"Families"


by
JV04


Logline: A christening takes place at the ranch and two visitors come to stay

Set-up: Part of the Heath-Meg series. A continuation to "A Child's Hurt, A Father's Pain"

  The party seemed to be in full swing and growing hesitant for a moment Elizabeth Steadman held her husband back. "Maybe they didn't receive our telegram telling them we would be arriving a day early. Oh Robert, let's go back to town. We can book into a hotel and arrive tomorrow, as expected."

Steadman looked down at his wife, who was a full 12 inches shorter than he was, "Nonesense Lizzie. I get the feeling the Barkleys don't stand on ceremony any more than we do. I'm sure when they hear what happened, they won't mind. Anyway, there's a party. We could join it."

Lizzie Steadman, slapped him with her fan. "You're incorrigible, Robert Steadman, but then you know that and my censure will count for nothing."

"Oh, but it does, my sweet one." he mouthed, kissing the back of her gloved hand, before knocking on the door of the white mansion at which they had arrived.

"You didn't tell me they were rich," Lizzie whispered in her husband's ear.

"You didn't ask. And besides, I didn't know." He was stopped by saying anything more when a manservant opened the door.

"May I help you," James asked in his clipped tones, so different to Silas' drawl.

"Could you tell Mr. Heath Barkley, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Steadman are here from New York."

"Would you come in?" James said ushering them both through the foyer and inside to the Parlor. Their arrival was expected, albeit it that it was a day early.

A few minutes later, Meg and Heath came into the room, greeting them enthusiastically. Heath made the introductions between his wife and the young couple, and then introduced them to his mother, who had followed them into the room.

"We're sorry. We appear to have interrupted a party. Please don't let us take you away from your guests." Steadman offered.

"Nonsense, you are more than welcome," Meg exclaimed, genuine happiness in her voice. "It is our twins' christening. We were rather sad that you wouldn't be able to make it with your train due to be arriving tomorrow. The fact that you are here a day early is an unexpected pleasure and I insist that you join us. It will give you a chance to meet the family. That's if you are not too tired from your journey?"

The Steadmans looked at each other and shook their head, suddenly revived from the tired journey by the enthusiasm of the Barkley's welcome..

"That's settled then. We will have James take your luggage up to one of the guest rooms we have prepared. I'm sure you would both like to change and freshen up. You will find everything you need in your room."

Without further ado, the Steadmans were shepherded up the stairs and towards their rooms. As the door closed behind them, they felt immediately at home.

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Much of the party was taking place outside as it was such a beautiful and sunny day. Lizzie, carried a parasol to protect herself from the sun. Steadman wore a wide hat, not quite cowboy standard, but enough to block out the sun's glare.

"Afternoon. You must be Mr. and Mrs. Steadman. Jarrod Barkley and this is my wife, Felicity. Did you have a good journey?"

"Very pleasant, thank you" answered Lizzie, taking in the suave featured man. Though she placed him in his mid-fifties or thereabouts, he was a fine figure of a man. As they did before, they made an apology for interrupting the christening. Jarrod Barkley smiled. "I'm sure my younger brother and Meg told you to forget about it and just join in the party, though I hope you don't find us all a bit overwhelming, there being so many of us. Don't worry if you forget names, I frequently do."

The Steadmans laughed, not quite sure if they should do or not, but were soon joined by Jarrod and his wife. "It's true," Felicity Barkley added. "You certainly haven't come to a quiet house. Do you like children Mrs. Steadman?"

Lizzie Steadman was a bit taken aback, not certain how to answer, the question being so direct. She eventually nodded. "Oh good. That's such a relief. Heath and Meg have fifteen of them. It would be hard to avoid them in this house, if you didn't."

Lizzie gulped. Fifteen children! Not just Samuel and Leah? She had the good grace not to say anything out loud. She was one of eight herself and thought that quite sufficient. How on earth did Meg Barkley cope?"

"Of course, they are all adorable," Felicity continued, "but then you are bound to find out over the course of your stay. Now let me introduce to you some guests, we're bound to come across some of the family, including the children, along the way."

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Robert and Lizzie Steadman were sitting on a bank of grass watching Heath and Meg Barkley have a christening picture taken with all their children. Given the size of their family it was proving quite a task for the photographer.

With a plate of delicately cut sandwiches balanced on her knee and a glass of champagne in her hands, Lizzie sighed deeply. "Don't they make a lovely couple?"

Steadman who was lying back on the grass embankment soaking up the sun, propped himself up on his elbows and gave his wife a skewed look. "We're at a christening, my dear, not a wedding,"

"Yes, I know we are. Don't get all pedantic with me. I'm not one of your newspaper articles you need to correct and edit, you know."

Steadman propped himself up further, the sight of his wife's ruby lips proving too delicious to ignore any longer. He stole a sweet kiss. "Can't think of a thing I would want to edit about you, Lizzie," he mouthed before stealing another one.

She smiled indulgently, loving the feel of his lips, but stopped him before their public display of affection overstepped the bounds.

"No, I mean Heath and Meg. The way they look at each other. It's not hard to understand why they have so many children. They positively radiate within each other's presence. It's almost as though love has kept them young, don't you think? Meg is so pretty and Heath so handsome."

Steadman's head shot up. "Lizzie Steadman! What a thing to say! Are my wife's eyes wandering already?" he teased.

