Not for the first time Heath woke up during the night with his injured arm troubling him again.. He shifted his body several times in an effort to calm the persistent throbbing, and when that didn't work, he sat up, with some difficulty, and rested tentatively on the edge of the bed. He put a hand to his brow and felt its heat. Drawing his hand away he was annoyed but not surprised by the beads of sweat pooling ominously in the palm of his hand and along his fingers. He sighed wearily, recognizing the all too familiar signs of yet another fever.
It irked him that his outwardly strong physique let him down when it came to fighting fevers. The fevers would delay his recovery and keep him laid up in bed for several days. He envied Nick his ability to bounce back from injury, or illness. Heath's recovery road was always slow and troublesome. No matter how much care he took to avoid becoming ill, it always seem to find him out somehow. Learning that his susceptibility stemmed from his months in Carterson didn't ease matters. He was young and no young man wanted to be considered weak regardless of its source.
Heath cursed his own stupidity. It was he who had insisted riding home, with his arm in a sling, from the train station in Stockton. As soon as he was sat in the saddle, he knew it had been a mistake. Several times Jarrod had noticed him swaying in the saddle and insisted he sit in the buggy for the rest of the journey home. Heath stubbornly refused, insisting that he could make it back to the ranch. Annoyed, but unsurprised, Victoria and Jarrod knew better than to argue.
Heath did make it home, but only just. Dismounting from his horse, he collapsed to the ground in a heap, and it was Nick and Jarrod who carried him upstairs, undressed him and settled him into bed to await the good doctor.
"Hey Heath, how you doing?" Nick said as he looked in through the doorway. The concern in Nick's voice didn't go unnoticed by Heath.
"What ya doing up?" Heath quizzed his brother. It was a redundant question. He knew that Nick would have been listening out for him in case he needed anything during the night.
"Might ask you same the thing," Nick parried back. "Not feeling too good, huh?"
"Can't sleep... arm's throbbing."
Nick noticed the beads of sweat on his brother's brow. Without saying a word he strode up over to the wash basin and filled it from a jug of water standing by its side.
"Come on Heath, you're starting a bit of a fever, we need to get you cooled down" Wearily Heath lifted his head in acknowledgment and Nick seeing his brother struggle to hold his head up took up the weight, gently cupping his brother's chin as he dabbed the beads of sweat from Heath's face with a wet, cooling cloth.
"You playing my damned nursemaid again?" Heath attempted to joke. "You know you don't get any prettier. A face like yours could set a patient back permanently."
"Funny Heath, very funny. Well just for that I'm going to give you a bed bath, change these sheets and get you into some fresh sleeping pants. You're about burning up."
"I'll be okay, it's just a flesh wound. Be right in a couple of days."
"Sure you will pardner but not before old Nick here fixes you up with that bed bath."
"Sadist....you're not playing fair." Heath said attempting to avoid the inevitable. He knew Nick was right, his fever needed attending to before it got a real hold. Reluctantly, he let his brother strip him and sponge him down. The water was cool and he couldn't deny it felt good on his hot skin. When the task was done and Heath was toweled dry Nick patiently helped him into a fresh pair of sleeping pants and eased him into a chair so that he could change the sheets on his bed.
"Come on now, let me look at that arm, I need to change the dressings." Heath sat patiently whilst Nick tended his arm and re-dressed it. "You want to get back into bed?"
"No, let me sit for a bit. Arm's quieter now. Thanks Nick."
Nick smiled back at his brother. "I'll need to get you back into bed in a minute."
"I know... just give me a moment though. You go back to bed, I'll manage now."
"Nope, you know it doesn't work that way. I'll stay with you through the night."
"Ya got them steers to round up tomorrow Nick, ya need ya sleep."
"Duke and Frank 'll see to them. No need to worry. Now tell me little brother, what's troublin' you?"
Heath eyed his brother quizzically. "I got shot Nick," said Heath stating the obvious.
"I know but ya been shot before.. and had fever too. There's more... now give."
"Too tired, Nick.... need to go back to bed," said Heath attempting to get up.
"No you don't." Nick needed to apply only the slightest pressure to force his brother back into the chair.
"It's no good... no point in even discussing it. Nothing can ever come of it."
"You're talking about Sarah? Mother mentioned her downstairs. You two were engaged at one point I understand?"
Heath nodded, it was clear that the family had talked. "I don't have any say in the matter... she's made her decision... she made it four years ago." Heath looked through the window and paused before he spoke again. His mind wasn't just clouded from fever alone. "Her name's Sarah, Sarah Francis .... Sister Jacob now."
Nick noted the wistfulness in Heath's voice as he said those last words. Instinctively he wanted to ask his brother questions but forced himself to stay quiet and wait for Heath to volunteer any information he wanted to give. Heath had never mentioned Sarah before. When he'd left for Robertsville the other day it was to visit the Roberts on business, no more.
"Yep, she's a nun....." Heath said answering the unspoken questions raised in Nick's eyes, "but that don't alter the way I think about her Nick. We were engaged briefly... . no more than a few weeks really but we'd known each other since we were kids."
"No, friends, good friends ~ love didn't come until much later but it never left me Nick. I just buried it for a while. I know that now. It's still there ~ everything I felt for her, it's still there Nick."
Nick was tempted to talk about Maria but again held back. He could tell Heath was tiring. This wasn't a conversation that was going to be completed tonight. "Come on Heath, let me get you back into bed." Heath nodded, the tiredness overtaking him now, the pain in his arm dulled. As soon as his head hit the pillow Nick could tell his brother was asleep. Settling the covers over his brother's body Nick settled back into the chair Heath had vacated and turned the lamp down low. He would sit with him through the night tending to his needs, nursing the body and wondering how he might help his brother mend another broken heart. "In love with a nun, huh? Geez Heath, it could only happen to you."
