Thanks to my beta, Ros, for all her help
As Heath entered the dining room, he noticed one member of his family missing. "Where's Samuel?" he asked quietly as he settled himself at the head of the table, his wife and mother either side of him; his large family spreading out before him in ascending order of ages. A much larger one to accommodate his growing family had long replaced the dining table, of old. The table had fifteen place settings and chatter at all levels from the children filled the room.
Many years ago, the day after Jarrod had married Judge Harmon's daughter, Elizabeth; Heath had first taken his seat as head of the table. As he still thought of himself very much the younger son, it had taken some persuasion by Victoria for him to do so. But Victoria quietly insisted, explaining even though Jarrod was the family's nominal head, Heath now headed the family at the ranch. With a huge sense of pride, Meg and Victoria watched the eternally self-conscious man reluctantly agree to take Jarrod's seat. A sense of completeness settled over Victoria as she glanced up to the portrait of Heath's father, which hung above the mantelpiece of the dining room, looking down on them all. She swore Tom was now looking at Heath.
Silas, now in his seventy-fifth year, was serving breakfast. James helped. Eight years earlier the Barkleys employed James to assist Silas. It had been Victoria and Meg's aim that James would one day take over from Silas so the faithful retainer and old family friend could at last enjoy a well-earned retirement within the Barkley home. However, Silas had other ideas. Demonstrating a stubbornness that could match the Barkleys, Silas refused to retire and with pride continued to work for the family he loved.
Like Jarrod, Nick too had moved out of the family house with his bride Jenny Farmer, the former schoolteacher. He had a place, which he had built not too far away and continued to manage the ranch with his partner and best friend. It was a happy arrangement for all involved and Jarrod and Nick were frequent visitors, in Nick's case, daily, to the house in which they had been raised and of which they remained very fond. With a second generation of Barkleys now in residence, the house was constantly alive to the sound of babies being born, toddlers taking first steps, infants starting school and older ones playing, studying or helping with chores. As befit a ranching family, each child learned to ride. The door to the house seemed constantly open with their comings and goings and their presence filled every room; even their father's study was not immune. Once Jarrod's it was now Heath's and like the rest of the house it remained open to his children, Heath finding it easier to study paperwork with his children's laughter nearby and the occasional child making a den from under his desk.
Heath’s family was large and frequently between his offspring, a squabble would break out. Hearing the commotion, Heath would get up quietly from his paperwork to sit down in Jarrod's rich, green, leather, wing-backed chair with one or more of his children, softly expressing his disappointment in their behavior, finding out why they were arguing and helping them to settle their differences. As with all children he would meet with resistance, denial and then mute response, but in his firm, understated manner, he would answer their objections one by one, and eventually the siblings would say sorry to each other and to their father and hugs and kisses would immediately follow. For a man raised without siblings, he possessed a gift for fatherhood, which he had honed over the years from his different experiences with each child. All were different, and his knowledge and respect for fatherhood grew with each one.
Set against this background, a sadness concerning Samuel now preoccupied his mind. Victoria lent a comforting hand to Heath’s, whilst she and Meg shared a sad smile about the situation which had come to pass. Calmly, Meg informed Heath that Samuel had gone out without breakfast that morning to begin his chores. Though he said nothing, Heath's eyes registered the news. He brought the children to quiet so he could begin grace. One by one the children settled, the younger ones encouraged by the older ones who were mindful their father was upset.
Heath showed little appetite and was only half-way through his breakfast when he apologized to his mother and Meg and excused himself from the room. Meg nodded understandingly, noticing his hidden pain. The distance Samuel had put between him and his father had grown over the last few days. At first, she thought it was because Heath had told him off for not finishing his chores. Samuel was the least interested in the ranch, much preferring his studies at which he excelled. Still, his father and mother had insisted ranch chores were important in teaching him responsibility and discipline, and though it remained a constant battle to keep him focused, that is all it had been up to now. This week though, Samuel's reaction had been different. Heath's firm scolding and reminder to his son of his responsibilities had seemed to engender a grudge in his middle son.
His son. Meg thought more on the subject of her son Samuel and his twin, Leah. They were not Heath’s natural children, but hers. Yet, no man could have been a better father to them than the man who had been her husband for the past sixteen years. He made no distinction between them and his own, for from the moment he learned of their existence and had married her, they immediately became his. If anything, he loved them before he even realized he was in love with her. It wounded her deeply to see the relationship between Samuel and his father strained. Samuel resembled his father in many ways. Not in looks or build; their similarities were more subtle. Samuel shared Heath's deepness; there were fathoms to it and Meg knew, as with Heath, she would only ever get a glimpse into what was contained there. Unlike her other sons, who all seemed to live for the ranch, Samuel was quiet and studious, given to thinking about what he was going to say. He loved nothing more than to sit with his father in the library and share their love of reading. Hours would creep by and both would need reminding if Samuel's bedtime had past. They shared many mannerisms too. The son imitating the father proved mannerisms were not always inherent, but were learned and absorbed. So why create the distance? Why this deliberate hurting of his father? Samuel's absence from the table; his refusal to talk to him and his efforts to stay out of his way, hurt Heath deeper than any physical hurt could. Meg knew from their nightly talks when she and Heath were in bed and alone, he believed he was losing his son.
