guiding her and busily trying to fix the bow without being discovered.
"Something wrong?" Meg asked when she felt him fiddling with the bow.
"Not a thing, dear," Heath replied. "It's just come undone a bit. Here let me tie it for you." His statement stretched the truth.
Now Nicholas was in a dilemma. He'd gone from one grown up who'd told him to come clean about bringing his bullfrog against his father's wishes and now his Papa was telling his Mama that there was nothing wrong with her bow, when clearly Ermentrude had eaten a great chunk out of it.
What should he do?
He looked to his Uncle, who encouraged him to go to his father and then he looked at his father who was telling him to keep quiet about the bow.
"Papa!" He swallowed. "I got to tell you something before we go in to church."
"Not now son, not now." Heath said distractedly, his fingers still trying to minimize the damage done to Meg's dress. "Please get your brothers and sisters together so we can go into church."
"Nicholas, please. Do as I say."
Nicholas turned and gave his uncle a shrug with his shoulders.
"Croak," went the bullfrog.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
The congregation assembled outside the church and sang both musically and loudly, inspired by the words and sentiment of the hymn and God's gift of a beautiful sunny day. The animals were there, if not two by two, then certainly varied in appearance and behavior, some small, some large, some good, some not so good. Obvious to all the adults present was the sheer delight on the children's faces at having their animals and pets able to attend.
Wisely the new minister, young and enthusiastic, had decided to conduct the service outside given that this was his first ever and maybe last four-legged congregation. For Matty's sake, Heath was grateful for this. The boy had pleaded to be allowed to bring Ermentrude despite the poor impression Trudie had already made that morning with a number of Barkleys and the fact that by her behaviour she had replaced Max in the dog house.
Matty was such a sweet boy in character and face, it was hard to say no to him, especially when he asked little for himself but to be allowed his goat. Truth be told Ermentrude did not deserve Matty as a friend and protector but then goats were always a selfish breed of animal and not really pet material. Still Matty loved that beast and with every effort he had tried to control it. But with Trudie, damage limitation was the best you could ever hope for.
With his father sat beside him, ready to help if Trudie got out of line, Matty sat on the end seat of a row of chairs on which his father brothers, mother and two younger siblings sat. Across the way, his older brothers and sisters sat. Smiling at his older brothers his two hands had Trudie firmly tethered by a rope, the goat for the moment pacified by the grass underfoot at which she was munching away. Nevertheless, Matty needed both hands to keep her steady and just occasionally Heath's hand took hold of the rope when it jerked as Trudie threatened to break free.
For all his need to watch Trudie, Matty sang cheerfully and loudly along with the rest of them. He knew the words off by heart for the hymn was one of his favourites. His melodic voice along with the enthusiastic one of James who stood in front of his father with his puppy in his arms and the sweet voice of Nicholas who stood with Max feeling guilty that he still had not told his Papa about his bullfrog, accompanied the deep voice of their father's in singing the hymn to the end.
Every now and then Nicholas' eyes traveled to where his uncle stood on another row of chairs, his uncle's baritone voice, even from that distance able to be heard by young Nicholas' ears. His uncle stood with his family, Nicholas' cousins, including Little Heath who was asleep on his father's shoulder and unaware of his little friend. Nick Barkley's words burned into his young nephew. He needed to tell his Papa he had brought his bullfrog along. He tugged at his father's pant leg and tugged again when his father did not respond. Heath looked down
"What is it, Nicholas?" Heath asked quietly, assuming his son needed the outhouse.
"I gotta tell you something, Papa." Nicholas stated. Heath lowered his head and Nicholas went to whisper into his father's ear.
Curious, James turned around wondering what Nicholas was saying. "Tell me! Tell me!" he said, not wanting to be left out. He promptly found himself turned around by his father.
Thus afforded some privacy Nicholas hid his confession behind the palm of his hand from James and whispered his crime into his father's ear, expecting any minute to be marched out of the service along with his pet.
