Matty, James, Nicholas and their cousin, Little Heath, were a quartet often seen playing around the ranch. Their playful antics often amused the ranch hands, some itinerant, some permanent, and even though they were told not to get in the ranch hand's way, they often did, but in a way that even their fathers could not censure. Help or hinderance, their efforts to do their chores or help were always appreciated and often the hands would take some time out of their own time to teach them a new skill, or tell them stories of the west, perhaps embellishing a few things as they went a long. They were a likeable quartet with a charm of their own, and though not angels, what child could be and still be called human, they were sons Heath and Nick were undeniably proud of.
The quartet watched their fathers ride up to the mansion, tie their horses to the hitching post and waited to see if they were in a good mood. "Go on," Nicholas encouraged Matty, "Now's a good time to ask."
All the boys ran across the yard towards their fathers. Little Heath found himself scooped up so high in his father's arms he giggled with the excitement as he was then kissed on the cheek, called rascal and then perched on his father's shoulders so he was the tallest, littlest person there. In contrast, Heath had to bend down to his three as they ran to put their arms around him, almost toppling him over on the verandah steps. Ruffling the heads of Matty and Nicholas, Heath scooped up James and carried him into the house, followed by his other sons and then Nick and Little Heath.
Entering the house, their mother came out to greet their father. She kissed him as she always did and took James off him whilst he took off his hat, jacket and gunbelt, putting the latter away safely out of the children's reach and curiosity. Taking James back from Meg, he carried him into the Parlor and was followed by the boys and his wife, brother and nephew.
"So what have my sons been up to today?" he asked sitting down in his favourite chair and lifting James several times up in the air so that the child grew almost giddy. Meg cautioned him that the child had only just eaten and soundly brought the two back to earth.
"Oh, just playing," Matty answered, preoccupied with what he wanted to ask his father.
"Playing, huh? No chores done?" Heath censured with a semi-stern voice.
The boys defended themselves with a summary of the chores they had done that morning. Matty had fed the chickens, Nicholas had helped in the tack room, though perhaps he had done more talking than working and James had helped Silas carry the groceries in and then with some baking, though again perhaps he had done more licking of the bowl than actual baking. Heath smiled as he heard them regale their respective stories.
"And what about you pardner?" Nick asked his son who had found his way down from his father's shoulders, over his face and on to his father's lap as Nick sat down in a chair nearby. "You done your chores, son?"
Little Heath nodded. "Care to share what you have done with your old man, pardner?" Nick probed further. Little Heath shook his head and was soon distracted with something else.
"Papa?" Matty asked.
"A ha?" Heath said, knowing from his son's tone and stance something was coming.
"Can we camp out tonight?"
"Camp out? Whose we?"
"Me, Nicholas, James and Little Heath," he asked tugging on his father's shirt, hoping his daddy would let them.
The request wasn't new. The boys had asked once before and their mother had put a stop to it, thinking they were all too young and imagining all kinds of things happening to them.
Heath had been more sympathetic, admiring the boy's sense of adventure and thinking back to how he himself had begged his mother to allow him to camp out one night on his own.
"Well, I don't know," he considered, rubbing his chin.
"Please Papa," the boys chorused. "Please," Little Heath added.
"Hey pardner, you're way too young," Nick quickly censured his two and a half year old. "Your mother would ground us both for a month, if I let you do that. Give it a couple of years son and then you can join your cousins."
Little Heath's bottom lip trembled and then the waterworks started and then the wailing assumed command as the little fellow got himself into a state.
"Sorry Pardner, but your mother and I would like you safe and sound in bed tonight. No can do, I'm afraid."
Little Heath was inconsolable and his wailing brought Meg into the room. "For goodness sake Nick, what are you doing to him?" she said taking the distraught child into her arms and consoling him until his tears began to ebb and he grew sleepy with her gentle rocking.
Nick just sat and then was about to protest his innocence when he received a look from Heath that said, whatever you say Nick, it will be wrong. So he just sat there, took it on the chin and looked glum.