"Oh stop it! You know what I mean. It's just that seeing them so happy together, I can't help wanting us to be like them ten, fifteen years from now."

"With fifteen children as well?"

"Well, perhaps not so many. We'll start off with one and see how we go."

"Do I get a say in the matter?"

"Quite a large say, but we won't go into that now." She teased saucily. Seeing his hopeful look, she quickly changed the subject. "Let's go and see the Barkleys having their picture taken. I like the idea that in fifteen years that could be us."

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Watching the family have their formal photograph taken for the family album was quite an event. Getting fifteen children to stand still and close enough together to get in the picture frame was quite a task and the photographer who had come from San Francisco especially to take the pictures was getting frustrated that it was all taking so long.

He had decided that Heath and Meg would be central to the picture holding a twin each. Heath held George and Meg, little Anna. The eldest children, Sean and Thomas, Cate, Samuel and Leah all stood on either side of them balancing the picture. Each anchored a smaller child in front of them for fear that they might run off and play. The middle children took care of themselves, slightly bored with the proceedings, but ready to stick it out. Eventually, the pose was set and the photographer declared himself satisfied. The final picture captured the family perfectly. And the proudest smile beaming back to the camera was that of little six year old Matty, standing in front of his father and mother.

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Later that evening Meg sighed deeply as she sat down by her husband after putting the young ones to bed. ""Well that's the last of them." Gratefully, she accepted a cup of coffee from her mother-in-law. Before putting the cup to her lips though, she touched her husband's arm. "Nicholas and James wish you to say goodnight to them, Heath. You better go up there now... James can hardly keep his eyes open."

Heath stood up, walked across the foyer and bounded up the stairs to do as he was bid. His health had been good the last few months and it showed in his outlook.

"I lied, of course," Meg said conspiratorially. "James is wide awake and full of beans and Nicholas is not far behind him. Heath will be up there sometime reading them a story." The family laughed. She turned to the Steadmans. "I want to thank you Robert for helping Heath and Samuel when they were in New York. We are all very grateful."

"Not at all Mrs. Barkley. I was only too glad to help."

"Still we are eternally grateful," Meg continued. "My husband's health has been a source of worry to us over the years. Not being there was very difficult for us all. You looked after my family until Nick could get there. For that you will always be ......" Meg's voice filled with emotion and trailed off as she tried to bring her feelings under control.

Steadman leaned forward and squeezed her hand. "I was just glad that I could help, Mrs. Barkley. He looks well, now."

"He sure is," Nick confirmed filling Steadman's glass. "Tell me Robert, do you ride?"

"I do sir, though not western style."

"Good, then how about Heath and I taking you on a tour of the ranch tomorrow." Nick enthused.

"How big is the ranch?" Steadman asked casually.

"Thirty thousand acres."

"Thirty thousand!" Steadman gulped.

Nick laughed. "It's okay Robert, I don't intend on showing you it all in one day."

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Steadman shut the door to their bedroom and walked painfully across the carpeted floor.

"Oh dear!" Lizzie commented, watching with some amusement his pained progress to the bed.

"Don't laugh! You so much as snicker and I'll.. ..... OW!" He exclaimed after forgetting to lower himself to the bed gently.

Lizzie grimaced in sympathy. Her husband's tenderfoot backside and thighs were not use to riding in a saddle this many hours in the day. He was too use to a sedentary newspaper man's life and took far too little exercise. As she saw her husband painfully turn over on his stomach to relieve the pressure on his tenderized cheeks, she smiled. She wasn't above teasing him, even in this condition. "I take it Nick and Heath showed you the ranch today."

"All thirty thousand acres of it!" He huffed.

"All? Oh come on now, husband. You couldn't possibly have covered a ranch this size all in one day,"

Steadman was not to be put off. He was feeling sore, bruised and in need of tender loving care. "Well it certainly felt like it." He insisted.

"Well lower your pants and let's see what we can do about it."

"Woman! Just hearing those words makes me feel better already."

"Shush, someone will hear you." Lizzie rebuked. "Besides lover, you're in no condition to be even thinking about it."

Down the hall, Meg was helping Heath off with his shirt. "You look tired, dear," she soothed as she pushed the shirt back over his tanned and broad shoulders and down past his back.

"I'm not sickening if that's what you mean." Heath said a touch too sensitively. He sat down to take his boots off.

Meg was wise to his ways. "I didn't mean it that way. I was just going to suggest that I massage your back to take away some of those strains, but if you don't want me to......" she said walking away.

Heath eyes flew up and his hand shot out to pull her back. "Come back here, Woman!" He said, pulling her back and onto his lap. Their lips met briefly before he took her in a slow and deep kiss in which he claimed and reclaimed her lips several times over. It was at those times, Meg felt sure she was the envy of all women.

She didn't want to stop him, but she knew she had to and eventually pulled away. Immediately, his looked disappointed. She smiled. He looked so young in those moments. "Later," she promised, lifting herself off his lap and settling herself down on the floor next to his feet where she helped him to take off his boots.

"I'll keep you to that." He replied, not quite forgiving her for ending their fun.

She smiled. If she looked up at his blue eyes, she knew she would give in and they would spend the rest of the afternoon in bed. "Heath Barkley, one look at you and you still make me go weak at the knees." she thought to herself, steeling herself to remain tough with him. Standing up, she ushered him to the bed. His eyes took on a saucy glint. "Your massage!" she said by way of innocent explanation.