Heath was silent as Nicholas told him and Nicholas wondered if his father had heard. He was about to tell him again, his warm breath caressing his father's ear once again, when his father said: "Where is it?"
"In my pocket, Papa. Want to see?"
Heath could just imagine how popular a bullfrog would be among the congregation, not to mention his daughter who hated the things. They weren't quite the cute fluffy or feathered things, which seemed to populate the animals that had been brought to the service. He knew he should be angry. He had told Nicholas it would be better to leave the toad at home, but he hadn't actually insisted. Trouble with his children was that they grew too fond of their animals. And yet was that really a problem? Not really. No, the only fear was the havoc the bullfrog would cause if it escaped. Finally, he answered Nicholas' question. "I'm glad you told me, son. Now because you made the decision to bring it, it's your responsibility to make sure it doesn't escape, do you understand?"
Nicholas' face beamed. "I do Papa. And I will Papa. I promise."
James' face turned once again. His little ears still curious. But he was also tired of standing and rubbed his face in his father's pant legs, a sure indication that he wanted to be picked up. Heath went to pick him up. "Can Patch come up too, Papa? I'll hold him, I promise" James asked, his face all hopeful. Heath's face took on a look.
Of course James did not comprehend that if his father was holding him and James was holding Patch, his father was really holding both. Such things did not occupy the mind of a five-year-old boy. Heath scooped him up and the puppy came too. James in his father's arms, Patch in James'. And of course, the way James was holding him, was just too inviting for the puppy. Heath's face was directly in front of him and the puppy began licking away at the salty skin, giving Heath a face wash which he really didn't want.
"James," Heath said exasperatedly, his face trying to avoid the onslaught.
James turned his face back from where he was looking and said, "Sorry Papa. Patch don't do that!"
It wasn't long before the inevitable happened and James got tired of holding Patch. Heath passed the pup along to his wife and settled James so that James could rest on his father's shoulder. Tiring eyes watched the row behind for a few minutes and in particular a young calf that had been brought to the service. The calf was cute. James wondered if he could have a pet calf too. Tired eyes grew droopy, the question still on his lips and soon he was asleep, his warm breath warming the side of Heath's neck.
Elsewhere a long the row, Meg handed the pup to one of the girls to watch whilst she saw to her twins, George and Anna. She beckoned Cate over and let her take Anna, whilst she retrieved George from under the chair in front where he was set on crawling and exploring.
Among the Barkley pets, the goldfish swam in its bowl on Rosie's knee, the hen clucked, flapped its feathers and then was brought under control by Clara, and the 'pretty in pink' piglet oinked and shuffled at Victoria's feet. And all the while Ermentrude simply munched away and the bullfrog sat contentedly in Nicholas' pocket. Against such backdrop just what could go wrong?
Well for a start the bullfrog was no longer happy to stay in his confined little word. A wider world beckoned and he was ready to go explore. The singing of another hymn was his unconscious aid, for it conveniently acted to drown out a series of rather loud croaks which seemed to announce his intention. Add the fact that Nicholas had been employed by his mother to hold the hymnal aloft so she could sing along whilst holding onto her adventurous two year old, George, and Nicholas' responsibility for making sure the bullfrog did not escape was unravelling quickly.
You see for a six year old holding a hymnal proved to be a two-handed responsibility as using only his left hand was becoming very tiring for his little arm. The situation was made worse by the fact that his mother had forgotten her spectacles and was constantly requesting Nicholas to raise the book up higher so she could see. Poor Nicholas was almost on tiptoes in his efforts to find the right level at which she could see. It was a good thing that he knew the words of the hymn because otherwise he would not have been able to join in himself.
Now with all this going on Nicholas concentration on making sure his bullfrog behaved was lost momentarily and he did not realize the bullfrog was about to escape. When he felt his pocket empty, his jaw dropped, the hymnal dropped to the grass and too late, Nicholas realized what had happened and his right hand went to his pocket.
"What's wrong, Nicholas?" His mother asked, wondering what had happened to cause her son to act the way he did.