The morning bell rang for prayers as usual at the San Angelo mission at Robertsville. Sister Jacob, as was her custom when the bell sounded, interrupted her chores immediately and took off her apron. Despite the rush to get to prayers she folded it purposefully, leaving it neatly on the chair, the simple act a betrayal of the order she liked to have in her life. Tidying herself, making sure the stubborn wisps of blonde hair escaping from her veil were neatly tucked back into place, she patted down the front of her habit, flicking off the dust that had temporarily settled there.
Walking across the courtyard in the hot sun she tried to focus her mind on the next hour of prayers and not the unsettling thoughts that had crept into her mind since she had said goodbye to Heath Barkley the previous day. His reappearance in her life had at first been a shock, then unadulterated joy, then a reminder of things which she thought she had long since settled in the past. The need to clear him of the ridiculous rape charge maliciously levied by Carla Roberts had concentrated her mind at first and when reason had failed she had boldly organized his jail-break with the use of an empty gun. She smiled when she remembered that on discovery of the empty gun Heath had remarked with resigned humor, "it could only happen to me."
Their dealings on the surface had been one of genuine friendship and renewed joy in each other's company. It was as if they had simply taken up from where they had left off. And yet both knew they hadn't. The last time they had seen each other she had just broken off their engagement. It had gone badly. She would remember the hurt that reflected back in his eyes to her dying day. Here was a deeply sensitive man who had developed through necessity a toughened skin over the years to deflect the many injustices and slights he had received over his illegitimate status. So easily he could have let it ruin his life and spoil the man he was to become. An unspeakable braveness had allowed him to confront and tame his wildness and find a form of peace with himself. It would occasionally be tested, it would occasionally break but with a fortitude that helped build in him an unwavering strength of character he would not let it defeat him. Yes he had an unspeakable braveness, it was the thing she admired most about him.
They had known each other since children, their childhood friendship dramatically interrupted by his going off to war and subsequent imprisonment in Carterson. They did not see each other again for three years, his return to Strawberry delayed by a long convalescence and then his surprising decision to travel south to Mexico. The decision hurt both her and his mother and yet both silently agreed that it was something he had to do. He had not left Carterson alone, his sporadic letters were evidence of that. He was accompanied by ghosts and memories and whilst he did not seek out their company they served to remind him that he was still alive; that he had survived.
By all accounts Heath enjoyed himself in Mexico, the blond gringo finding an unexpected anonymity despite his western appearance. Maybe it was because the simply living villagers just allowed him to live, a privilege denied him until now, regimented as it had been by army, prison and hospital. He expected nothing, asked for nothing except to be left alone and allowed to come to terms with his damaged life. Charmed by the life and the people, not to mention the delights of Lupe at the local cantina, the young blond began to come out of his shell and to participate in life again, recognizing in time that whilst he would never forget the horrors he had lived through he was able to at least reach a compromise with them and move on with his life.
It was a very different Heath Barkley that returned to Strawberry and with whom Sarah became reacquainted. Nineteen years old, his face had lost the boyishness of the dear friend she had known and in its place where the more defined features of the man he had become. He was thinner despite his time in Mexico and both his eyes and his face would sometimes reflect the pain he had seen, especially in quieter, more reflective moments when he didn't think he was being observed. Despite being two years his senior she felt through experience he was now the older of the two, he had left a boy and returned a man.
By contrast Sarah had ventured no further than the next town; her life revolved around her family, teaching school, church and the odd social she attended. Though not conventionally pretty she had a striking, expressive appearance which was attractive to men and she soon began to attract beaus. None had proved serious.
She was an intelligent woman with a strong sense of duty and in her spare time could be found helping out at the mission and the local orphanage. Strawberry was an unforgiving town, a hard town that could break many. Transgressions were committed but rarely forgiven. Her dear friend's mother, Leah Thomson, had been evidence of that. Imperfect men and women would judge others all too easily and cruelly and then sit in church with a self-satisfied smile, unable to understand that whilst they espoused the Christian life they were a long way from practicing it. It was a hard, raucous town fashioned by the mining life that dominated it. An Episcopalian church and a Catholic mission stood either ends of the town and the saloon in between. It was no secret that the latter got the better attendance of the three.
Sarah's family were Catholic and it wasn't unusual to find her working at the mission more and more during these days. She gravitated to the life there and the need to serve God. The calling that she would eventually succumb too was subtle in its approach ~ Sarah didn't recognize it and neither did anyone else least of all Heath who on his return to Strawberry began to see Sarah in a different way. The change in their relationship was subtle too. Both were struck by changes in each other in the three years that had passed. The very first thing Sarah had done on seeing her old friend on her doorstep was to hug him with abandon so pleased was she to see her old friend returned to Strawberry from his self-imposed exile. But at some stage during that hug both became conscious of the other and an awkwardness had ensued in which their previous ease with each other struggled to find purchase. It never did find purchase again. Over the course of the next two years their relationship changed from one of friendship to one of love and eventually to that of an engaged couple, looking forward to planning their wedding and spending their future together.
Both were aware of the importance of Sarah's religion to her and Heath had reassured her that he would support her. He gave his consent that their children would be brought up in her faith and even agreed to attending church with her so that they would eventually be able to attend as a family. Life couldn't be more perfect for young Sarah and for a while she allowed herself to be convinced that she was happy and content. When had she begun to realize that she wasn't? Four years on as she walked towards the chapel she still didn't know when. She only knew that the pull of the church had begun to take over and that she sacrificed a future with Heath and children because of it. She had been so sure that she had been right and that conviction had stayed with her right up until a few days ago. It was only now she was beginning to doubt. His presence had both delighted and disturbed her. He had declared himself to be still in love with her and she had admonished him for his "amorations", asking him never to speak about it again. And yet hadn't his new mother Mrs. Barkley seen through her all too easily and hadn't she owned up to the older woman that she had never stopped loving him.