Outside in the stables, Samuel, fifteen, was aware of his father's presence, but continued working as if he was not there. Heath took a deep breath, but tried not to give any outward sign of his disappointment. Instead, he removed his jacket and began helping his son move the heavy bales of hay, father and son working together in silence to get the job done. Occasionally, they would stop and wipe away the morning's sweat with their bandanas before continuing in uncomfortable silence. Finally, when Samuel was about to lift the last bale his father put out his hand to stop him. Samuel flinched for a moment. "Samuel, let's talk. No! Don't turn away." Wearily, Heath sat down and wiped the sweat from across his face and down his neck, and beckoned his son to sit down. Samuel made to leave. "Samuel," Heath pleaded. "This can't go on. Please sit down and talk to me. Tell me what is wrong so I can help you."
"You can't help, fa... "The sentence stopped almost as quickly as it had begun, Samuel unable to enunciate the last word which until the last few days had always come so easily to his lips, looked away. He could tell his father was hurting, but he was hurting more. It was a mix of hurt, anger and betrayal and he wanted to lash out at his father and the world in which he could no longer believe and trust.
Heath could not bear to see his son in so much pain and it frightened him. This was beyond anything he had seen in his son before and he did not know how to handle it. He tried to rely on his natural instincts and his feelings. He opened his arms to embrace his son. For a moment, Samuel wanted to throw himself into those protective arms and all they represented. Always before they had made Samuel's world right again. They could not do that now.
Heath still unaware of what was troubling his son pleaded again, "Son, if I can help you I will, but I need to know what has caused this distance between us. I am your father Samuel and I love you. When you hurt, I hurt."
"But, that's it! You're not my father! It's all a lie! You're a lie! We're a lie."
Heath was stunned. If he was not sitting down already, he would have fallen down. He gripped on to the bale of hay to steady himself and for a moment felt light-headed. He could not formulate any words, his thoughts and what he was going to say next silenced in the aftermath of what Samuel had just said. It had been so long since he had even thought of Samuel as another man's child, that to be reminded he was, hurt Heath deeply. He had been the boy's father since the moment Samuel was born, as he was Leah's. Like he was with to Victoria, they were to him - children of his heart and that heart did not care if they were blood related or not. Heath was a man with twelve children, not ten and no man had been prouder of the large family with which his wife had presented him. When had he let Samuel down? When had Samuel found out he was someone else's son and not his? Heath tried to collect himself. Whatever his hurt and pain, he knew he had to consider Samuel's first. That is what father's did. Somehow, he had to guide his son out of his hurt and sense of betrayal.
"How... how did you find out?" Heath’s question spilled out, the shock of Samuel's revelation removing any strength from his voice.
Samuel, who was currying his horse with fierce strokes, wheeled around sharply. "I heard you and Uncle Jarrod the other night when you were talking."
"Th... the other night?" Heath answered confused. He could not remember. When had he discussed...?
"You were in your study. It was after midnight. I couldn't sleep and came down for a drink. Uncle Jarrod and you were drinking. You were talking of the past and when mother first came to the house."
Slowly Heath remembered. His son was right. The oldest and youngest Barkley brothers had talked. They had grown increasingly mellow and sentimental as the evening advanced. Rarely did they have chance to talk as they once had and over drinks and a warm fire, they had talked long into the morning. They had covered much ground with their reminiscing and renewed sense of brotherhood. Heath missed having his older brother around and for a few hours Jarrod became Pappy again and together they covered everything from Heath's coming to the ranch, their father, mother, Nick and their meeting of their wives. Jarrod had mentioned how Heath had done a great job rearing his children and it was at some point during that conversation that Jarrod had talked about how Samuel and Leah had come into their lives. If Samuel had heard that, he would have also heard the love with which both men had spoken their names, but Heath knew that by then Samuel would have stopped listening. All he would have heard in his fragile state was that he was not his father's son. Heath knew what it was like to have his parentage kept from him and now he had done the same to his own son. Remembering his own anger and hurt, he wondered how he would ever repair his relationship with him now and if Samuel would be prepared to let him.
"Samuel, you must listen to me." Heath said getting up and moving over to his son. Samuel immediately backed away, not daring to risk close contact with his father. His pain and emotions had control of him now and all he wanted to do was pummel his father's chest with his fists to exorcise the deep pain. Words could not describe how he was feeling. He was adrift from everything he once knew was true; truths, which he had always taken for granted. A mother, a father, his place in the family as his father's third son.
"I can't," he cried. "I got... to get out of here. I can't... I can't think." He grabbed his saddle from where it rested and began saddling his horse whilst listening to a series of pleas from his father to stop and listen to him. His father's words were having no effect. The walls of the stable were closing in on him just as they were on his life. He could not think, he could not breathe. Emotionally drained from just admitting to his father he knew about not being his son, his mind could not take or offer anymore right now. Tears ran freely down his cheeks, the boy/man unable to stop their ready flow. He guided his horse out of the stables and quickly climbed into the saddle. Without looking back he spurred the horse on and out through the gates of the ranch, leaving his father standing bereft and alone.
Nick, who had ridden into the ranch from his house just three miles away, pulled up his horse abruptly in front of Heath. "What the hell has got into Samuel? The boy shouldn't be riding his horse that way."