Nicholas turned his head back to his mother. "My bullfrog's gone!" He exclaimed, turning quickly back to see if he could see it escaping across the grass.
"Oh Nicholas! What on earth possessed you to bring it along? You know your father cautioned against it?" Meg sighed.
"Mama! I got to find it. I got to find Freddie!"
Until then the bullfrog had been called 'it' - the name summing up how the family felt about him. Giving it a name, did not endear it any further.
"You had best find it quickly." His mother instructed.
Nicholas got down on the grass and began searching for his little friend.
Heath threw his wife a look.
"Nicholas has lost his bullfrog." She explained.
Heath rolled his eyes. Surely this could only be the start. As much as he was annoyed, he found he was amused as well. He couldn't help it. You had to expect the unexpected with children and animals and have lots of patience too. The latter Heath had in buckets. He watched Nicholas scoot under the chairs in front looking for the frog and then turn around and do the same under the family's chairs. When Nicholas couldn't find any sign of Freddie he ran up and down the makeshift aisle looking along the rows, hoping to see his bullfrog but instead attracted the attention of the minister who gamely tried to proceed with his sermon and not be thrown. It was fifty whether he would reach the end for a number of animals were now beginning to grow unsettled, not quite as appreciative of the long sermon the minister had planned.
Unable to find his bullfrog Nicholas saw his father beckon him back and obeyed. As he made his way past Ermentrude and Matty he was crying when he got back to his seat. "I can't find him, Papa. It's not fair. Freddie's gone. And... and..." he paused to wipe his tear strewn eyes, "I let you down, sir."
Heath still holding a sleeping James did his best to comfort his six year old and pulled him into his leg where he patted him and told him not to worry. He stopped short of telling Nicholas they would find the bullfrog again. If the bullfrog had any sense of survival he would be well and truly away. "But I lost him, Papa," Nicholas' tears began to form a wet patch on the leg of Heath's pants.
A loud "Ahem" broke into the sound of his crying. The "Ahem" was repeated and both Nicholas and Heath turned to see where it was coming from. It was Nicholas' Uncle Nick and he was pointing with his finger to where their eyes followed.
"Oh Lord!" Heath breathed out as he saw what had got his brother's attention.
"Papa! It's Freddie!" Nicholas exclaimed.
It sure was and he was perched on Mrs. Winthrop's grand and very large hat.
Now, Mrs. Winthrop's hat was festooned with so much adornment that it provided a year's camouflage should a determined toad require it. The former uninvited guest of the Heath Barkleys stood directly in front of Nick Barkley and his wife with the toad perched on her head. Thus far she did not seem to be aware of its presence as she was listening intently to the young minister's sermon, no doubt appraising his suitability at the same time for she sat on the church council.
Nicholas saw his uncle beckon him over and looked to his father for permission to go. Heath nodded and the little boy made his way across the aisle to where his uncle and cousins sat. His uncle Nick gave him a look as if to say 'here we go again, young nephew' and handed a still sleeping Little Heath over to his wife in order to hoist Nicholas up into his arms.
"You think you can get him?" Nick asked his nephew, keeping his voice low.
Nicholas nodded earnestly. "I think so, Uncle Nick."
"Okay then. Let's go for it." Nick announced.
In tandem the two Nicholas' worked to execute their plan. Nick outstretching Nicholas and Nicholas outstretching his arms, his two hands ready to grab his toad back from Mrs. Winthrop's hat. His fingers were about to clasp around the cold reptile when Mrs. Winthrop sensing something turned around and the toad swung to the otherside and out of reach.
For a moment Nick and Nicholas were both struck dumb as instead of Nicholas' hands grabbing a toad, they nearly grabbed Mrs. Winthrop's rather long nose instead.
"Nicholas Barkley! Just what do you think you are doing?" Announced Mrs. Winthrop in her usual imperious tone.
Young Nicholas Barkley thought quickly. "Morning Mrs. Winfop," the little boy greeted with a totally disarming smile that spread from ear to ear. The grin was mirrored on Nick Barkley's face, for both were feeling rather silly. Mrs. Winthrop shuddered at the mispronunciation of her name Nicholas Barkley it seemed would never get it right.