"Close the door," He said huskily.

"But, If we close the door, it means we want to be ......."

"Exactly," Heath smiled.

"Oh those darned eyes again," Meg thought.

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Nick was troubled.

"What is it Nick?" his wife, Jenny, finally asked.

"Huh? Nothing, go back to sleep."

"Tell me," Jenny insisted. She was wide awake now.

"It's Steadman and his wife."

Jenny looked puzzled and sat up in the bed, knowing that neither would get any sleep until Nick had shared whatever trouble was eating away at him.

"What about them?"

"Why are they here?"

"Oh don't be ridiculous, Nick. Heath and Meg invited them, of course"

"I know that much, but why are they still here?"

It had been three weeks since the Steadman's arrival, and for the larger part Nick had enjoyed their visit. It wasn't that he had suddenly taken a dislike to them, but in the last week, he had felt himself being probed by Steadman. He did it in subtle ways too. Newspaper man so it figures, Nick thought. But, why all the questions? Oh, he was clever about it. He'd ask a question about the ranch or the vineyard and they would be intelligent questions too, guaranteed to get a response. Nick always liked someone who showed a genuine interest in the ranch. But, every now and then he would ask a question about Heath or Meg and lately about the twins, Samuel and Leah. What was he up to? Ever protective of his family, Nick determined to find out.

"I agree you should ask him," Jenny concurred after listening to her husband. Her husband wasn't often wrong when he thought something was not quite right. Nick felt easier. As Jenny kissed him goodnight and snuggled down he put out the oil lamp and snuggled down behind her. Snaking an arm around her slender waist, he pulled her back into him and they settled for the night.

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Arriving at the mansion the next day, Nick invited himself for breakfast and sat down next to Heath.

"That's my seat," his four year old namesake piped up in a voice which was half-challenging and half-shy.

Nick looked down at his blond nephew. He might be his namesake but he was all Heath's in looks. "Well now I thought this was Granny's seat and you had the one next to it," he teased, picking the boy up and planting him solidly on his knee.

"It was," the young child confirmed, "But she gave it to me!" He literally beamed and in the smile, Nick found himself looking at a younger version of his brother, Heath. Then pointing to the seat at the end of the table Nicholas continued, "Granny sits there now."

Nick smiled. Nicholas could be a regular chatter box once he got started.

"Where's Mary?" the little boy asked, referring to one of Nick's young daughters.

"Well, she'll be starting out for school, just about now. When will you be starting young man?"

That pleased Nicholas who busied himself with picking some bits of bacon off his uncle's plate with his small fingers. Any moment now he expected a reprimand from his father, but it hadn't come yet so he soldiered on. "Next year. I'll be a big boy then." He shuffled his bottom on his uncle's lap, making himself more comfortable. Nick feeling like a piece of furniture, pressed on. "Next year, huh? So you'll be all grown up this time next year, will you? Too old to sit on your uncle's knee or nibble tidbits from his plate?"

"Oh no, I'll never be too old for that," Nicholas replied swiftly, his eyes homing in on a piece of toast.

"You want that, too?" Nick offered, resigned to the fact that he wouldn't be getting his breakfast that morning, leastways not at the dining table.

Nicholas nodded.

"Well how about we do this properly then." Suggested Nick. "You show me what a big boy you are by using a knife and fork and eating your breakfast properly. Does that sound a good idea?"

Nicholas nodded again.

Nick eased out of the chair and planted Nicholas on the seat. Nicholas' eyes appeared eye level with the table. "That's funny," Nick thought. "Something's wrong here, I thought you said this was your seat."

Nicholas swirled his head round, his face telling the story of what he had eaten that morning. "It is, but I have to have a cushion to sit on because I'm too small."

Nick could see Heath was watching the proceedings with some amusement.

"A cushion, huh? Any particular cushion or will just any do?"

"Just any," his nephew replied.

Nick regarded his nephew. There wasn't much else he could say. "Well, I'll just get you a cushion then, shall I?"

"Thank you," Nicholas piped up. Within moments the little boy was raised and a cushion eased gently under him. Again Nicholas shuffled to get himself comfortable.

"That better?"

"Yes, thank you," Nicholas again piped up. He was now set to finish his uncle's breakfast.

Nick was beaten. Directing his statement at Heath he quelled a rumbling in his stomach and said, "You'll find me in the kitchen with Silas."

"Silas is out," Heath informed.

"Oh great! So not only do I get to eat breakfast on my own, but I have to cook it as well!"

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Nick and Heath had worked the south range all day and decided to camp out at line shack to finish what remained to be done the next day. When they were younger they didn't really mind the spartan surroundings or the hard bunks, but now that the years were totting up for both of them neither felt inclined to be away from the softness of their wives or their beds. Still a job had to be done so neither men stopped to argue about it.

Nick had been trying to talk to Heath all day, but their work had taken them to different parts of the south range and kept them apart. Only now, with supper eaten and the brothers about to bunk down for the night was he able to say anything. Tiredness made his question blunt. "What do you know about Steadman, Heath?"

Heath who was sitting down taking off his boots and pants, looked up in surprise. "Where did that come from?"

Nick who was already in bed and lay with his hands laced behind his head, played innocent. "What do you mean? I'm just asking what you know about him."