"Leave it Nick." Heath replied, tight-lipped. Nick dismounted and came over to his brother. He did not fail to notice Heath's pinched and drawn features and that something was badly wrong. "Heath, what is it? What caused Samuel to ride off that way? Did you two have an argument?"
"Yeah, Nick," Heath replied sadly. "We had an argument. Did you see which way he rode off?"
"It looked like he was heading to the north pasture. Want me to come along?"
Heath shook his head. "No, this is something I need to sort out with him alone. Do me a favor, will you?"
"Just name it little brother." It had been some years since Nick had used the term of endearment and Heath acknowledged it with a brief smile, remembering it with affection.
"Saddle my horse for me? I want to get started after Samuel just as soon as I have spoken to Meg."
"Sure, Heath. Look I'm sure it will work out all right. The boy will come back when he has cooled off."
"I don't think so Nick. You see, Samuel found out I am not his real father. I don't think he will ever forgive me for lying to him about that."
Nick, momentarily stunned, moved quickly to his brother's defense. "You didn't lie!"
"I wasn't honest with him. All these years I've let Samuel and Leah think that's just what I am, their father."
"That's because you are!" again Nick defended.
"In here and here, yes!" Heath came back, pointing to his head and his heart. "But, we all knew I'm not their real father. God, Nick, for all that happened to me, for all I felt about my father, I never counted for this day! I can't shake the feeling that I have lost him for good."
Nick could not bear to see his brother in pain, or think of his nephew out there alone and equally hurting. Squeezing his brother's upper arm, he motioned for him to get going. "Go inside Heath. Go see Meg; your horse will be waiting for you when you want to leave. I can't say for sure how this will all work out, but I know this Heath, that boy out there loves you. No matter how many times he fights to push you away, all he wants is for you to put things right for him again."
"Yes, but how can I?" Heath pleaded, needing his older brother's guidance and advice.
"Just love him, Heath. Be there for him, there will come a moment when he wants to talk. He is hurt and angry, but he is also fighting to find his way back to you. He just doesn't know how."
Heath found his wife in their bedroom.
Immediately she knew something was wrong. "Samuel?"
Gently taking hold of his wife's hand and drawing her close to him, he sat wearily down in his chair, "We need to talk Meg."
A heavy-hearted Heath came down the sweeping staircase from speaking to Meg. Victoria came to the foot of the stairs to meet him. As he reached the bottom step, the forty-three year old man accepted his mother's embrace.
"It's a mess, Mother. A God Almighty mess, and it's all my doing."
"Nick told me, dear. And I won't have you thinking that way. You and Meg are the best of parents. But dear," She pressed his hand reassuringly, "it's Samuel who needs all our help now."
Still holding her hand, Heath sat on the bottom step where his mother subsequently joined him. "I know Mother. But how can I help him when he won't let me? He's hurting, Mother. You should have seen him; he wouldn't even let me come close to him. When I put out my hand to touch his, he flinched. I had hoped... " Heath let his thoughts trail off before resuming, "Somehow I have to find a way to help him, to help put him back together again and show him how much he means to me."
Victoria reminded him of the anger he himself had shown when he first made the discovery about his own father and how he had lashed out at the people who he would eventually come to love. Heath remembered the anger and the control it had over him. It blindsided him. It was what Samuel was feeling now. Victoria braced herself for what she was about to suggest. She had watched with admiration the way Heath and Meg had raised their large family. She had wondered at first if his need for so many children was to compensate for his own solitary childhood, but over time she knew she had been mistaken. Heath simply loved his wife and family. It really was not complicated at all. Though he loved them deeply, that love was not enough for Samuel now; Samuel needed more.
"And you will, Heath," she consoled, "but not now." She turned his face towards her, "Right now, Samuel is hurting too much to be able to listen to the person he needs the most." Heath looked up at his mother from where his head had fallen heavy to his chest. She registered his surprise. "Oh yes, Heath. He loves you very much and needs you. He may not be able to see or articulate that right now, but he does." There was a pause before she continued, "Heath, because Samuel can't talk to you right now, why not let Nick go and search for him. He may find it easier to talk to Nick than to you. He is too emotional about you at the moment, that's why he finds it so hard to face you." Heath's head sunk down. The wise matriarch continued knowing she still had her son's ear. "Let Nick speak to him first. He can prepare the ground for you and Samuel to talk. There's something else too, Heath. I think you and Meg should talk to Leah. It will come better from the two of you, and I will be here if you need me to lend my support."
A silence followed during which Nick joined them, keeping his own counsel, but ready to help. He knew Heath had to feel comfortable with the suggestion coming from their mother, still he hoped Heath would agree. Eventually, Heath nodded reasoning in his mind that a meeting with his son would only lead to confrontation now. He desperately wanted to know his son was all right and that he could repair his relationship with him, but he knew his mother was right; he was not the person Samuel wanted to talk to right now.
"Tell the boy, I love him, Nick."
"He's knows that, Heath," Nick smiled back, admiring the decision his brother had made.
"Tell him anyway," Heath replied sadly. "And bring him home to us. His mother and I need him."
Nick patted Heath's arm. "Consider it done. I'll pack a couple of bedrolls for me and the boy to sleep under the stars tonight. Amazing how looking at a night sky can help clear the mind. Nature's balm so to speak."