Seeing his look, Meg laughed as she rocked Little Heath in her arms.
Nicholas approached his Uncle Nick and pleaded his best friend's cause. "Please Uncle Nick, please let Little Heath camp out with us. I promise I will look after him. I always look after him, Uncle Nick."
The boy had his father's charm and Nick could not remain unaffected. "I know you will Nicholas but he really is too young. You are older than him. You have to remember that."
"Too young for what?" Meg enquired.
"Boys, nothing has been decided yet," Heath reminded his sons. "Why don't you go out and play and we'll discuss this later."
"Ah Pa?" the boys sulked.
Heath gave them a look that said not to try his patience and the boys meekly obeyed.
As they walked a little forlornly out of the room, Meg turned to her husband.
"Why do I get the feeling you want to talk to me about something and I'm not going to like it?" She asked, a suspicious look in her eye.
"Oh no! I won't allow it," Meg exclaimed when she heard what the boys had asked their father.
"Meg!" Heath pleaded, as his wife paced their bedroom, her feet threatening not to stop. "Listen to what I have to say first."
"No, don't do that to me Heath," she said as he gave her one of his looks, "You know how I feel about them being too young. James is only four! Matty and Nicholas are not much older!"
Heath understood his wife's fears and attempted to suggest a compromise so as to appease her fears and not disappoint the boys.
"What about if we allow them to just camp out in the back yard. We can even have them camping out under our bedroom window, if you like. That way we can keep an eye on them. It won't matter to them at their age. All they want to feel is that they are camping. Look we can do this so that we can keep a close eye on them and still give them a bit of freedom."
"But Heath! They're my babies! I won't get a wink of sleep knowing they are out there. They might be still be in the compounds of the ranch, but they are so little. Who will be there when they get upset?"
"We will," Heath said wrapping her up in his arms.
"Don't!" she said, pushing him away. "You know I can't think straight when I am in your arms."
"I know," Heath smiled, pulling her back and placing a kiss on the top of her head.
"Oh you!" she remonstrated.
Heath's fingers explored Meg's hair, and his blue eyes stared at her intently. "What do you say Meg?" he said in his softest voice, "Shall our boys get their chance to camp out?"
Meg remained tight lipped against the assault on her senses.
"Trust me," he said. "Listen, the chances are the boys will get so scared during the night they will come running back into the house and beg to be put in their own beds again. You'll see. It will soon cure them of their wish to go camping for a while. I know they are young, but I swear Nicholas has been here before and remember Matty had to learn to live by his wits in New York."
"But they're still my babies, Heath."
Heath just smiled and held her closer. "Babies grow up, Meg. It's unavoidable. So what do you say? Shall we help them grow up a little more?"
"Only on one condition" she said pushing herself back from him whilst still remaining in his arms.
"And what is that?"
The boys' faces were downcast, if not to say glum.
"That's the deal boys. Take it or leave it." Heath said as he turned away giving them time to think. Typically, Meg had found a solution which involved him. "You are for it," she had said, "So you can do it too." And try as he could he couldn't come up with an answer for her. She had disarmed him in one.
He had gone downstairs from his talk with Meg and told Nick that both of them would be sleeping out that night.
"Me!" Nick had protested.
"You!" Heath had countered straight away. "They're our boys," he added.
"Three of them are yours, only one is mine." Nick grumbled, his bones preferring to sleep in a soft bed that night.
"Look if I'm doing this, so are you?"
"Boy, you don't half get me in some situations. Jenny's going to be hopping mad when she hears about this. How's she going to feel about me sleeping out tonight and not with her?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?" said Heath wryly.
The children ate dinner with great excitement. Though a little disappointed at first that they weren't allowed to camp out without the grown ups being present, they decided very soon that it would be fun camping with their fathers.
Nick had ridden home to explain to Jenny about him and Little Heath and had been unnerved at how easily she accepted that she would be sleeping alone that night. Naturally, she had concerns for Little Heath, making no mention of his father, but knew that with his father and uncle present he could be in no safer hands.