Heath wasn't having any of it. He knew his brother too well. Something was troubling him and Nick was about to make sure it troubled him too. "I know as much as you do."

"That little , huh?"

Heath sat down on his bunk opposite. He was tired and aching from a hard day's work and his words took on more of a pronounced drawl because of it. "Nick, what are you driving at? You ask a man what he knows about another man and you load the question with suspicion. You don't think Steadman is genuine? I thought you liked him, both the Steadmans."

"I never said that I didn't. I do. Only, just lately he's been asking lots of questions."

Heath pulled off one pant leg and then the other. "What questions? Get to it Nick. I want to get some sleep tonight."

"Questions about you, about Meg, about her time in New York and Samuel and Leah."

"So, he can ask questions, can't he? It's how people get to know each other." Heath retorted, but there was a note in his voice which told Nick that his brother had been unnerved by his statement.

"So why doesn't he ask you the questions, or Meg? Why slip them to me, out of your hearing?"

For a moment Heath didn't have an answer. Steadman appeared open and amiable, he was sure if he had a question he would ask him, but then why hadn't he? Getting caught up in Nick's paranoia he said, "What did he ask?". Waiting for Nick to answer he stood up and paced the short length of the cabin, impervious to the cold.

"He asked about how you met Meg and before you ask I told him that you were cousins, eloped and that's all. I thought he was just asking, as you say, to get to know about you and Meg better, but every now and then he'd drop in another question, like he was gathering information for something. Remember, Heath. He is a journalist. He wrote that piece on Freemont. What's to stop him turning his attention to the Barkleys?"

"But, we haven't done anything newsworthy. We are nobodies in New York. You think he is here to stir up trouble?"

"It makes me uneasy, Heath and I'm worried about Samuel and Leah in all this."

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"You wanted to see me, sir."

Heath nodded. "Yes," he said rather uncomfortably, "Thank you for coming, please sit down,"

"Thank you." Steadman replied, taking a seat by the open fire and opposite Heath's.

"Drink?" Heath offered.

"Brandy, please." Steadman answered, looking around the study and wondering what was troubling his host. His instincts told him that something was troubling him, and Nick Barkley too. He had noted a certain distance from the older of the two brothers, almost as though Nick was sizing him up. Nick was not a man to make an enemy of and he wondered if unwittingly he had and that saddened him.

In the time he had been at the ranch he had come to look upon the whole of the Barkley family with great affection. Victoria Barkley was a woman of huge character and amazing tales of the past. Though in her seventies, there was an ageless quality to her, and it was clear that she was the lynchpin that held this family together. For all his perceived change in attitude towards him, Steadman admired Nick, but didn't fully understand him. Maybe it was an East/West thing. The man could be fearsome and loud, suspecting of all things modern, and even in his forties took life at full-neck speed. But darn, he was a man to be admired.

Heath by contrast took life far more slowly. It was funny looking at the two brothers; it was as though Heath had been placed in this family to balance the rest, specificaly his brother. Steadman had learned that Heath was Nick's half-brother, and Victoria's stepson, though an observer would never know it from the way they loved and interacted with each other. It was clear that the family held him in great affection. In a quiet moment, Victoria had opened up to him about how her youngest son had found his family. She spoke of him with such love and respect, it was difficult not to believe that they weren't bound by blood. It didn't seem to matter. He was her son and the lack of blood ties had long since not mattered. Steadman suspected they never had.

"I hope you have been enjoying your visit," Heath said, passing Steadman a drink and then taking a seat.

"That I have, Mr. Barkley. Lizzie and I have been overwhelmed by you and your family's hospitality. In fact, Lizzie and I have been thinking we might like to settle here."

Heath registered surprise. It was nothing to the surprise Nick Barkley registered listening on the other side of the door. A bout of coughing alerted Heath to his presence. "Excuse me a moment, will you?" he said to Steadman. Walking over to the door, Heath opened it and quickly stepped outside. "What the Hell are you doing?" He asked his brother, pushing him towards the way of the kitchen and away from the study.

"Okay, you caught me," Nick spluttered, making full use of the kitchen facilities to get himself a drink and still his cough.

"You've been listening?!" Heath said incredulously.

"Well, you haven't said much, " Nick mollified.

"Nick! For heaven sake, let me handle this." Heath remonstrated.

"Ah dammit, Heath, you just heard him. He's thinking of setting up home here. Why? You tell me that!"

"If you leave me to talk to him, I might just find out why! God, Nick! You're too old to be putting your ear to doors, like a kid. Hell! I'm too old to be having this conversation with you! Let me handle it. If there's anything to tell, I'll let you know."

"Promise."

"Nick what's got into you. You're behaving like a big kid. Yes, I promise."

"Just looking out for you, Heath. Like I always do."

Heath's anger dissipated on hearing the remark. He patted Nick on the shoulder as his brother sat drinking his glass of water. "I know, Nick. I know. Don't choke on that, okay?"

"Okay."

Heath smiled as he walked away. There was never going to be a day when Nick didn't look out for him. The thought both annoyed and comforted him as he walked back to the study, wondering how he was going to broach the subject of his inquiry with Steadman.

I'm sorry about that," said Heath as he returned to the study and sat down.

"Not at all Mr. Barkley. I hope you don't mind but I've been studying your family photographs. You have quite a collection."