Heath was doubtful, knowing it would take more, "I hope so Nick. I better go and tell Meg what's happening." He turned and gave his mother a kiss. "Mother, will you find Leah?"
"Of course, son. Do you want me to stay whilst you talk to her?"
"I think I would like that Mother, she is going to need all our support."
Leah found her mother and father waiting in the parlor and at first did not see the worry etched into their faces. She ran first to her mother, giving her a kiss and then did the same with her father. As usual, she was dressed in denim overalls for her work around the ranch, still the tomboy of old. Try as she might her mother could not get her into dresses with any permanence, though when she did, Leah presented a very pretty girl to the world.
Talking ten to the dozen about the young foal that had been born only a few days before, she absentmindedly accepted a cool drink of lemonade from her grandmother. Meg tried to calm her exuberance and to get her to sit down whilst Heath nervously stood up and walked over to the window.
"Leah, please," suddenly the seriousness of her father's voice caught her attention. She recognized its tone and did not question it. "Your mother and I would like to talk to you."
Leah looked first at her mother and then her grandmother, both wore encouraging and reassuring smiles. She smiled shyly in return, quietened and sat down next to her mother.
"Is something wrong, Mother?"
"Your father and I would like to talk to you about something that is important, dear. We need you to listen carefully and we will answer any questions you have, but first please listen to what we have to say." Meg advised, not for a minute leaving her husband to handle this conversation alone. All three sat closely, Leah and her mother on the sofa and Heath opposite having drawn up a chair. Victoria waited by the window, enough distance away to support and yet not intrude, ready to help each one of them get through the next few minutes and the aftermath that would follow.
Heath took his daughter's hand and rolled it in his own. It was tiny and delicate and suddenly seemed very fragile in the calloused expanse of his. Leah smiled somewhat nervously. Her father wasn't his usual self. He was troubled and suddenly seemed older. Hoping to put him at ease she leaned across and gave him a hug. "Can't be that bad, Pa," she joked. She was glad he couldn't see the worry on her face.
Heath pulled his face away and smiled nervously. "I don't want to hurt you Leah, but there is something you need to know from your mother and me."
"Okay, Pa," she encouraged, not letting go of the hug completely, trying to reassure him that whatever it was, it could not be that bad.
"You know how your mother and I met, Leah?" Heath continued.
Leah pulled away and smiled widely. She sat back on the floor and hugged her legs up close, ready to listen to how her mother and father fell in love. "I know Pa, you met and fell in love and wanted to marry her instantly," she speculated, the tomboy in her at a crossroads with the young woman she was becoming. There was a boy on a neighbor's ranch who had begun to set her heart a flutter. "You eloped, didn't you?" This part of the story she already knew.
"Yes, we eloped," Heath confirmed, "but there was a reason why we eloped." God! This was difficult, Heath thought. He could feel the room grow warmer and wiped a line of sweat from his brow. He was not used to opening up in this way.
"Grandpa, had a shot gun, right," Leah joked, enjoying the potential for drama it added to her parent's wedding.
"No, but there was a reason for why we wanted to marry quickly." A heavy pause followed. "You see, your mother was already expecting you and Samuel by then."
Leah looked up quizzically at her mother, a mixture of shock, but also a desire to remain calm exercising her thoughts. Somehow it seemed important to do so. She did not know why. Okay, so it wasn’t what she had expected to hear. Okay, so their parents had to marry. What did it matter? They loved each other, didn't they? Of course they did, they were so like newly-weds sometimes, it almost embarrassed her brothers and sisters. Besides she had all those brothers and sisters didn't she? That had to be love!
She tried to show the information did not disturb her, sensing how hard this was for her parents too. A tomboy she might be, but she was intelligent and protective of them too. She knew she was mature beyond her years. She could handle this, couldn't she? This yes, but she feared there was something else. She could see there was more to tell by the way tears entered her mother's red-rimmed eyes.
Instinctively, she let out a comforting hand to her mother. What was it? She tried to communicate it was okay that her parents had to marry because of her and Samuel. It was a shock yes, but nothing they could not all survive. She knew her own father was born illegitimate; they had all been well informed. She looked from her mother to her father; her father could barely face her. She tried to read into his eyes and go behind the words he had spoken. It was not shame she was seeing, it was something more. She held his gaze for a moment, a sudden understanding dawned. She turned toward her mother for confirmation. It was there, in the way she looked at her father and then back at Leah. "I know what you are telling me Pa. It's okay; you don't have to say anything more." Even in her hurt, her greater concern was for him.
"No, you don't understand, Leah," Her father added quickly, anxious to be able to tell her, feeling sure she had misunderstood.
Slowly tears fell down his daughter's cheeks. "I... I think I do Pa. I think what you are trying to tell me is that, mother was expecting Samuel and me when you married her, but that you aren’t our father. I'm right, aren't I?"
Leah stunned Heath and Meg by her perceptiveness. How did she know? Victoria turned and gripped the back of a wing-backed chair, stunned also.