Reaching the chapel and her fellow sisters Sarah struggled to become Sister Jacob again. What was she doing? Her focus should be on the next hour of prayers. She smiled at the sisters as she met them at the door to the chapel, hoping the strain wouldn't show in her face. Taking up her place she settled herself in line and forced herself to concentrate on this important time of the day; the time that she should devote to her Lord and God and not to the mortal who increasingly invaded her thoughts.
In the week that followed Heath's return from Robertsville his fever abated and the wound to his arm had begun to heal up. He had stayed in bed for three days. The family knew better than to argue with him to encourage he stay in bed for a fourth.
"Well Doc?" Heath's voice betrayed some impatience as he waited for the doctor and family friend to finish his examination.
"Okay Heath, you've got your wish. You can leave this sick room whenever you want." Heath gave a self-satisfied smile which didn't go unnoticed by the good doctor and forced him to add a cautionary note. "But you're restricted to light duties around the ranch, ya hear?"
Heath deftly buttoned up his shirt one handed and nodded his assent. "Thanks doc." He wasn't a fool, stubborn yes but he hoped he'd learned his lesson. He knew his body was still recovering. He'd be a fool to push himself now and undo the good work. "Appreciate you coming out Doc."
"Not at all Heath. Just be sensible and give yourself time to heal."
"I will Doc."
Merar looked at his patient. "Something else troubling you Heath? Something you're not telling me about?"
Heath gave his friend a reassuring smile. "No Doc, nothing that your brand of medicine can fix anyhow...... but I promise you Doc ~ I will do just as you say and give myself time to heal." Merar didn't press it. Heath Barkley wasn't a man to be pressed but he knew there was more to his young friend's statement than he was letting on.
Weeks passed on the ranch and on the surface life seem to go on as before. There was nothing like a working ranch to create an outward air of normality. It was easy for thoughts to get lost in hard work. Easy too for work to become the excuse to avoid awkward discussions and to tire one out so much that thoughts were even denied entry into one's subconscious dreams. Did it work? Well none of Heath's family thought it did and deep down neither did he.
"Boy's looking tired, Mother?" Nick's comment was said almost in passing as he fetched himself a drink but Victoria easily noted the concern in her son's voice.
"Have you and he spoken since......about Sarah I mean?"
"No...not since that night, why have you?"
Victoria shook her head and ushered her restless son to sit down. "No, it's like he's locked it inside himself again."
"Do you think he's buried it again now?"
"Not from anything I have seen so far, he works himself harder than anyone else I know and is so darned tired at night he just about falls into bed. Damn me if I didn't pass the boy's door the other night and have to put him to bed myself. I just don't understand why he hasn't spoken about her before. I mean I thought it was Maria he was pining after."
"Oh don't doubt what he felt for Maria, Nick. I think what he felt for her was as close as he can get to what he felt for Sarah and feels for her now."
"It's serious, isn't it?"
Victoria nodded, adding no words.
For all his concern Nick couldn't help let out a wry smile. "You gotta admit Mother, he sure knows how to pick 'em. First Maria, whose father couldn't stand him to be in the same room let alone courting his daughter and now for Pete's sake a nun... a Godda......."
"NICHOLAS!" Victoria censured. "Curb your language."
"Sorry Mother," Nick was immediately contrite.
"She wasn't always a nun Nick," Victoria continued, her tone mellowed after the apology. "Heath didn't fall in love with a nun, he fell in love with the woman. A change of clothing and a set a vows can't alter what he feels."
"Hard to ignore those vows and conscience though Mother? They're pretty persuasive arguments against what Heath is feeling right now."
Victoria nodded resignedly. "No, seeing Sarah again has unleashed something which should have remained buried. I'm not sure he has the strength or desire to bury it again."
"You don't think he'd.....?" Their thoughts traveled the same path and stopped short suddenly at the prospect of what Heath might do.
"I don't know Nick. He's unsettled... this is simply not going to go away. Talk to him Nick and when you do, give him this. It's a letter from Sarah."
"From Sarah? How do you know?"
"It came from the mission this morning, I just know it's from her."
Not long afterwards, Victoria said goodnight to Nick and after pausing only momentarily to look expectantly at the door through which she hoped Heath would appear soon, climbed the stairs to what would be another restless night. For when one of her children was troubled, she was too. It was instinctive and she felt it keenly tonight.
Nick sought another drink and sat down to wait for his brother wondering what he was going to say. After some time, the whiskey glass tumbled out of his gradually loosening fingers and down to the floor where it spilled out on to the intricate carpet, a myriad of patterns that did a good job of representing the confusion in all of their minds. Nick was asleep, oblivious to the footsteps of the brother just walking in.
Heath had exhausted every bit of daylight and when that was done he had worked in the barn under the oil lamp finding any job that he could do to take him closer towards sleep. Silas had come out to him with a plate of sandwiches and cold meats, a poor substitute for the hearty meal he had cooked for the rest of the family which Heath had declined.
"Did he eat anything?" his mother had inquired of her youngest son, when Silas returned with the sandwiches later.
"Some Mrs. Barkley... but not much.... I puts an extra one on his plate knowing that he wouldn't dare return two uneaten sandwiches to my kitchen so's I at least knows he got something inside his stomach."