"So you won't miss me?" Nick mused, obviously put out.
"Miss you? Now why should I miss you dear?" Jenny said, as she busied herself in her sewing box finding a thread for her mending. Finding one, she held up Little Heath's pants and totted, wondering why she didn't just buy her son a pair with holes already in them.
"Oh, I don't know," Nick grumbled, "Maybe something to do with the fact that we are married and married people are suppose to miss each other."
"Oh tosh! Nicholas Barkley we have been married far too many years and it's not like we haven't been separated before. You go on those cattle drives of yours and business trips with Heath. We manage fine then and we can manage without each other's company for tonight."
"Of course. You don't see Meg complaining when Heath goes away, do you?"
"Hmmph! They have fifteen children! Believe me, my dear, those two are never apart for very long."
Nick packed his bedroll in silence as Jenny continued with her needlework. Finally, he was ready to leave.
"Okay then," he sighed heavily. There was no response. Still her nimble fingers gave more attention to Little Heath's pants than to his imminent departure. "Well, I'll just be going then," he indicated as he pointed to the door.
"What was that dear?"
"I said I'll just be going then. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? Oh yes, fine dear."
"Bye then," he said moving to the door.
"Yes?" he said turning back. Jenny put down her needlework and stood up.
"Just remember I want my two favorite men returned to me in one piece tomorrow. And yes, you fool, I will miss you," she said walking over to him to give him a deep kiss. "But just keep things in perspective, will you? You are camping out in the back yard, not entering deepest Africa. I know this might come as a shock to you Nick, but there is every probability we will be having dinner here tomorrow night."
Jenny smiled and silenced him with a further kiss before waving her hero goodbye.
Meg could not get Nicholas to stand still. It was always a battle to do so for he would insist on wriggling and fidgeting.
"Mama," he protested. "I'm too hot!"
Heath came to his son's defense. "The boy's right Meg. It's 80 degrees out there and it's going to be a warm night. The boy doesn't need bundling up like it's the middle of winter."
Meg stood up and surveyed a perspiring Nicholas. He did look very hot. "Oh dear, I'm fussing, aren't I?"
"You are," Heath agreed, giving her a kiss on the cheek and whispering, "they'll be fine, Meg. I won't let any harm come to them, you know that."
Clasping her hand to her cheek, Meg nodded, "I know you won't. I'm sorry I'm just being a mother hen, I know. Trying to look after all her chicks."
"Don't tell Nick," Heath joked. "He thinks that's his role."
As both stood laughing at the truth of his statement, Nicholas trussed up in a woollen jacket, scarf, gloves and hat pleaded to be let free. "Thanks Mama," he said, as he was liberated from his confines. Running out of the door, he shouted back, "Come on Papa. It'll be bedtime soon."
Heath looked at his timepiece. It was just turned seven. Kissing Meg, he smiled. "Boy Howdy! I haven't been to bed this early since I was seven!" Wait till Nick gets here and he finds out it's lights out by eight!"
"Nicholas lie still," Heath gently admonished his son.
"I can't," Nicholas said as he turned from one side to the other, kicking his father accidentally in order to get comfy.
"Try to go to sleep," Heath counseled as he lay on his back with his head cradled in his hands.
"I can't," said Nicholas sitting up and rubbing his eyes, defying the tiredness within and growing alarmed at the latest sound from outside.
"It's alright," his father reassured him, "there's nothing out there."
Nicholas sure was glad his father was there to look after them. He had considered things so far and decided that with all the strange sounds outside and the shadows inside the tent, he really preferred being inside the house to sleeping outdoors. If they were on their own, he would really be scared.
"Can you tell me a story Papa. Then maybe I will get to sleep." A large snore emanated from Nick Barkley, punctuating the ensuing silence.
Waiting for his uncle to quieten, Nicholas continued, "Please Papa,"
"A story, huh? Well, what kind of a story do you want to hear?"