Leah considered the impact of discovering she was not her father's child. It hurt, hurt like nothing before. It was physical in its pain. She knew she was the daughter closest to him. Funny that, both she and Samuel loved their parents equally, but they both had a need for their father. Had she sensed they were not really his? She dismissed the idea, until today, she had always thought of Heath Barkley as her father. She imagined how Samuel would react to the news. Did he already know? Is that why he had been acting so strange? She stopped herself, knowing that she had enough trouble coping with the revelation herself. She looked at both her parents; they were in such terrible pain. A realization struck her. She still loved them, that had not changed. She also knew she had it in her power to love or reject her father by what she did next. Showing a maturity well beyond her years, she leaned up to embrace her father and hugged him closely, whispering into his ear. "You're still my Pa, and I'm still your daughter. I love you daddy. This doesn't change a thing."
"Are you alright?"
"Yes mama, I'm fine. A bit weepy," she said wiping away the traces of some old tears, "but I'm fine. Is Papa, alright?"
Leah sat up from where she lay on her bed and seeing her mother sit down by her side, resting her back against the headboard, she snuggled into her mother's offered embrace. It had been a momentous day for the young girl and a mother's embrace was just what she needed right now. She had gone to bed early that night not expecting to sleep, but to spend a little time thinking on what had happened that day. It was quite something to learn the man you had thought of all your life as your father, actually was not. She felt maybe she should have been more curious and asked questions; like who her real father was and what happened between him and her mother to cause them to not to marry, but two things stopped her. First, she had no wish to hurt her mother by causing her to dredge up a past which must have been and possibly still remained extremely painful to her, and secondly, try as she might, she could not think of her father as anything but her father, or different in any way. He was her father yesterday, remained so today and would be again tomorrow.
"He is now," Meg replied as she and her daughter settled into each other, her chin resting on top of her daughter's head, rich with strawberry blonde hair. "We're both very proud of how you handled today and love you very much. We know this was a shock for you, but you handled it with enormous grace and maturity. You are growing up, young lady; you make me very proud."
Leah smiled, "Mama?"
"Yes, dear." Knowing there was bound to be questions was one of the reasons Meg had come into the room. She waited for Leah to speak.
"Does it hurt you that I have no questions about my real father? I mean about who he was and how you met..., and how you didn’t come to marry when you knew about us. It's just that right now, right at this moment, I can't think of anybody else as my father except Pa.
“I've tried to mama. I've tried to think of somebody else out there as my father, but every time I think about it, I just come back to the fact, that whoever this man is, he isn't Pa! It's Pa, I love, really love. Do you think he understands that? That it’s true what I said before. That it doesn't make any difference to me that he isn't?"
"Oh yes, he knows it Leah," Meg confirmed, hugging her daughter closer, wondering if she and Heath deserved this astute and thoughtful child. "I don't think he will ever receive a finer gift than the acceptance you gave him today, except, perhaps, for Samuel to come to feel the same way. You and your brother and sister really mean everything to him. He could no sooner divorce himself from any of his children than he could from me. We are what he has always wanted."
"We are, aren't we?" Leah replied thoughtfully.
"Yes, family means everything to your father. It would break his heart if Samuel didn't return to him."
"Is that what has been troubling Samuel these last few days?"
"Yes, Leah, your brother found out in a way that wasn't intended or fair. It made your father and I realize that we should have spoken to both of you much sooner and let you know the truth. We are both very sorry about that and knowing your father he will carry that guilt for the rest of his days."
Leah squeezed her mother's arm. "We mustn't let him, must we mama? We must make sure Samuel understands that it doesn't change anything. That father still loves him."
"Yes we must," Meg sighed, brushing her daughter's head with a kiss. She kept hidden the tears entering her eyes as she pondered how Nick was faring in the battle to restore father to son.
With bones that lowered themselves to the hard ground somewhat more wearily than they would have done twenty years ago, heck even ten years ago, forty-seven year old Nick Barkley bedded down for the night. The day had been full of frustrations and for a man of practicality and common sense who liked to face problems head on and then move on, it had been a lesson in supreme patience not to rush his nephew into opening up and talking to him.
He had found the boy quite easily, the boy's knowledge of the ranch on which he was born some fifteen years before limited by his preference for studying and staying indoors. He had favorite places, of course, each member of the family had those, and though a competent rider, none of Heath's children could be otherwise, he rarely chose to go beyond the places he already knew. Nick felt that was a great shame. They were fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world; God's grandeur laid out all in front of them, to ignore it seemed a crime. Understanding the land helped Nick Barkley understand life. It was an uncomplicated view and it brought him huge peace.
Well, finding the boy had been easy. Getting him to open up and talk? Yes well, that was a different story and one on which Nick felt he should have read the book on before setting out. In fact, it required skills that Nick Barkley was now beginning to doubt he had in sufficient measure. This was his mother's and wife's domain; women did this so much better. It required an innate sensitivity and they were not two words you conjured up when you first thought of Nick Barkley. Not that Nick was insensitive. Oh no! He felt it, sure enough. He experienced it. He just did not show it too well. It rather embarrassed him and was clumsily, though sincerely, expressed.
Nick tried to make himself comfortable and found the ground less than cooperative. Darn these bones of mine, he moaned as they creaked in reply. Hmph! He thought, not liking the sound. Quickly he told himself to get over it. He had a job to do that evening and a comfortable night's sleep was the least of his worries. He had made a promise to his brother and by thunder he would bring this fractured family together if it was the last thing he did. Bold words Nick Barkley, his mind answered back. And just how are you going to do that? He thought about the young boy who was his nephew and how he could gain the boy's trust. They did not know each other very well. Perhaps, not a bad thing? Being so close was what was keeping father and son apart.