"Well good morning to you too, young man. But maybe now is not the time to be exchanging pleasantries. You should be listening to the sermon Nicholas Barkley, do you hear?"
"I hears you Mrs. Winfop. And I am. Honest."
"Yes. Well. See that you do." Still not understanding what had happened, Mrs. Winthrop turned around and listened to the minister again. As she swung around the toad came back into view. Nicholas with a wink of encouragement from his uncle, tried again. Little did the boy know that the couple behind were smiling at his antics, the little Barkley children were always such good entertainment Yet again the toad outsmarted his owner. He leaped flying threw the air, seen by many, shrieks from the more sensitive accompanying his flight and landed on the shoulder of Mr. Stevenson who stood directly in front of Mrs. Winthrop. Well, of course, the loudest shriek came from Mrs. Winthrop who fair fainted to the floor. "A frog! Who brought a frog! A frog isn't an animal!"
Mr. Stevenson feeling the toad on his shoulder jumped and instinctively swept it off his shoulder from where it landed in Mrs. Meyer's lap. A shriek to rival Mrs. Winthrop's met its arrival and she screamed at her husband to get rid of the beast. But Freddie was ahead of the game. He leapt to the next person and then the next causing disruption and shrieks all the way down the row of chairs with its surprised occupants.
By now the minister had lost complete control of the service. He congregation were leaping around as much as the bullfrog was and restless and disturbed by the mayhem, the other animals were now creating a cacophony of sound. Pigs oinked, hens clucked, dogs barked, cats meowed, rabbits thumped, the list went on and on. Owners strained to keep their pets under control and poor Matty was nearly on his back with the effort of trying to keep Ermentrude under control. "Papa!" he shouted, needing help. Heath who was seeing to a waking up James who wanted to know what all the noise was about, shot out his hand to get hold of the rope but was too late, the rope slipped out of his son's fingers and the goat was on the loose and running direct for the minister.
"Do something!" Meg shouted at Heath.
Heath couldn't stop laughing. Just like his brother across the aisle who was chasing Nicholas who in turn was in hot pursuit of his bullfrog.
Matty meanwhile was running after Ermentrude and Clowance the burro who had until now been so well behaved thought she would get in on the act too.
Seeing the trio approaching, the minister was off, his eastern inexperience showing. The goat unable to go after the fast fleeing minister looked around for other mischief to cause and began running between the rows of chairs.
At one point in their respective pursuits Nick and Heath met each other in the middle.
"You got him?" Heath asked.
"The frog or the kid?"
Nick shook his head. "You?"
Heath shook his head back.
"Remind me again. Whose idea was this service?" Nick breathed out.
Heath smiled, knowing Nick was referring to Meg.
"Reckon it's round up time," Heath drawled.
"Reckon so." Nick agreed.
"Meet you back at the ranch?"
And with that the brothers parted.
Later that day the Nick Barkleys and the Heath Barkleys were gathered in the parlor after dinner and were regaling Victoria Barkley with the events of the day.
"Well, in all my years in Stockton," Victoria observed, "the Barkley family have never had to leave a service in such a manner before. It certainly is a first."
Meg was mortified. "Oh dear, I must go to the minister tomorrow and apologise,"
Victoria comforted her. "Now Meg. I think it was a wonderful idea. And I have no doubt the service is one that will happen again next year, too. Of course, the minister may not throw out invitations to bullfrogs and goats again," she teased. "But it will happen, you see. You have planted the idea and you watch. It will take root and grow."
Meg smiled, grateful for her mother-in-law's support. Victoria Barkley had seen things come and go and could offer a less emotional perspective.
"Oh Mother. You should have seen Nick and Heath rounding up all the animals and children. All I could see was both of them walking with either an animal or child under their arm and depositing them in the wagon ready to come home."
Victoria laughed. "I can just imagine."