Victoria smiled at her old friend's deception. "Thank you Silas." She said nothing further, both knew there was nothing more they could do for Heath that night. Victoria simply hoped that Nick would be able to get through to him. She worried that Heath wasn't able to let the re-awakening of his feelings settle once again and in not doing so would do something unpredictable. Whatever he did, she feared it would have painful consequences for both him and Sarah. Though she had only met Sarah briefly it was very easy to see how her son had fallen in love with the young woman. Despite the obvious pain her vows had caused between them she noticed something curious about Heath whenever he was around Sarah. He was always happy and laughing around her, he delighted in her company and came alive under her smile. Their conversation was never strained, it was natural and unforced. Clearly they were soul-mates for all the barriers her vows placed between them. How sad she thought ~ in so many respects they were so ideally suited and could have enjoyed a good life together. And yet for all that Sarah had admitted that she still harbored feelings for Heath she doubted the nun would forsake her vows for what she felt for him.
Spying Nick's less than subtle sleeping presence in the doorway of the parlor, his chair re-positioned to give him a better view of the door so as not to miss his younger brother when he walked in, Heath looked across the great expanse of the foyer to the stairs and hoped he would be able to cross it without those tell tale floorboards creaking underfoot. He was tired and in no mood for a chat.
Dropping his hat to the table he checked Nick was still sleeping and carefully made his way towards the stairs. He was aware they had an unfinished conversation that Nick had patiently waited for Heath to resume and that Nick only had a limited supply of the patience that others took for granted, including himself.
His traverse across the foyer went well and he grew confident that he would successfully escape Nick and the family's questions for yet another night. But he forgot about the first step on the stairs ~ he had meant to by-pass it and go straight for the second step, knowing that in the stillness of the house, the first step would give him away. When the step groaned underfoot a similar groan escaped his brother's mouth and Heath knew he was discovered.
"Hey Heath," Nick drawled sleepily from his chair, attempting to get up and shake himself awake. "What time do you call this boy?"
"Sorry Nick, I was trying not to wake you," Heath finally said, hoping that Nick would let the late hour excuse him again.
Nick stretched his arms and came awake properly. Taking the letter from his breast pocket he cut to the chase. "This came for you today."
Heath took the letter from Nick's hand and scanned the post mark and return address with his hand. "It's from Sarah," he said without raising his eyes, slumping to the second step on the stairs whilst Nick held on to the banister and waited for his brother to open the letter.
"You want me to leave you alone to read it?"
For a moment Heath didn't answer but as soon as Nick took a step away to give him some privacy, Heath told him to stay. Heath opened the envelope, retrieved the letter inside and read it quietly to himself. After a few moments, he let his back fall against the banister and he put his hand to his brow.
"Bad news, Heath?"
"She tells me it's best if we don't see each other again ~ not even as friends. That she can't love me, not in the way that I want her too."
"I'm sorry Heath," Nick knew that his words fell short and he began to pace the area in front of the stairs wishing he could find something more substantive to say. "I guess you knew there was no future in it Heath, it was never going to happen, you knew that, didn't you?"
"You don't understand Nick," Heath's expression was suddenly much calmer, less drained than it had been for weeks.
"I do understand Heath, or at least I am trying to."
Heath pushed the letter into Nick's hand. "Read it Nick, I know Sarah. She's running Nick. She wouldn't write me to stay away if she didn't feel anything ~ she'd still be able to see me as a friend and not let it bother her. By telling me to stay away she's telling me she's beginning to have doubts."
Nick finished reading the letter. "You gotta let her be, Heath. You gotta give her space."
"Space?" Heath said incredulously. She's had that for four years Nick, the church has had her for four years and not erased those doubts. Nope, I gave in too easily last time. She was worth fighting for and I let her go. I ain't gonna let that happen a second time. Make no mistake I've got no argument with the church and certainly not with God but on this one I think they're both wrong. Sarah and I are meant to be together, I know that now."
Nick watched his brother start to go up the stairs. "You mean you're going after her? Heath, you can't. She's taken her vows, she belongs to the church now. The two can't be divorced. Think about her Heath, she's asked you to stay away. It must have taken a lot for her to do that if she still feels for you strongly."
"I am thinking of her, Nick. All I am asking for is a fair hearing, a chance to state my case. I reckon she owes me that."
"It could ruin what you have now with her Heath... ever think of that?"
"I have nothing with her now, least ways not what I want, not even her friendship. It's a risk I'm prepared to take. I'll be leaving in a couple of days, just as soon as I finish up a few jobs around the ranch. I'd appreciate it if you didn't try to stop me. I know you are only looking to protect me Nick but you can't on this. If I fail then at least I won't spend the rest of my life regretting what I could have done."
Nick nodded resignedly. "I'll let you go Heath but I don't promise not to worry.. You're my younger brother and that's my right." Nick caught his brother in a rare bear hug. Heath allowed his brother his moment of closeness and appreciated the embrace. After a few moments, Nick ruffled his brother's hair and attempted to restore some humor to the sentimental moment that had just taken place. "Sure wouldn't like to be you in the morning though Heath."
Heath understood immediately, "You mean Mother?"
"She ain't going to be best pleased. She's upset at you already for not eating and getting enough rest. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when she hears you're going after a nun for your wife. Let her try explaining that one to the Stockton Ladies Guild. Think I'll skip breakfast in the morning, let you handle this one on your own."
"And there was I thinking you wanted to protect me," Heath responded with a lop-sided smile. Nick rejoiced at seeing it again and quickly came back. "Just who'd you think will deal with the fall out after you have left. Coward? Not me, I'll be hearing about this for weeks. Now come on, let's get you to bed. I ain't tucking you in again for a second night."
"You did that the other night?"
"Aww shucks Nick," Heath said in an exaggerated playful tone, "Why brother I never knew you cared." And with that Heath planted a wet soppy kiss on his brother's cheek and quickly shot up the stairs, leaving Nick stunned at the bottom trying to remove the traces of the kiss and embarrassment from his flushed cheek.
"Just you wait 'till I get my hands on you little brother," he shouted up the stairs and then realizing the household was a bed, he hushed his tones. "I'll get you back."