"One from when you were a little boy, Papa, and you were living with Granny Leah," Nicholas suggested. Heath smiled at the mention of his mother's name. The words Granny Leah tripped just as easily of Nicholas' tongue as Granny Victoria did and he had Meg to thank for that. She made sure a special place in their family was reserved for Leah and that she existed in their lives.
"Oh do, Papa," Matty added.
"You too?" Heath asked, wondering who was going to wake up next.
Matty nodded sleepily over Nicholas' shoulder.
Sleeping with his head snuggled into his father's chest, James, stirred momentarily but did not wake. And sleeping on top of Nick, Little Heath, a protective arm around him to keep him in place, rose and descended in sympathy with his father's noisy breathing, his little thumb tentatively placed near his mouth, ready to offer comfort if needed. Every time Nick exhaled, a tuft of his son's soft baby hair flickered and then fell gracefully back into place. "Okay then," Heath agreed. "As long as we keep quiet so the others can sleep."
Both boys settled close to their father and listened for close on half an hour to stories of when their father was as young as they were, before sleep finally claimed them and they drifted off to sleep. Heath maneuvered himself so that he could pull a blanket over them and then checked on James before letting his thoughts drift back over the years.
After a time, he looked at his timepiece. It was just 10.00pm. Boy this was going to be a long night. Still, it had been nice to spend time with his boys and he knew he would remember their first camping out in the years to come.
In time his boys would be old enough to go camping properly, but it wouldn't be quite the same as the innocence and wonder they had shown tonight. Their excitement as they had begun their adventure had been infectious as they first chose where they wanted to sleep in the tent their mother had insisted they have, then changed their minds as they preferred to sleep closer to their fathers.
Giggles and animated chatter had followed as they ate a midnight feast, albeit served at 8, and calls of nature were answered which had them stepping over and sometimes on their fathers as they ran out of the tent and back into the house in a camping trip that still spoke of creature comforts. Of course, when Little Heath wanted "to go" his father presence was also required and Nick was up and down like a yoyo keeping up with his son.
At first the children had been too excited to sleep, but eventually they had drifted off. Even Nick had drifted off, leaving Heath to contemplate the ceiling of the tent and thoughts which roamed around his head. Then Nicholas had started fidgeting, a sure sign that he was waking up and Matty had followed and the storytelling had begun. Looking at his boys now, Heath's thoughts meandered until his own eyes drooped over his tired eyes and he finally joined them in sleep.
Meg as she suspected did not sleep. Even with Heath and Nick outside with the children her mothering instincts could not switch off. She looked at the clock as she had done for the last few hours. It was 4.30 in the morning. She put on her robe and crept downstairs. Then putting on a pair of boots, she went outside to the tent.
Matty just beginning to wake. "Mama," he said sleepily. "Hello, my darling," she smiled. "Ready to come inside?" Matty nodded and then woke Nicholas and James who were also ready to come inside. Out they trotted with their blankets and rubbing their eyes of sleep that still wanted to claim them. Meg scooped up a still sleeping Little Heath and bundled him up close, then they all walked over to the house where one by one they were put in their own beds, a spare one being found for Little Heath.
In the tent the two fathers slept on. Outside, the rain began. It was a light shower at first and then grew steadier. No one in the house heard and Meg, her babies safe once again in their own beds, finally slept.
Nick wiggled his toes and held Little Heath closer to him. A kiss dropped to his son's forehead and he slept. A few minutes more he wiggled his toes again. Still he slept on. This process repeated itself several times before a definite damp feeling woke him again to the point where he was half-way between sleep and being fully awake. "Ah Little Heath," he moaned, certain Little Heath had forgotten to wake up to go to the toilet. His mind strove to wake properly and his eyes blinked when rather than holding Little Heath he was in fact holding Big Heath in his arms. His eyes roamed around the tent and took in the fact that something was missing. The children were missing and there was something else too. The tent was awash with water. They had been flooded. He watched silently as he saw his boots float pass by.