"Well, how else were we going to round them up?" Nick defended loudly, disturbing the board game being played by his daughters and nieces. "I tell you, rounding up cattle is a helluva lot easier!" He stated standing up and putting his whiskey down on a nearby table.
Stretching he announced, "Now where's that kid brother of mine. Have I missed him coming in?" Heath had been out in the barn whilst Nick had gone out to enjoy a smoke.
"He's putting the young ones to bed." Victoria explained.
"Little Heath go with him too?"
"He did, hand in hand with Nicholas."
"Figures," Nick commented, enjoying the closeness of the two little cousin's friendship. "Well, I reckon I'll go up and say goodnight to my boy." And with that he excused himself and went upstairs, perhaps not flying up as he use to do in his youth, but still with great energy.
In the bedroom that Nicholas shared with his brothers, Matty and James, Nicholas was being tucked up in the bed he would be sharing with Little Heath that night. Matty and James were busy putting on their nightshirts and getting ready for a bed time story from their Papa. Little Heath not ready to settle down was running around the room. With the experience of a man who had fifteen children Heath scooped him up without a word. Still holding Little Heath under his arm, he rounded up his sons and sat on the edge of Nicholas' bed with Little Heath in his lap. He was just about to suggest someone get a book when Nicholas asked his father a question.
"Papa? Do you think I will ever see Freddie again?"
Little Heath interrupted. He wasn't too interested in sleeping and was pushing his Uncle Heath to read a story. When his uncle didn't respond, he climbed out from under the bed covers and made his protest more soundly known. "Story! Story!"
Heath was trying to answer his son's question and for the moment sat Little Heath on his knee. Little Heath captured in his uncle's arms stopped his protesting for a moment.
"Do you, Papa?" Nicholas said again.
"I'm not sure, son. It's possible that Freddie has gone back to his own home. You know it's okay that Max and Patch stay with us, but bullfrogs aren't really meant as pets. They live in an entirely different habitat."
"So I should be happy he escaped?"
"Well, perhaps not sad. You're bound to miss him. But no, I wouldn't be sad that he has gone home. It's where he belongs. Just like you and your brothers and sisters belong here."
"I do miss him." Nicholas sighed heavily. "No one seemed to like him but me. I don't know why."
Heath tried to hold his knowing smile. "You still have Max."
Hearing his name, Max appeared and rested his chin on the side of the bed.
"He shouldn't be in the bedroom?" Nicholas recognized, whilst stroking his pet's head.
"He shouldn't but I reckon he can stay until the story is finished."
Nicholas beamed, "Thank you, Papa. He'll be good. I promise. You'll see."
Heath remembered hearing those words earlier today and he and the hound exchanged telling looks.
"Story! Story!" Little Heath shouted, trying to escape his uncle's arms.
"Okay, okay little one. Boy Howdy, you're an impatient one."
"Story, Uncle Heath." Was all that Little Heath responded. "Want a story!"
"Okay, go pick out a book from the bookcase."
"Oh Papa, he will just pick out a baby book!" James complained as he scaled the side of Nicholas' bed with Matty to sit for their story.
"Well, does that really matter. We can read the other books anytime. Let Little Heath choose tonight." To soften the blow, Heath tweaked his son's button nose and James giggled easily, his annoyance with having to hear a 'baby story' not nearly so severe.
Matty cuddled into his father and felt loved with his father's arm around him. They waited for Little Heath to choose.
In walked their uncle. "Hullo Uncle Nick," his nephews chorused.
"Shouldn't you all be asleep?" Nick barked. A bark they knew was not real.
"We are waiting for our story." They all answered.
"What's the delay?"
"Little Heath is choosing the book."
"Oh right. Well he could be there all night. I best go help him choose."
James scrambled off the bed and ran over to his uncle where he whispered into his ear. "Please can you help him choose the story about The Little Donkey."
Nick viewed his nephew. "You like that one, huh?"
James in his nightshirt and bare feet, button nose and doe eyes, nodded. How was Nick going to refuse.
"I'll try. Is that good enough?"