Samuel had already shown he was not too keen on his uncle being there. Supper had been prepared in silence and eaten in the same way. Shortly afterwards, Samuel bedded down with a deliberate distance measured out between the two. But personal space was an alien concept to Nick Barkley and the old cowboy simply placed his own bedroll down next to the boys, much as he did when he and Heath camped out on the trail. Samuel stayed quiet, knowing to object meant he would have to speak to his uncle, and that simply wasn't going to happen.
Nick needed a friendly face. He stared up at the stars. It looked so uncomplicated up there, every star in its place. The Lord sure knew what he was doing, Nick only wished he did. Might need a little help here, Lord, Nick indicated in silent prayer. A sound interrupted his thoughts. He raised himself up on one elbow, the source of the noise soon becoming clear. Samuel, his back to him, was sobbing his tender and young heart out.
"Ah, Samuel, boy." Nick offered in sympathy, pressing a fatherly hand to his nephew's shoulder that he then squeezed. The sudden and very human contact acted like a giant key, unlocking a floodgate of emotions and hurt that Samuel had held in check until then. Nick listened, not saying a word. He just held his nephew and kept holding him until exhausted, emptied and cleansed the boy had spent his emotions. A silence followed, Nick saw no need to fill it with words. Samuel was not yet ready for listening. Shortly, he would be, but not yet, perhaps in the morning. Then uncle and nephew would talk, their relationship a little closer than the previous day. He would tell Samuel of a kid not much different to the boy; a kid full of anger, hurt and pain; a kid who felt betrayed, unloved and not able to trust anyone or anything, least of all what he felt, or where he fitted. He would talk about how that kid came to mean so much to the family, his half-status counting for nothing to a step-mother and siblings who simply came to love him for what he was, and not for who he thought himself to be; a bastard without a name. No matter how much the kid fought it, unconditional love had finally won out with the boy and God willing, it would again with his son.. Don't go away Lord, Nick prayed once again. Our work's not over yet.
The next morning, Nick had been up half an hour before Samuel finally stirred. The boy had slept solid. Nick was grateful for that. Now to get a good breakfast inside him and then they would talk. To Nick's offer of food, Samuel grunted a sleepy unintelligible reply, but the smell of breakfast proved a powerful draw and he was soon up, his stomach looking forward to the repast.
At the Barkley ranch, his father once again sat down at the breakfast table, his eyes drifting every so often to the empty chair that was his son's, Samuel‘s. Today, he and Meg had decided to tell their other children what they had revealed to Leah about her parentage last night. Together they would tell the older ones and the younger ones one by one later that day, each tucked into bed, kissing and reassuring them that they were all loved and that nothing had changed. At that moment, Heath was not to know how proud he would be of how his older children would take the news. At first the room was filled with silence whilst they each assimilated the news, each looking to the others and then at Leah who was present and sitting close to their mother. Meg pulled Leah a little closer and held on to her hand, entwining it firmly with hers.
Sean, Thomas and Cate, knew something of their sister's experience being stepchildren to their mother, Meg. The circumstances were slightly different. Both Thomas and Sean remembered Meg stepping down from the train and being introduced as their mother. They had been so excited at getting a new mother they had claimed her instantly. Even now they could remember being engulfed in her skirts as she knelt down to embrace them, telling them they were both fine young men and how much she wanted to be their new mother.. At five those words had meant so much to both boys and now at twenty-one they proved they still held true. Discovering Samuel and Leah were stepchildren to Heath gave Sean and Thomas a common bond that they were quick to show. Taking the lead, they both stood up and walked the short distance over to their sister where they kissed and embraced her demonstrating family bonds held stronger than the blood ties that no longer existed between them. They were bonds formed simply from growing up together and sharing life's experiences as a family. Soon all the other siblings, right down to young Josh, stepped forward to kiss and embrace Leah and surround, some might say smother, her with love. Leah was not complaining and nor where her parents.
Nick and Samuel ate breakfast. Nick, tired of the silence attempted to open up the conversation. In doing so, he made a fatal mistake.
"You know, Samuel, looking at you, I can see so much of your father in you." The words were meant as a compliment, but quickly backfired.
"Don't say that!" Samuel shot back, throwing his plate of food down on the ground and standing up.
"For heaven's sake why?" Nick's look of complete surprise at Samuel's outburst was genuine.
"Because, it isn't true. We can't be alike! You know why!"
Realizing his error, Nick spoke more softly, as he encouraged the boy to sit down. "Of course it is, boy! You think you can judge a father and son by blood alone?"
"That's usually the way, isn't it?" Samuel replied bitterly, his hurt so near the surface still.
Nick allowed himself a deep sigh. "Why boy, and I thought you were smarter than that. Seems to me you've just been kiddin' us all these years. You've been reading all them books of yours and yet it would seem you haven't learned anything from them about life. "Samuel," he tried to explain. "Being a father to a son isn't about sharing blood alone. Why blood doesn't count for much when your child's ill, or he is anxious about his first day of school. Blood doesn't put the food on your plate or buy you the books that you want. It don't sit and cuddle you when you scrape a knee, or need a shoulder to cry on. Love does that, Samuel, not blood. It's all about caring for and loving your child. Teaching and guiding them and wanting what's best for them. Doing your own best for them and helping them when things don't go as well as when they do. Like now.