"I have quite a family." Heath joked, glad that Steadman hadn't noticed Nick's presence outside the door.

"You do indeed. It's funny when I first met you and your children in New York, I never thought to ask if you had any more."

"Nick jokes that I am populating my own town. Heathville, he calls it." Both men laughed. For all his concerns, Heath liked the boy and he was easy to get along with.

"You and Mrs. Barkley are to be congratulated Mr. Barkley. You have an exceptional family. Matty seems like he has been here all his life."

"Thank you. Meg and I are pleased at how well he has settled. In the early days, he just seemed so happy to be here, but then after a week or two, he began having nightmares, frightened that he would have to go back."

"That must have been very upsetting for you and the boy. Difficult for a parent to see a child in that state."

"I have some experience of it. That helped. He's fine now and truthfully, we couldn't imagine life without him."

"Nevertheless, Mr. Barkley. Fifteen children! They must be quite a handful."

"The older one's help the younger ones, somehow you find your way." Heath was aware that Steadman had taken control of the conversation and allowed it to continue for the moment in order to see where it would take them.

"A good number look like you." Steadman commented, as he picked up the photograph which had been taken only a few weeks ago at the christening.

"And a few don't." Heath replied. "Cate takes after her mother."

"Oh really, I didn't see the resemblance," Steadman tried to see a resemblance between the girl and Meg and couldn't find any.

"My first wife. I was married before. Sean, Thomas and Cate are from my marriage to my late wife."

"Oh I'm sorry, I didn't know."

Heath was surprised. Was Steadman feigning the fact that he didn't know. In his efforts to gather information, surely, it must have been mentioned to him.

"Leah and Samuel, I can't quite place them. Something of their mother, perhaps." He said, hopefully, looking at the picture closer. Heath leaned forward and claimed the picture back.

Putting it down on the side table, he sighed. "Robert, can I level with you?"

"Why yes sir, of course. Did I say something to offend you?

"My brother thinks you have been asking a lot of questions about the family. You're a journalist, I can't help but be worried."

Steadman laughed. "Why so, Mr. Barkley? I can't imagine you having anything to hide."

"Oh everyone has something they want to hide. "Man doesn't live a life and not have something to hide," Heath philosophized.

"Skeletons, Mr. Barkley? You have me intrigued."

"Not so much skeletons, but there are things private to every family. We are no different. I need to know. Are you writing a story about my family?"

Steadman almost choked. "No," he blurted out. "I wouldn't do that to you or your family."

"Then why all the questions. Why are you so interested in me and my family?"

"Because, I am William Freemont's, son Mr. Barkley, and I think that is of interest to both you and Samuel, and Leah."

Heath crushed the glass he was holding. The ruby contents dripped to the floor with blood pouring freely from his cut hand.

"Oh God! Sir, your hand! Let me look. It's bleeding," Steadman cried, knowing he should have tempered his revelation to the older man.

The cry and the smash of the glass brought Nick into the room. "What the Hell?" What have you done to him?" he asked Steadman accusingly.

"I'm sorry. Truly, I'm sorry. His hand! It's badly cut."

Heath stood up, uncaring, not even registering the cut, or the blood. He walked the length of the room, not really knowing where he was headed. Practicality, came first with Nick. "Heath, sit down. Your bleeding badly, let me look at your hand. Steadman, go into the kitchen and fetch a bowl of water and some towels." Steadman did as he was asked, leaving the two brothers alone. Nick caught up with his brother's pacing, and encouraged him to sit down. Heath was having none of it, and waved him out of the way. All he could do was focus on Steadman's revelation and the repercussions to his family.

"Did you hear, Nick? He's Freemont's son. That makes him Samuel and Leah's brother!"

"Yes, I heard. Alright, you told me not to listen, but I did," he admitted, getting frustrated when Heath wouldn't sit down. "Look, Heath. You're bleeding all over the carpet. If not for yourself, then at least for the sake of this very expensive carpet Meg bought last year, sit down!, will you?"

Heath looked down at his hand. "It's just a scratch. Doesn't hurt. Leave it Nick, just get me a towel."

"Steadman's gone to get one."

At the mention of Steadman's name, Heath suddenly gripped his brother's arm with his cut hand, crimsoning the shirt underneath. "Did you hear?" he repeated. "Samuel and Leah's brother!. He knows, Nick. He knows! Oh God! Does Freemont know too? When will this nightmare end?" Heath slumped to the ground, not from faintness, but from defeat. Nick picked him up and helped him to a chair.

"You don't know what the boy wants, Heath. We outta listen to him first. Look, no one is going to take those children away from you, ya hear? We don't know that Freemont is involved in all this, not yet."

"We don't, do we?" Heath looked gratified. He was losing a lot of blood, and whether he felt it or not, the steady loss was making him feel weak. He slumped a little against Nick. "Steadman, where are those towels?" Nick shouted with greater urgency.

"Here, Mr. Barkley," Steadman shouted as he came back into the room.

"Good. Now come over here and take a grip of his hand, whilst I try and clean it. Go on! By the arm and his wrist. This is going to sting like mad and he's going to shoot out of that chair when I start cleaning it. Where are the family?"

"They've all retired. There's just us three up and about."

"Good. It will give us a chance to hear what you have to say before deciding what to tell the family. You've got some explaining to do and it better be good because so help me if you harm my family, you will have me to deal with."