James and Nick shook hands on it.
Over at the book case, Little Heath had nearly every book out on the rug and was still choosing. Probably he had forgotten that his Uncle Heath was waiting to read a story and was simply enjoying his time looking at all the pictures. Nick thought of the book James wanted and shook his head thinking it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
He searched the books and searched again but couldn't find it. He began again. It was only after the third search that he spied the book in his son's hands. Yep, that's right. It was The Little Donkey. "Want me to read that one?" he asked his son. Little Heath nodded and then thrust the book at his father. "Want this!"
Quickly, Nick put the books back on the shelves and then scooped Little Heath up under his arm plus the storybook.
"C'mon young fella. If your mother catches you still awake at this time she'll tan both our hides." Putting Little Heath back into bed with Nicholas, Nick began reading the story whilst an audience of Nicholas, Little Heath, James and Max listened intently. Matty meanwhile got down from the bed and wandered over to the window. Heath, a little concerned, followed.
"Everything alright, son?"
Matty let out a big sigh.
"Ermentrude was real naughty today, wasn't she?"
Heath knelt down so that he was closer to his son's height. Both stared out at the window and in the direction of where Ermentrude would be sleeping.
"Well, she had her moments son. I owe your mother a new hat and a new bow for her dress and I got a few extra holes in my pants, but you know what?"
Matty turned to his father, their faces very close.
"I reckon she wasn't the most badly behaved today."
"She wasn't?" Matty asked, confused.
"No I reckon Nicholas' bullfrog holds that position now. So when you think about it, Ermentrude is actually improving."
"You can have the money from my money box to buy Mama a new hat and bow."
Heath was touched, knowing his son really meant it.
"Well I tell you what. How about you keep your money and instead help me to choose a hat for your mother? We can give it to her together then."
Matty smiled back his response
And with that the two went back to listen to the story.
A week later Heath rode into town with Matty sitting in front of him, his experienced horse trotting at an easy pace then slowing to an unbothered walk as they met the busy traffic that was now an everyday encounter in the streets of Stockton. Riders and horse wound their way down the main street, Matty taking in the the sights, waving to a couple of school friends who he saw coming out of a store with their mother and father, Heath acknowledging the family whom he vaguely knew.
Heath Barkley heard his name being called and turned the horse slightly to see where the sound was coming from. He saw his brother waving a newspaper above the heads of passer bys on the sidewalk in order to attract Heath's attention and the youngest brother of the Barkleys smiled. Jarrod was back in town.
His smile was matched by that of Matty who was excited to see his uncle again. "It's Uncle Jarrod, Papa. Can we stop? Oh please!"
"I think we might." Heath answered, adding with his brand of understatement and dry humour. "Let's see if we can persuade your uncle to take us to lunch."
"You mean we are going to eat in town? I thought we’d bring sandwiches." Matty answered, thinking until then that they would probably eat some sandwiches on the way home, perhaps by the river.
"Well choosing a hat for your Mama is a serious business. Takes consideration and thought. Best done on a fine meal in my opinion and not on an empty stomach."
"But I still got my breakfast in mine?" Matty pointed out, whilst at the same rubbing his tummy under where his father had a hold of him. "I don't think it's quite empty yet." He said, his eyes frowning in his effort to gauge how full or empty his tummy was. But then not wanting to miss out on a meal he added, "Guess it's emptied enough though. Leastways I had made room for the sandwiches, I reckon I can make a bit more for a fancy meal."
Heath laughed at his son's earnest conversation and pulled the boy into him giving him a hug just because he wanted to. "Well a fancy meal it is then, C'mon. Let's go see your uncle to finance it."
Heath turned his horse and retraced part way of the street.
"Howdy Jarrod!" Heath greeted as he slid down from his horse and then helped Matty travel the same distance.
Heath's hand immediately went out to his brother, Jarrod immediately turning the shake of the hand into an affectionate brotherly hug, before bending low to scoop up Matty in his arms, genuine delight showing on his face at seeing them both. "And how's Matty? Why I reckon you must have grown a full inch since I last saw you. Are you doing well at school, nephew?"