Breakfast was a quiet affair the next morning. Heath the last to arrive had prepared himself for all types of objections and was surprised when none came. In due course, Jarrod had to leave for his office and Audra for the orphanage, both wished Heath well and a safe journey and made their excuses from the table leaving Victoria, Nick and Heath remaining. Nick drummed the table with his long fingers.
"Nicholas, please," his mother censured as she placed her napkin down on the table.
"Sorry mother," Nick said absentmindedly, his mind clearly on other things.
"Heath you have everything for the journey?" Victoria said to her youngest son, placing a hand on his which had temporarily come to rest on the table. His breakfast was barely touched but she made no mention of it. He was a grown man. Although it pained her, as did his decision to leave to see Sarah ~ somehow she sensed it could only cause further heartbreak ~ she decided to keep her own counsel on the subject for now.
"Yes thanks Mother," Heath smiled.
She looked at her youngest son's countenance. It was the most relaxed it had looked in weeks. She couldn't help but be thankful for that. Ever since his visit to Robertsville his feelings for Sarah had grown. Feelings which could not be assuaged by time apart or distance, she knew that now. If anything, they had just become stronger. They had been repressed for four years. Allowed the opportunity to resurface their strength and hold had taken everyone by surprise including Heath. She didn't think for a moment that he wished to be the means for parting someone from their vows and conscience.. He was a man of integrity and honor, respecting of someone else's beliefs and choices. He was a God-fearing man, it wasn't in him to wage war with his Maker. If he felt Sarah was right in her decision, Victoria knew without reservation Heath would have left her alone. But he didn't think that, he sensed doubt, regret and now hope. More than anything he felt he had not fought for her hard enough and that had he done so, the outcome may have been different. Victoria knew all these things. She knew her son. And so she kept quiet.
Heath rose from the table and Victoria cupped his face tenderly as he bent down and gave her a kiss.
"Look after yourself Heath, we'll be here when you get back."
Heath clasped his mother's hand. "I will Mother. You know it's something I have to do, don't you?"
"I do. I just pray you get the answers you want Heath. I don't want to see you get hurt. You or Sarah."
Heath smiled. "I have to try, if I don't this thing will eat away at me. I know that now."
"I know sweetheart... I know." She stood up, gave him a mother's kiss on the lips and watched him walk away to pick up his saddle bags and bed roll and make ready to leave. Just at that moment he stopped, looked back at her and gave her a half-smile. It went straight to her heart.
Nick followed his brother out.
"You know I could ride with you. I got that business over at Pine Creek to conclude and it's overdue now."
"Nick." Heath said understanding what his brother was trying to do. "You can't do this for me, you can't protect me, you can't ...... well even you have no experience of courting a nun."
Momentarily seeing the humor in the situation both brothers burst out laughing. It was good for their souls. Good for them. Heath had the driest of humor, so dry you could miss it at times.
"Well at least let me share part of the journey with you," said Nick patting Charger's mane as Heath saddled him. "No telling how long you're going to be away. Dammit Heath I'm going to miss ya."
"What about the ranch?"
"I'll only be gone a few days, the business at Pine Crest shouldn't take long."
"I'm heading to Strawberry first," Heath volunteered, knowing the information would surprise Nick.
"Why Heath? What will that achieve?"
"I want to visit mama's grave and catch up with Hannah first."
Nick knew there was more but chose not to pursue it just now. "Okay, I'll travel with you to Strawberry and then when the road forks I'll leave you to travel to Robertsville on your own. Deal?"
Heath knew that Nick wouldn't take no for an answer and agreed. Besides in his heart he welcomed the company. He was anxious about what the next few days would bring and he needed his big brother right now.
The road to Strawberry was never a comfortable one for Heath, the place held too many bad memories for him. Going back was like traveling back into the past and increasingly now it was a place he didn't want to visit. After nearly two years with his new family, the pull to remain in the present and look to the future was much stronger. But in considering his future, he considered Sarah and in considering Sarah he had to confront the past which had led to this moment.
As the two brothers traveled a silent contemplative journey towards the town of Heath's childhood, Heath's mind traveled back to the day Sarah had broken off their engagement. He visibly winced when he remembered the pain.
"You okay there Heath?" Nick witnessed Heath's wince.
Heath nodded, adding nothing more. Nick knew not to press. Part of the condition of loving his brother was to love the enigma that he sometimes remained.
Their journey continued in silence until Nick suggested they make camp and get something to eat.
"Good idea Nick," Heath said.
Nick smiled. Considering that even when silent his brother was the best company in the world and how he'd rather not be any place else. He made Heath get on with the fire whilst he settled the horses and then joined his brother whilst they waited for the coffee to brew.
"What's your question Nick?" Heath said as he eased his boot off for a moment and saw to an ache in his foot.
"Probably the same one that you're asking yourself," Nick said as he stirred the stew for a moment and poured himself and Heath a cup of coffee. "I sure wish I could meet this Sarah. To tell the truth Heath, I thought it was Maria you pined after."
Heath smiled that enigmatic half-smile once more. "I did love her Nick and who knows if we'd had the chance, maybe we would have made a success of it. But we had a few obstacles in the way. You mighta noticed I kinda come up against those in my love life."
Nick laughed out loud and nearly spilled his coffee. "Well Boy Howdy, ain't that the truth."
Now it was Heath's turn to smile as his favored phrase was used against him. He served his brother some food and filled a plate for himself.
"Tell me about her Heath. All I got in my minds eye is a nun and I tell ya it's hard to get beyond that fact when considering her as my future sister-in-law."
"Sarah?" Heath smiled inwardly at Nick's forthright remark. If the boot had been on the other foot he guessed he would have had the same problem. For a moment, as if to take a sip, his lips touched the rim of the cup he was holding . He thought better of it and nursed the cup in his hands once again whilst he spoke.