"You know?" Steadman said surprised.

"Let's just say I have big ears. Now hold on to my brother's arm."

Steadman did as he was told and watched Nick clean the blood from Heath's hand. It was lacerated several times from the shards of the glass and some of the lacerations ran deep. Heath, remained upright in his chair, but Steadman noticed his face blanch and the beads of sweat run down his face. "Damn," he heard Nick say. "He's going to need stitches. Damn boy, never gets any luck. Okay, Steadman. You know how to hitch a buggy?"

"Yes,"

"Well go out to the barn. We're taking my brother to the docs. and you're going to tell my brother and me, just what you know."

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They were half-way to town. Heath remained conscious, but very pale. Steadman was driving. Nick was telling him the way. "Steadman," Heath asked.

"Shush, Heath. Wait till you've seen the doc." Nick counseled.

"No," Heath insisted, shaking Nick's concerned arm away. Nick had replaced the towel, wrapped around his brother's hand, twice more along the journey, and was worried that a vein had been nicked with the amount of blood seeping out. Heath's eyes took on a glassy look, which did not bode well.

"Look, I'm sorry Heath.. Mr. Barkley. I shouldn't have blurted it out like that..." said Steadman from the driving seat, "Only you said you wanted to level with me, and when you suggested I might be writing an article on you, well, sir, the thought had never crossed my mind."

"You say you are Freemont's son. Why do you think that should concern me and my family?" Heath continued, guardedly.

Steadman smiled to himself, "Am I not right in thinking Mr. Barkley, that Samuel and Leah are not your natural children."

"What gives you the right?!" An apoplectic Nick interjected on his brother's behalf.

"It's okay Nick," Heath pleaded. At some length he addressed Steadman, "What if I say they are not?"

"Then, I would say that I know for a fact that your wife knew my father, William Freemont, before she was married. In fact, talk at the time, suggests that Freemont's family thought they would be married. But, they didn't."

"Obviously," Nick said sarcastically. "She married my brother instead."

"Quite," observed Steadman. "And Leah and Samuel were born some six months later."

"Damn cheek!" Nick huffed.

"What makes you think the twins are Freemont's?" Heath asked, having no choice but to keep calm, his mind trying to work out if Steadman was a threat, or not.

Freemont stopped the buggy, and turned round to face the younger of the two Barkley brothers. "Because, believe it or not, sir, under this beard is a face that bears an uncanny resemblance to Samuel's. So alike, are we, that we could almost be twins."

"That's it?" Nick laughed. He looked closely at Steadman trying to see the face beneath the beard, determined to deny any resemblance he might find.

"It was a start, Mr. Barkley. Instinctively, I felt Samuel was my brother."

"You never said anything," Heath commented. "Back in New York."

"I didn't have any proof, sir."

"Exactly," Nick huffed again, seizing any opportunity to weaken Steadman's argument.

"And," Steadman continued, ignoring the comment. "I didn't think it would serve any good to make my suspicions known."

"And you do now?" Heath observed, somewhat cynically.

"You forced my hand, Mr. Barkley. I was wrong to blurt it out. Believe me, I have no wish to hurt you, or your family. You said I was asking a lot of questions. I guess I was. My curiosity was piqued when I met you in New York. I took it upon myself to get to know you better."

"And to take us to Freemont's factory, knowing that there was a possibility that Samuel might meet his "father"?"

"That too. I'm sorry, I thought it was for the best."

"It was not your decision," Heath said sharply. "You played us Mr. Steadman."

Steadman nodded, sheepishly. "I'm sorry about that. I found I didn't haven't any control over the situation. I wanted Samuel to see what our father was really like. He abandoned my mother, just like he abandoned your wife. Did you really think I would reveal their true identity to Freemont? I despise the man."

"And you wanted to make sure Samuel did too," Heath observed angrily. "He is sixteen years old, Steadman You are nearly twice his age!"

Steadman continued to look sheepish and tried to explain. "You have to understand, Mr. Barkley. All that I have learned here, and everything I discovered in New York, confirms that I am right in my belief. I'm a journalist Mr. Barkley. I don't deal in emotions, I deal in facts."

"This isn't emotional?" Heath said incredulously.

"That Samuel and Leah are my brother and sister? Yes, of course, but I needed proof. I would not have spoken if I wasn't sure. I hold you and your family in too much regard to do that."

"What do you want, Steadman?" Heath asked directly. "What do you want with my family?"

"With your permission, sir, I would like to be a part of their lives. A brother to Samuel and Leah." He hesitated for a moment before continuing. "If you tell me Freemont is not Samuel and Leah's real father, then I will accept your truth and Lizzie and I will leave here tomorrow and not trouble you again. But, if you accept that I am right, then I would ask you to consider allowing me to reveal my true relationship to your children, in the hope that we can become closer. It will be your decision Mr. Barkley and I will stand by whatever you decide."

"Wrong, Mr. Steadman. It will be their decision, not mine."

The journey continued in silence, all three mulling over what had been said.

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Doctor Merar finished bandaging Heath's hand. "There that should do it? You were lucky Heath. Those cuts are deep. I want you to wear you hand in a sling for a few days and you're to stay in town for the night. I'll see you in the morning."

Heath shuffled off the examing table. "Thanks Howard, but I gotta get home tonight. I promise I'll do as you say."