Matty nodded. "Came second in the Spelling B on Wednesday, Uncle Jarrod. I won me a prize. A book! You want to see?" He said animatedly and with pride.
"Congratulations Matty. Well, I sure hope I get to see the book. Maybe you can read me a few pages from it tonight?"
"Be pleased to Uncle Jarrod. And you know, the teacher says I am reading much better now."
"Then it's a deal. I am hoping your father and delightful mother will let me stay at the ranch tonight and then I can do that?"
Pleased to hear his brother was staying Heath readily agreed. "Sure will," To which Matty also added his endorsement. And then Heath added, "That's if you'll buy two hungry Barkleys, lunch." His negotiation was accompanied by his trademark smile, which on its own sealed it. Jarrod put two hands up in mock defeat. "Seems reasonable to me," He agreed. "We'll go to the Cattlemans'."
Heath shook his head. "I know a better place. More expensive." His mind set on the new restaurant that had opened only weeks ago and which was receiving good reviews.
Jarrod smiled at Matty in his arms. "Seems we are going to dine in style, young man." And with that uncle and nephew followed Heath down the street until they came to a new restaurant which Jarrod did not know but the location he did.
"What happened to Hampsons?" He asked, remembering the old store that had stood there since his youth.
"They moved back East six months back. This place opened a few weeks ago."
With a momentary sadness for things that had passed, Jarrod soon cheered with the prospect of lunch and spending time with his family. With a hearty clap on his brother's back, he pushed Heath inside and followed, placing Matty on the floor as they reached the top of a small flight of stairs. "Let's eat then. Because I for one am starving." He announced.
"And I got room now, just there," Matty agreed, pointing to a space in his tummy.
Inside and settled at a table, a cushion obligingly provided for Matty so he could reach the table more easily, Jarrod and Heath were soon sharing news about the family.
"Mother well?' Jarrod asked.
"She is," Heath confirmed. "Takes things a bit slower but fine otherwise."
"And Meg? She is keeping well."
"And you, Heath. How are you these days?
"Good. Nothing since last winter and that was only mild."
"Good. Glad to hear it."
Heath was just about to ask after Jarrod's wife and family when he was interrupted by Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop. "Mr. Barkley!" She exclaimed. "I do hope today you have not brought your menagerie of animals with you. Really, last Sunday was such a traumatic day."
"It was?" Jarrod asked, as he and Heath stood up, his curiosity peaked.
Matty tried to catch up but had to get off his chair first and then pull his napkin out of his shirt front in order to do so.
"And in what way was the service traumatic?" Jarrod pursued.
"You mean your brother has not told you?"
"Not yet," Jarrod answered, decidedly amused by the discomfort now showing on not just Heath's face but Matty's too.
"Well, I am referring to the animal service of course. It was pandemonium. Mr. Winthrop and I have only just recovered."
"Well, you seem to have recovered very well." Jarrod observed, his tone both flattering and mocking.
"Well, yes. Now we have but really Mr. Barkley," she said addressing Heath. "I know your wife had the best of intentions in arranging the service with the new minister but perhaps some of the animals would have been better being left at home. Your son's bullfrog and your goat Matty for instance."
Matty, already feeling guilty about the events of the day, took a step closer to his father and slipped his hand into his father's protective one. He was relieved to feel his father squeeze tightly on to it with support.
"Animals are animals, Mrs.Winthrop." Heath started. "Unpredictable at the best of times and unlike us, unschooled in the ways of behaving at a Sunday service. But you know, I reckon the Lord takes that all into account and doesn't really mind. Be happy to have the service on our land next year iff'n the reverend or the church council doesn't want to hold it again."
Jarrod listened with amusement and pride at how his brother handled the old battle axe. Mrs Winthrop wasn't a bad woman, she was just quick to judge and just as quick with her tongue. Mr. Winthrop remained silent throughout the whole exchange, clearly a man who was use to keeping in the background, probably best with such a wife.