“Seems to me that's what your Pa has been doing for you all his life and I don't see him stopping now. What about you, Samuel? Is that it now? Suddenly things get tough and you're ready to cave in. You can do that? Fifteen years of being loved, wanted... Oh boy! Were you wanted Samuel, and cherished too? You've reached the end of the line, have you and you're getting off? Well, of course you can. Ain't nothing stopping you if you've set your mind to it, you're almost full grown. But I tell you boy, your Pa will never stop loving you and no matter what you think today about him, or how far you run away from him, that will never change. Son, I know it's been tough. I can only imagine what you felt when you heard what you did, but if you break through that pain, you'll find that what you had last week, you still have today. A father and mother who love you not just the same, but so much more! And you know why? Because right now you need their love above everyone else's. So much, Samuel, that it hurts"
Samuel, who had sat down again, looked up at his uncle. Nick drew some hope that his words were getting through.
"Samuel, tell me something. Do you love your brothers and sisters any less today than you did yesterday, or the day before?"
Not sure what his uncle was leading up to, Samuel looked up again, surprised at the question. "No," he said, somewhat guardedly.
"Don't sound so sure to me, maybe you do?" Nick replied reaching out to hand his nephew a fresh plate of food.
"No, I don't love them any less." Samuel clarified, accepting the plate.
"Why do think that is? I mean, apart from Leah, they're not your full brothers and sisters anymore. Didn't your love for them dilute just a little because of that?"
"No! I told you!" Samuel answered emphatically and with growing annoyance.
"What about your mother? I mean, it wasn't just your father who kept the truth from you. Your mother did too. Because of that, don't you hate her now?"
"No!" Samuel replied just as emphatically.
"So, it's just your father then. Guess him not being your real father makes him less in your eyes. Less worthy of your love, say."
Samuel leapt to his feet, the food and he coffee cup he was holding spilling over his pants and burning the skin underneath. He didn't feel a thing. He leapt across the fire and started pummeling his uncle in the chest. "Don't you ever say that about Father! Do ya here? Never! He's my Pa and I love him, I will always love him."
Nick hearing the words he wanted to hear, grabbed Samuel's flailing wrists and held him at arms length before pulling him close. "That's what I thought boy, that's what I thought."
Samuel sobbed for a few moments. Presently, he raised his head and asked, "Uncle Nick, can we go home?”
Nick and Samuel rode back in silence back to the ranch. Nick's talk with his nephew hadn't gone strictly to plan but somehow it had gone better. He was bringing his nephew home and that was a result.
Not long afterwards the gates to the ranch opened up and immediately Silas alerted the family to the riders' return. Shortly afterwards, Meg and Heath spilled out on to the porch followed by an equally anxious Leah. The rest of the family were either about their business or chose tactfully to remain inside. Meg put a comforting hand on Heath's broad back and felt the tension there. She leaned her head against his shoulder, knowing he was anxious. Her husband never took anything for granted and until he and Samuel could talk he would never be sure if he and his son were truly reconciled.
"It'll be alright," Meg reassured him.
"Let's hope," was all that Heath could offer in return.
Nick dismounted first and sent a reassuring smile to his brother that seemed to indicate everything had been successful. For a moment, Heath let down his guard and began to hope. Stepping forward as Samuel dismounted and came up the steps towards them, he hoped his son would say something, not for the world expecting what the boy would say next.
Ignoring his father, Samuel went straight over to his mother and demanded to know who his real father was. All three adults were stunned and Meg totally in shock couldn't think what to say. It was a natural question but all the same she was surprised that he had chosen to say it then and with such hatred in his voice. Hatred for who? Heath, or William Freemont, the man who had seduced and abandoned her with child. This was the man Samuel wanted to know about, a man not worthy of the husband who had stood by her for sixteen years. But then of course, Samuel didn't know that. He didn't even know his father's real name and was demanding it now.
Ignoring his father, Samuel went straight over to his mother and demanded to know who his real father was. All three adults were stunned and Meg, totally in shock, could not think what to say. It was the most natural of questions and she should have expected it, nevertheless, she was surprised that he had chosen to say it at that moment and with such hatred in his voice. Hatred for whom? Heath, or William Freemont, the man who had seduced and abandoned her with child. This was the man Samuel wanted to know about! But then of course, Samuel did not know about his real father. That was the problem. He did not even know his father's name.
Nick could not believe the outburst either. "Where the Hell did that come from?" Remebering the boy's declaration of love and defense of his father back at the camp, he had thought for sure Samuel and Heath would now be reconciled.
"I want to know who my real father is! Tell me!" Samuel repeated.
Leah stepped forward, angry and raging at her brother. "Samuel, leave it alone. We both have a father already and if you can't see that, then you're a fool. An unhappy fool, too, because you will be missing out on the best father we could ever have."
Samuel stared at his sister and then ran up the stairs shouting back. "I know that, but I need to know who my real father is and why he didn't love us enough to look after us, like Pa did."