"It wasn't a request, Heath. Your check up is due next week. I might as well do it tomorrow and check your hand at the same time. Now take two of these tonight. They'll help you sleep, and no, that wasn't a request either, Heath. It's 2am in the morning and I'm in no mood to argue. Now you can either bed down here, or get a room for the night at the hotel. Make your mind up, cuz I'm after getting back to my bed before dawn."

"Kinda tetchy, there, aren't you doc? You and Mrs. Merar have an argument, huh? I know just how you feel. My Jenny's got a temper too." Nick added unhelpfully.

"Nick," Howard Merar sighed, not wishing this conversation right now. "My sympathy is entirely with Jenny."

"Hey now doc! That hurt." Nick shot back, wounded.

Howard saw Heath secreet the two tablets aside on the table and sighed at his patient's stubbornness. "Excuse me Nick," Howard said, quickly filling a syringe. As Heath bent slightly to pick up his hat to leave, the syringe sank deep through his pants and into the flesh of his left buttock.

"What the! Hey, doc. that wasn't fair!" Heath cried out as he rubbed furiously at his left cheek with his good hand, the affects already beginning to take hold. Howard counted to ten. Before he reached five, Heath Barkley had slumped unconscious and with Nick's help, Howard quickly hustled his unwilling patient to a waiting cot where he slept soundly for the next six hours.

Howard held the syringe up. Nick gulped, thinking he would be next. "Guess, I'll be saying goodnight, doc. I'll be around in the morning to pick up my brother."

"You do that, Nick," Howard smiled. "It wasn't often he had the upper hand on these two, and he was enjoying the moment before going back to bed. "Say, Nick."

"Yeah, doc."

"Close the door on your way out."

"Sure thing, doc. Sure thing."

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"How is he?" Steadman asked as Nick emerged from the doctor's surgery and climbed back up on to the buggy.

"He's fine. Doc. gave him something to sleep. He'll be staying in town tonight. We best be getting back to the ranch. Our wives will have noticed our absence and if they haven't, I sure as Hell want to know why!"

Steadman laughed. Nick Barkley was larger than life. Terrifying, but larger than life and he liked him enormously, even if the cowboy didn't seem to like him.

"Steadman, you sure started something tonight with your revelations and I'm not sure how it's all going to end."

"Nor me sir. Do you think Heath will allow me to talk to Samuel and Leah?"

The older man pondered a few moments. "Heath's a fair man." He said at last. "His biggest concern in all this at the moment is not you, but Samuel and Leah. Those kids have gone through a lot in the last few months. They're great kids, but they're fragile. I'm not sure how they will take to what you have to say. Even if Heath gives the go ahead for you to speak to them, their reaction might not be as you expect."

"I don't wish to hurt them."

Nick regarded the younger man. "You got any other family, Steadman?"

"Just my mother. She's all I knew."

"Sounds like somebody else I know," Nick mumbled.

Steadman didn't quite catch what he said. "What's that Mr. Barkley?"

Nick coughed. "Nothing, I just said we don't always wish to hurt the people that we love, but somehow we do. I had my suspicions about you, Steadman, I'm ready to admit that. I'm what is know as over-protective of my family, and I reckon you caught a bit of that tonight. As long as you're on the level, I'll help if I can. Ultimately, it will be Samuel and Leah who will decide things though, and whatever they decide, you'll have to live with that.

"That seems fair. I want you to know Mr. Barkley, I am sincere in wanting to know my brother and sister. You have my word on that."

"Okay then. Let's start by heading for home."

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The next morning, Nick went to pick up Heath. After hearing about the night before, Meg decided to accompany him, although details had been scant. Little more was said on the journey to town. As they reached the doctor's, Nick secured the buggy and helped Meg down.

"I'll let you go in and see Heath on your own," Nick volunteered.

Meg smiled. "Thanks Nick." She had got used to Nick's ways over the years, and didn't resent his closeness to Heath. They both loved him, and had only his best interests at heart.

Inside, Howard was completing his examination of Heath, who hadn't forgiven his physician for knocking him out the previous night. Meg recognized the series of complaints coming from her husband and sympathized with the good doctor. Her husband was the most difficult of patients and a hard man to take care of. She opened the door to the examining room, hoping to take some of the flak away from Howard.

"Morning, Meg," Howard beamed, his thinking the same as Meg's. The cavalry is here, he sighed with relief, as he continued his examination. Before Heath could say anything, Meg planted a kiss on his lips, distracting him from what Howard was doing.

"Cough," Howard said, listening into his stethoscope. Heath would rather have continued kissing, but Meg parted her lips from his to allow him to cough. "And again," Howard said, listening to Heath's lungs. Heath looked at Meg with resignation and coughed again, enduring Howard's prodding of his back with his fingers. "Good," Howard said absentmindedly, oblivious to what he had interrupted. Heath and Meg smiled conspiratorially. "Good," Heath mimicked. "Does that mean I'm okay?"

"For a man with a busted hand, you are in remarkably good shape, young man." Howard, said pleased at being able to give Heath the news. "I think we can leave it another six months before I have to see you again."

His examination of Heath complete, Howard kissed Meg on the cheek, "Meg it's good to see you. How are the twins?"