Mrs. Winthrop started back pedalling immediately. Judge Barkley was after all present. "Well, yes of course. Of course we are all God's creatures. I didn't mean to suggest. Well yes, a service at your ranch would of course be ideal. More fitting perhaps." She quickly prepared to make her leave. "Please give my best to your mother and Meg. I hope to see them in town soon." Her words hovered in the hope of an invite to the ranch. Heath did not feel in the mood to offer it. "I will." was all that he offered.
The Winthrops made their exit and the Barkleys sat down once again, just as the food was about to be served.
Jarrod snapped his napkin open whilst Heath for want of something to do to calm his annoyance tucked Matty's napkin back into the top of his shirt, then opened his own napkin.
"Are we really going to have the service on the ranch next year, Papa?" Matty asked, hoping it was true.
"I don't see why not." Heath responded with a determined fix to his mouth. "Reckon folks won't mind where it is held as long as the animals can be blessed."
"Can Ermentrude come too?" Matty asked, not quite sure.
"All Barkley animals can if they want to!" Trumpeted Heath, not yet thinking how he would get them playing host next year past Meg.
"And why wouldn't Ermentrude come, Matty?" His astute uncle asked.
Matty got off his chair, not wanting anyone close by to hear and came clean about his pet.
"Oh I see. And so you have come to town to buy your mother a new hat?"
Matty nodded and then found his way back to his seat, Heath holding the cushion in place so he wouldn't disturb it.
Jarrod's eyes twinkled with merriment for the story was precious, but he managed to keep his lips from curving into even the hint of a smile.
"Does your mother know?"
Matty shook his head and dove his fork into his meal, carefully ignoring the vegetables which at some point soon his father would tell him he had to eat.
Warm friendly conversation followed in which the story was further enlightened by Heath who regaled Jarrod with his and Nick's efforts to round up animals and children, not necessarily minding in which order it happened, and Jarrod realized he had indeed missed a treat.
After a relaxing lunch and conversation the trio made their way down the sidewalk and down another street until they came to the hat shop were they were hoping to find Meg a hat.
The arrival of two distinguished gentlemen, easily recognizable as the oldest and younger Barkley brothers impressed the lady owner and two customers in the shop. And of course, Matty was in their eyes simply adorable.
"Judge Barkley, Mr. Barkley. How can I help you?" The lady owner announced.
Their mission explained, the lady owner set about finding an array of hats from which Heath and Matty could choose from. Matty's less skilled eyes homed in on hats that were big and fancy whilst Heath's trained eyes steered him to the smaller, neater hats he knew Meg's preferred.
"Won't Mama like this one?" Matty opined as he rocked on his feet, holding a particularly wide-brimmed flowery hat, still thinking biggest was best.
Heath's eyes rested on a particular hat, charming in its style, minimum in its adornment and yet full of style. It was just right for Meg and Heath had no problem visualizing her wearing it. "What do you think, Matty? Think your mother would like this instead?" This was going to be a joint decision. Matty had to agree the hat was pretty. "I like it!" he exclaimed, putting his own larger choice down. "It's Mama's hat!" he added, claiming it for his mother.
"Well that's what I like to see," his uncle announced. "Two Barkleys in agreement. I think your mother will be well pleased, Matty. What do you think to this?" He said, holding out a hat he had chosen for his wife, Felicity."
Matty's face turned serious, equating the buying of a hat with having done something wrong. "Are you in the dog house too, Uncle Jarrod."
Jarrod's eyes twinkled with amusement. "Invariably, but surprisingly not today. I just thought it might make a nice present for your aunt. What do you think?"
"I like it." Matty said, giving his endorsement.
And so it was that two Barkley brothers carried candy striped hat boxes home that day for their wives. And later that evening Matty carried through on his promise and read from his new book to show his uncle just how much his reading had improved.
And in bed that night, Meg showed Heath how pleased she was with her new hat. Heath decided to leave the news about next year's animal service till the morning. Right now his arms were full and the feeling was good.