"Well I tell ya Nick, she's the most exasperating woman I've ever met. Stubborn and ornery and always right about things, at least that's how she sees it."
Nick was surprised. "Well she must have had something about her!"
"Oh that she has," Heath continued. "She has the bluest eyes, wide and open, eyes that see right into your soul and make you want to drown in them."
Nick grew a little uncomfortable. After all they were talking about a nun.
"What color is her hair?"
"Blonde," Heath said without hesitation remembering the feel of it through his fingers. "Long and blonde, least ways it was the last time I seen it." Heath took a sip of his coffee and threw the rest on the fire, making it spit angrily for a moment. Shaking his cup out and standing up, Heath motioned to Nick, "Best be making tracks."
"But we ain't finished eating yet?"
"Ain't hungry Nick," Heath said.
Nick struggled up from where he was sitting and looked at his brother in exasperation. "Ya know Heath, your love life does nothing for my digestion."
Heath gave him a look and Nick caught it. "I know, I know, I didn't have to come along."
"No ya didn't," Heath stated matter of factly, "all the same" he added with a smile, "I'm glad you did."
Nick fingered the rim of his hat and took in the sad sight of Heath kneeling down in front of his mother's grave. As Heath traced the outline of the words which remembered in stone his mother and her short life the tears flowed unashamedly down his cheeks, his tanned face paling for a moment under the intense grief that had forced its way back to the surface. After a few moments, Nick bent down and manfully squeezed his brother's shoulder, his simple gesture telling Heath he was not alone. When he had first laid his mother to rest his brother had been on his own, now he had family..... now he had Nick.
A year or two back Heath would have been embarrassed for his brother to see him this way but the bond which had developed between them had a life force of it's own that transcended such fears. Each brother knew that the other would always be there for the other - unconditionally.
"You okay?" Nick's customary booming voice gentled with understanding. He watched Heath nod and wipe away the tears quickly from his eyes with the palm of his hand. Nick patted his brother's back, thinking how young and vulnerable Heath looked when he was troubled. In all other respects their relationship was equal but when Heath hurt, Nick instantly assumed the role of older brother and protector. Nick allowed his brother a few moments to collect himself and then the two quietly mounted their horses and slowly headed towards town.
This was the first visit Nick had made to Strawberry and he slowly took in the town, its mining origins evident in its rough and ready appearance. Life such as it was in this slowly dying town centered in and around the saloon, its brashness and dominance going unchecked as music played loudly inside and saloon girls in a state of undress and drunken miners spilled out on to the balcony overlooking the main street. Two girls, their open robes revealing corsets barely containing them leaned over the balcony and attempted to lure the two travelers passing below, their eyes taking in the handsome features of the two brothers riding into town. "Hey handsome," a seasoned, coarse voice shouted down to them, "want Lily to keep you company this afternoon?" Nick smiled up at them and took his hat off in a sweeping gesture whilst Heath's eyes remained resolutely ahead. Nick shrugged his shoulders in apology and the girls wistfully went back inside. He'd had no intention of leaving his brother that afternoon but Nick was never one to resist a display of open interest in the opposite sex.
The normally dry dusty streets were muddy from recent rain adding to the gray and depressing feeling to the town. A fight spilled out on to the street causing Nick and Heath's horses to spook. The two riders soon settled them and continued on their way. A woman in a store recognized one of the riders, hurriedly paid for her goods and followed the blond rider down the street with interest. Her heart was cold, unloving and resentful of the young man. What did he want? Why had he come back? Martha Simmons asked all these questions and received no answers back. Seeing the direction the two riders were going in, she correctly surmised they were heading off to see Hannah. Hannah James who had helped to raise the bastard child of Tom Barkley and the saintly Leah. Only Leah hadn't been that saintly. Leah had all too humanly fallen and paid the price. No doubt he had visited his mother's grave. He would have seen it unattended save for the visits by Hannah who could no longer do much. And who was the other young man? One of his half-brothers? Must be, though there was no physical likeness between them. Martha continued to watch.
Another set of eyes watched Heath ride through the town that day. Mr. Francis, Sarah's father, recognized the young man instantly and asked himself the same questions. "Why was he back?" Memories of four years ago came flooding back The brief engagement of the young man to their daughter, their disquiet when she had told them the news. It was not what they had wanted, not what they had planned. The childhood friendship between Heath and Sarah barely tolerated was made worse when they had fallen in love. And then there had been the ......... his thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of his wife. She came to the window and immediately saw what was troubling him. Panic consumed her and she grasped his arm, "We can't let him see Sarah." "No my dear, I understand."
Heath took off his hat and knocked on the door of the wooden house that had once been his home. There was no answer.
Hannah James, fifty one years old but looking much older came round the corner of the wooden structure and squinted in the sunlight to see who it was. "Ma boy Heath. Iz zat you?"
"Sure is," said Heath scooping the tiny woman up in his arms with genuine affection, concerned at the frailty he found there.
"Ma boy Heath, why you iz looking good." Hannah stepped back to survey the face of the boy she had helped to raise. Her voice was full of emotion and pride. "And who iz this?" she asked of the slightly taller man who had stayed in the background.
"This is my brother, Hannah."
Nick stepped forward to introduce himself and turned on the charm, "Nick Barkley ma'am."
"Heath's brother. Well, well, Heath's brother. I sure iz pleazed to meet you. Come in, come in. My boy Heath, he tells me about you when he visits."
"He does?" Nick looked at his brother amused whilst secretly his heart was swelling with pride.
"Hmm," Heath coughed uncomfortably. "Shall we sit down? Hannah, how ya been keeping?"
Hannah smiled, recognizing the young blond's discomfort. The affection between the two brothers was evident to see and yet neither was able to admit it.
"I'ze been just fine Heath," she eventually answered as she sat back in her rocker. She began singing a hymn and her mind wandered off for a moment.