"Heath! Heath!" Nick bellowed.
"Huh? What? Zzzzzzz" said Heath quickly going back to sleep.
"Huh?" Heath offended by the assault on his sleep-tender ears turned over to go back to sleep and immediately found himself spread-eagled in a puddle of water.
His consciousness still not fully returned, Heath was confused for a moment. "Nick, I'm swimming. Nick? Why am I swimming?"
Standing up, his feet squelching in water whichever way he turned, Nick was in no mood to humor Heath's confusion. A sharp reality check was what his brother needed now. "Wake up, you damned fool! We've been flooded!" His brother, who had been sleeping heavily, remained confused and only half awake remained, his body spread-eagled in water as before. Nick got hold of his brother's belt and pulled him up on all fours. "Uh!" Heath exclaimed on the assault on his waist.
"Heath, didn't you hear me? We've been flooded. Come on, we've got to get out of here. The children are missing but I'm assuming they have gone back in the house. You'll find your boots floating somewhere outside."
Heath nodded as he came fully awake and found himself still hoisted by his belt. "You can let go now, Nick. I'm awake. Wet, but awake. You sure the children are okay?"
"Let's go inside and check for sure," Nick said, letting his brother's belt go and helping him to stand.
Dripping with water, they retrieved their boots, not bothering to put them on and squelched across the yard and back to the house.
"A tishoo!" Heath exclaimed.
"Thanks Nick," Heath said, feeling a little sorry for himself.
Entering the house, all was quiet save for Silas who was busy in the kitchen. "Why Mister Nick, Mister Heath! You're soaking!"
"The weather was kind enough to rain on us," Nick offered by explanation.
"I'll run you a bath, Mister Heath," Silas said, fussing over the man who he knew could take ill so easily if infection settled on his chest.
"The children?" Heath wanted to know.
"Mrs. Barkley settled them in their beds some hours ago, Mr. Heath. And Little Heath too, Mr. Nick." Silas answered, settling both their minds.
"Thanks Silas," both men answered together.
"Both of you need to get out of those wet clothes, Mr. Nick, Mr. Heath. You go on upstairs now, I'll put you out some fresh clothes."
"Thanks," both men said again, appreciating the care and concern Silas were showing them.
"As they went from the kitchen towards the stairs, Heath rubbed his forehead for a moment, recalling something. "Nick, you didn't kiss me this morning, did you?"
"Who me?" Nick spluttered. "Now why the hell would I do that? Reckon you must be sickening already, boy? Go on with you, get up those stairs."
"Hey Nick!" Heath said, suddenly stopping at the entrance to the Parlor. "Look!"
Both men stepped inside for a minute. A sheet had been draped over a table like a tent and underneath, slept Matty, Nicholas and little James in their nightshirts, three pairs of bare feet sticking out from their rumpled blankets."
Straightening the blankets over them, Nick smiled. "Guess, they're not over their camping bug yet, huh?"
"Guess not," Heath smiled, a cough escaping his lips.
"C'mon," Nick encouraged. "They're absolutely fine, let's stop that cough before it gets a hold."
"Sure you didn't kiss me, Nick?" Heath quizzed again.
"I told ya, didn't I?" Nick said, objecting sorely to the line of questioning and pushing his brother upstairs.
Heath smiled, knowing somehow that his brother had. How or why, he would leave till another day when he felt like teasing his older brother again.
Bathed and warm again, Heath forsook dressing and instead climbed into bed. Instinctively, Meg rolled over to him and into his arms. "What happened?" she said, sleepily.
Heath considered starting a conversation for a moment and decided it could wait till later, "Nothing to worry about, go back to sleep."
"I brought the little ones in," she said, her eyes not opening.
"I know, they're fine."
"I couldn't help it, I worried so."
"It's alright, go back to sleep."
"You feel good,"
Heath smiled and kissed the top of his wife's head, "So do you," he said, snuggling down to go to sleep.