Meg hitched her skirts and started up the stairs after him, but Heath put a quick stop to her. "Let me, Meg. A talk with my son is long overdue. He's right you know? He has a right to know."
Turning to Nick, he thanked his brother for all he had done to bring Samuel home. As he turned to follow his son up the stairs, Nick stepped forward and pulled him back by his arm. "Heath, you ought to know something. When I asked Samuel if you were no longer worthy of his love because you weren't his real father, he attacked me and defended you saying that he loved you and always would. That boy truly loves you, go easy on him.
"Thanks Nick," Heath responded, remembering back to a time when he had walked through the doors of this mansion in search of his own father. Is that what his own son now wanted to do?
"Thanks Nick," Heath responded, remembering painfully a time when he had walked through the doors to this mansion, much as Samuel had just done and demanded a father and a name. Is that what his son wanted too?
The years had been kind to William Freemont, far kinder than he deserved. Born into a rich family, he was the seventh child of indulgent parents and was their only son. Things had come too easily to him, far too easily, every trouble smoothed, every failure excused, and there had been many. He had never had to work for anything in life or take responsibility for his own actions; his father would simply pick up the tab and make sure nothing got into the papers.
At the age of seventeen, after getting one of the local girls pregnant, his parents removed him from school. Two years before his father had intervened by narrowly preventing the school from expelling him for stealing. Both times his father dug into his wallet to pay the school and the girl off. No one knew what became of the girl or the child. Frankly, it was no longer their concern. At twenty-one and after completing university, he joined his father in the family business; they owned considerable property in town, a manufacturing concern which paid poor wages and provided tenement housing which should have been condemned. The Freemonts meanwhile lived grandly in a house four miles from town. They were not a well-liked family but money opened doors to them in society.
At forty-six, Freemont was unmarried although he kept several mistresses in town. Years ago, his father had encouraged a match with the pretty Stanford girl, Meg, but that had fizzled out almost as soon as it had even started. It had been a great disappointment to the family who remained ignorant that their son had once again acted true to form in getting a girl pregnant and abandoning her. A greater insult had been the fact that the girl had run off with her cousin, an illegitimate cowboy his family had taken in. They did not hear of her again, for she moved out west with her husband and never returned to the family home thus becoming a footnote in their son’s life.
In the intervening years, there had been several more attempts to see their son settled, all matches coming to nothing. Finally, he had settled on the Waverly girl. Just turned twenty-one, the family hoped the marriage would finally provide a legitimate heir. George Mathias Freemont wanted a grandson to carry on his name, it was the only thing he asked of his son, the girl's opinion was never sought.
William Freemont looked down on the streets below. As usual, they were bustling with people, cabs and trams. Small people, inconsequential people, suckers, he thought. It was raining heavily and he saw a man and a boy splattered by water as a cab went by. He smirked, finding it amusing. Small people, he thought once again.
"Son, are you alright?" Heath asked as the hansom cab passed by at speed splattering them both.
"Yeah, Pa." Samuel looked down at his wet clothes and then up at his father. "You okay?"
"A bit wet." His father smiled back. The boy did not return the smile. "Come on; let's find a hotel and your sister. A change of clothes and a hot meal will do us both good, what do you say? We can send a telegram to your mother and begin the search tomorrow."
Reluctantly, Samuel agreed. Suddenly, he seemed very tired. The journey from Stockton had been a long one, requiring them to change trains several times. From the moment his father and mother had agreed to him looking up his real father some three weeks ago, everything had moved so fast. He knew his quest did not sit easily with any of his family and that to his mother and father it brought particular pain, but he had to know. He had to know what kind of man his real father was and why they had been abandoned by him.
Finding Leah, they hailed a cab to a nearby hotel, only to find rooms were scarce due to a convention in town. It meant Heath and Samuel would have to share a room, allowing Leah one to herself. Heath signed the register and they made their way to the elevator. A man of about thirty waited with them for the elevator to appear. "You new in town?" he said by way of casual conversation.
Heath nodded, "Just arrived today."
"From Stockton, California."
"Oh my! That's quite a distance. Are you staying a few days?"
Heath nodded, not quite sure what to reply. He knew the man was just making polite conversation.
"Name's Robert Steadman," the young man offered.
"Heath Barkley," Heath replied, "These are my children, Samuel and Leah."
The young man tipped his hat to Leah making her blush.
The elevator arrived; surprisingly the man did not get in. Heath thought it strange until the young man explained that he was not staying at the hotel, simply waiting for a friend, a lady friend to join him. Heath smiled understandingly and ushered his children inside the elevator.
"Sir, If you are staying in town for a few days perhaps you will allow me to show you and your family some of the city?"
"That's very kind, but I don't think we will have time to do any sightseeing." Heath politely countered.
"Nonsense, I'm sure your children would love to see it. You can't come all the way to New York from California and not see the city! I promise it will be no trouble. I will call around with a cab tomorrow at ten."
The doors to the elevator closed and drowned Heath's reply. "Oh well," he thought, "a bit of sightseeing might help break some of the tension they were all feeling."
His young lady shortly joined the young man in the lobby. They were to be married within the month, but that was not the thought occupying his young mind at this moment. He scratched his beard thoughtfully and reflected on how much the boy, Samuel, resembled himself without it.