"You look tired." Heath eyed her suspiciously, concerned for her welfare. "Why won't you come and live in Stockton where I can look in on you?"
"I'ze fine Heath, you done worry too much. Old Hannah has everything she needs here." She said patting the arms of her rocker, letting her mind drift off somewhere into the past.
"Now Hannah," Nick interrupted. "Wouldn't you like two handsome young men calling on you everyday?"
Hannah laughed. He sure was a charmer. "I have the Lord to help me. I be fine." She turned to Heath, anxious to turn the conversation away from herself. "If I need you, I know where you be."
Heath nodded, accepting her decision, worry still underlying his motives. He owed this woman, still he had to let her be the one to choose and she wasn't ready just yet.
"Did you visit your Mama, Heath?" Hannah said between verses of the hymn she was singing.
Heath nodded, careful to keep his emotions in check.
"I try to look after her. I try to keep the grave tidy......"
"I know Hannah, I appreciate that."
"That and the other one too........" Hannah's mind began to wander again.
"The other one Hannah?" Heath's curiosity was peaked momentarily and then he thought logically that she must be referring to his Aunt Rachel's grave."
"Such a tiny grave. Does break my heart to see it. Still I'ze put flowers on it Heath, like you would want me to."
Heath was confused by the reference to himself. "What grave Hannah?" He searched for some explanation. "You mean Rachel's?"
Hannah began singing another favored hymn.
"You walk with the Lord ma boy Heath and you won't come to no harm."
Heath moved over to Hannah and took her hand. She smiled at him, her singing keeping beat to the rocking of her chair. "What grave Hannah?" Heath didn't know what made him press on. Something connected to him and he didn't know what. "What grave Hannah?"
Hannah looked at him sweetly and caressed his cheek, "Why Heath, your own precious child's."
"Whatcha saying Hannah? My child's grave?" Heath's voice was cracking with shock and emotion, unable to take in the news that he was a father to a dead child.
"Hannah?" he said, his voice pleading, needing explanation.
Hannah was lost in her own world, unaware of the repercussions of her words, her calmness and singing at odds with the emotions racing through her boy, Heath.
"Hannah?" Heath urged repeatedly. When there was no response, Heath looked at Nick in desperation wanting his big brother to take the confusion away. Nick responded in the only way he could and regretted his words instantly.
"She doesn't know what she's saying Heath," Nick tried to rationalize, "her mind's......" he hated to say the words .... "you can see Heath, her mind's gone. Heath you can't believe her?" Moving forward Nick helped his brother to stand, Heath's body unable to accomplish the simple task on its own. "Come on Heath, ya got to forget what she said." The older brother attempted to take charge and for a moment Heath let him.
Suddenly, Heath pulled away from his brother and returned to Hannah's side and eased the rocker to a halt. Tears forming in his eyes, he gently took her hand in his, his voice suddenly finding a calmness from an unknown reserve and said with as much control as he could muster, "Hannah, tell me, tell me about my child."
Hannah's face turned to Heath and she ran her aged fingers through the young man's hair and smiled at him sweetly.
"He never had a chance ma boy, so tiny, so weak," she looked at him calmly, lucid once again. "Sarah Francis gave birth to your son, Heath.... you didn't know but you left her with child and she never told you...... she wanted to but her ma and pa wouldn't let her...... " She gripped his hand for emphasis, "That was wrong ma boy, Heath, you done had a right to know."
The words hung in the air. Hannah leaned back and let sleep overtake her. Nick went to Heath's side, "Is it possible Heath?" Nick's words were understanding, not condemning. Heath took a few moments before answering and then nodded silently, remembering the one night he and Sarah had shared together. Nick sighed and patted his brother's back sympathetically. He was an uncomplicated man with an uncomplicated view of life. Sometimes he wished his brother was the same ~ somehow he felt it would make Heath happier, more at ease with himself. But Heath Barkley was a complicated being from birth and through life. Nick wished for once, things would go smoothly for him.
Heath stood up and asked Hannah one last question. "Where's the baby Hannah? Where's the grave?"
"I'll show you," a voice from behind said. The voice cut through the air offering clarity in a mist of hurt, confusion and anger. Heath turned with tear strained eyes to the voice that he thought he knew so well. He turned and faced his beloved Sarah.
The whys and wherefores of Sarah's being there was lost in the pain of what Heath was feeling and so for the moment was left unspoken and unchallenged. Such was his confusion, Heath didn't even take into account that instead of her usual habit she was wearing a light blue day dress and a cross that seemed to weigh heavily on her breast.
"Come Heath," encouraged Sarah gently, extending her arm to the broken man in front of her. She had so hoped to avoid him the pain he was now feeling. It had been her pain, her cross to bear and she felt failure in hurting this man that she had loved so much. Loved enough to have accepted his marriage proposal and yes to give of herself in a mutual sharing of love.
She had not regretted their union or the life that they had created, only the deep loss of that child for whom she continued to mourn. Despite her faith she had not felt ashamed by what she and Heath had done and what she had seen as beautiful until others chose to see it as ugly and worked to paint her morals as loose.
Sarah thought back to their engagement and how happy they had been. After only a few days both had worked excitedly to put their marriage plans into place. They had wanted to marry quickly but had bowed to her parent’s wishes to delay it for six months. Heath hadn't failed to notice her parent's cool response to their engagement and acquiesced hoping to prove himself worthy of their daughter and their trust. He set about finding a home in which he and Sarah could live and to which a small amount of land was attached. He had saved frugally in anticipation of asking Sarah to marry him but he knew he needed more and now looked for ways to consolidate his savings with extra work to secure the property and the life they both wanted.
Always on the lookout for work he signed up for a cattle drive that would take him away for several weeks and then for some more work immediately after. Sarah couldn't hide her disappointment. Whilst she reasoned that Heath couldn't afford to pass the opportunity up her heart felt his absence already. She saw little of him as it was. To secure them a future he worked diligently from sun up to sun down and in their rare moments together it wasn't unusual for him to be so tired that he fell asleep. He would wake apologetically promising things would be better when they were married and had their own place. Sarah would smile at him and kiss his sweet lips regretting the tiredness that began to line his handsome young face, regretting that she was the cause.
Some weeks after their engagement and the late summer evening was sultry and hot. Heath had finished work early, bathed and dressed smartly to take Sarah to the local dance. He wanted so much to make this evening special for her and to make up for the nights he had been poor company. They had danced every dance together and relaxed in each other's company, the worries of money, the wedding and her parents disapproval forgotten for the night. Long before the evening had ended he linked her arm into his and walked her outside into the night air where they shared several long and deepening kisses. Shortly after they had found themselves in his room, in each others arms and crossing the boundary which they had so far resisted and from which they would never return. Four weeks later Heath left on the cattle drive and Sarah felt so alone.
Alone and without Heath's support, her father played on her fears and her faith. Heath Thomson was not what he wanted for his daughter. She deserved better than a man with no name, no father and no prospects. In his misplaced anger he failed to see that out of the two of them Heath Thomson was the better man. It had hurt him bitterly when his daughter's childhood friendship with the boy had developed into something close and then love. At each stage he had hoped Sarah's leanings toward the church would win out against the romance played out with Heath. He saw the moment of Heath's departure as the opportunity to help drive a wedge that would bring her back to reality and the future he had planned for her. The news of the pregnancy put pay to all that. The child would forever be a link to the man he had grown to hate. The family were forced to fall into line and support their daughter, though neither parent could hide their disappointment and the stigma of illegitimacy that now threatened. A name, even a bastard's name was better than none at all. Arrangements were made in Heath's absence to bring the wedding forward but then changed dramatically when Heath didn't return home. A week passed and then another. Both Sarah and her family became anxious. Sarah for Heath's welfare and the family for a name for her unborn child...........
Sarah's incomplete thoughts returned to the present. Her voice to Heath was deceptively calm, only a slight tremble betrayed the fear she had in the bridge she was about to cross with Heath. She thought how there could be no lonelier journey to make than for parent to visit the grave of their child. It simply wasn't right. It wasn't the natural order of things. The loss was simply unbearable and the pain in his uncomprehending face broke her heart. It was this that she had hoped to avoid. This which she had wished to spare him.
She led him to the Catholic mission and the quiet graveyard that lay behind it overlooked by a group of trees which danced shadows over the small cluster of graves. Unlike the town cemetery which had stood sad and neglected, the little graveyard was carefully tended. Nick followed at a distance, understanding that the baby's parents needed this moment alone. Sarah had no trouble locating the small grave, its location having long since been imprinted in her heart and memory. Stopping in front of the simple wooden cross that marked their son's grave she turned to Heath and in a low gentle voice said, "Here he is Heath, here is our son."
Heath stood for a few moments under the dulled sky that cast a gloom over the town and then dropped to his knees in defeat as he read the roughly carved inscription that finally introduced him to his son.
~ opened his eyes briefly and then fell asleep ~
Our son, how those words brought joy and pain in equal measure. Heath thought he would die from the pain of not knowing his son, not knowing of his existence and not knowing of his death. It didn't matter that his son had only lived a week. He had been denied him ~ denied the chance to love and grieve for him in death. His body became wracked with heart-rendering sobs that tore at the heart of both Sarah and Nick. Nick moved to be near him but Sarah waved him back as she knelt down behind Heath and pulled him back into her embrace. "Heath I'm so sorry.... I should have told you," she kept repeating. "I didn't want to hurt you," said Sarah trying to comfort him, hoping her words would get through. She felt him fight to move away but she refused to let him go. This was their son, their pain and she would not let him travel this journey alone. After a long time, she felt Heath's body begin to calm. Still she held on to him. He shook himself free. He fell forward on all fours and clawed at the stony ground desperate for closer contact with his son. His calloused hands tore at the earth and became torn and bloody in the quest to be nearer his son. It took all Sarah's strength and then Nick's assistance to prize the man they both loved away from his morbid task.
Sarah pulled him round into her embrace and through tears cried out "Heath, he's gone. Let him be. Let him rest." Heath swung round and stared wildly at the name that stared back at him from the cross. Forcefully wiping away the tears from his face, he replaced them with anger and drew out a knife from his boot. Sarah and Nick held their breath as they watched with uncertainty for his next move. His voice cracking with emotion he took hold of the cross with one hand and began to carve out the name Barkley next to his son's name. "Child oughtta have a name," he said determinedly as his knife plunged into the wood. "My name..... I'll....... I'll not deny him my name or that of my father."
Suddenly, Heath felt a pair of hands grip him around his throat. Immediately he began struggling for air, his youthful strength sapped by the emotional battle he had just waged. "You'll not put your name on that grave Barkley, you'll not shame my daughter in front of the town." Nick fought to release his brother from the stranglehold of the older man who had appeared from nowhere, the old man's hate feeding his strength and making the task more difficult. It took Sarah's words and pleas to penetrate the reinforced wall of her father's hate. Mr. Francis stared at her blinking for a moment. It was enough, his grip on the younger man loosened and Heath fell to the earth of his son's grave gasping for air. "Y’alright Heath?" Nick needed to hear his brother's voice just once to make sure he was going to be okay. Heath nodded but took several minutes before he could speak. "I'm okay Nick...... I'm okay." Nick patted his brother's back and then took his brother's knife to complete the task his brother had started. "No Nick....." Heath panted, his lungs still fighting for air. "I'll finish it." He pulled himself up and took hold of the cross once again and finished the lettering that finally gave his son a name..... his name.