"The twins are just fine," Meg smiled, referring to baby George and Anna. "It's the adults I have to worry about," she said looking worriedly at her husband. Heath missed her look as he played with the bandages on his hand. It smarted like the devil, but it was nothing to the turmoil going on inside his head. Meg noticed his distraction.

"That's good, Meg. I'll call out at the ranch on Wednesday and take a look at them. I can check on Heath's hand whilst I'm there," commented Howard.

Heath, was fed up of Howard's fussin' and reached over for his shirt. "You finished with me doc?"

"For now," Howard answered. "Just remember what I said."

"I will.... and doc?"

"Yeah, Heath."

"Thanks."

"You're welcome Heath. I'll leave Meg to help you get dressed."

Meg stood between Heath's legs buttoning his shirt.

"Nick tell you?" Heath asked. , Normally he'd like the attention of his wife fussin' over him, but worry creased his face.

"Some, not everything." She saw the worry lines and wanted so much to relieve them. "Do you want to tell me?"

"No, by God, but I have to. Oh God, Meg. I wish we could go back to where we were a year ago"

Meg stopped buttoning his shirt and caressed his face gently. "What is it, my love? What has happened?"

Heath stopped the movements of her caressing hand with his good one and brought it slowly to his lips, where he kissed it. "I love you, Meg. I don't think I tell you often enough." His lips reached up for hers and for a few moments they enjoyed the intimacy of being alone and the feelings of troubles left behind.

"Feel better now," she teased, as their lips parted slowly from each other. "Mmm, you always me feel good," Heath breathed out in reply, not wanting to lose the moment.

"Come now, tell me what happened. It has to do with Robert Steadman, doesn't it?" She returned to buttoning his shirt.

Heath nodded. "He told me last night that he was William Freemont's son." He felt Meg tense and her fingers stop, but she didn't say anything.

"Meg?" Heath grew anxious.

"He's Samuel and Leah's brother?" she said eventually, it was clear that she was trying to control her voice.

"Yes. And he wants our permission to tell them."

"Does William know about the twins?" she said referring to the lover who had abandoned her.

"No, Steadman hates him. He promised me he would never tell him about them."

Meg sighed with relief. "What did you tell him?"

"It isn't just up to me. It involves all of us, the children most of all."

Meg slumped into her husband, who embraced her one-handed. "When will this end," she sighed.

"Perhaps, it is only just beginning." Heath philosophised. "Steadman is in search of a family. I know how that feels. He is Samuel and Leah's brother. Do we have the right to stop them knowing about each other?"


A month later.......

Nick came across Heath sitting on his horse, Red, holding young Nicholas close to him in his lap, careful not to let the boy fall. Two of his other boys, Heath jr and Josh, flanked their father's horse with their ponies, enjoying their first sight of a cattle drive moving slowly across the range. From their vantage point, tucked away on the hill, the young boys saw the cowhands, their brothers amongst them, move the herd forward, and dreamed of the day when their father would let them join a drive.

"Quite a sight, huh boys?" Nick grinned, envious a little of Heath's many sons. With four daughters, Nick would have been lying if he didn't admit he would have also liked a son. "Yeah, Uncle Nick," Heath jr, enthused, standing up in his saddle to get a better view. "How long will you be gone, Uncle Nick?" the boy continued, his eyes never leaving the sight before him.

"Oh about two weeks, assuming the herd cover the expected 12 miles a day, and we don't encounter any trouble."

"Like a stampede!" Josh shouted excitedly.

"Yeah, like a stampede," Nick laughed. "Only don't be wishing that upon us." He'd known boys as young as eleven make their first trail drive, but Heath wouldn't consider the matter until the boy's were at least fifteen, still what the boys lacked in years, they made up for in enthusiasm.

They were soon joined by two more riders, as Sean and Thomas joined the family group, preparing to say goodbye to their father. Heath shook their hands, first Sean then Thomas, hiding a lump in his throat. He wished he could go with them.

"Seen Samuel?" Heath asked of his eldest.

"He's down there, father," Sean answered, wheeling round in his saddle to point to the far right of the herd. The figure of Samuel was barely discernible amongst the dust and the cloud.

It had surprised Heath, when Samuel had requested to join the cattle drive. The boy had known his father wouldn't be able to go this time, due to the slow recovering injury to his hand. Samuel, saw it as a way to please his father and also to test himself. Since coming to terms with his parentage, Samuel had found a new ease with himself , and had even found himself enjoying working on the ranch more. It also gave him an opportunity to work with his father and nothing pleased Samuel more.

Heath handed Nicholas over to his brother, and rode down to where his son had been pointed out. He pulled his bandana up around his mouth, as the dust from the herd hit the back of his throat. "Samuel," Heath shouted, as he neared his son. Samuel was caught up in chasing a stray cow, expertly steering it back to the rest of the herd. Heath, watched him with pride. Only then, did Samuel see his father approach. "Hi Pa! Anything wrong?"

Heath shook his head. "No, I just wanted to wish you good luck and tell you how proud I am of you boy,"

Samuel stood but 5'6'', which was several inches shorter than his father's six feet, but he suddenly grew taller in the saddle at his father's words.

"Be careful, out there," his father added, as he clasped his son's neck and pulled him towards him. "Come back safe, that's all I ask boy." It was a tender moment and not lost on the two men. They had survived all the trials and tribulations and come out stronger on the other side. "Where's your brother?" Heath asked, releasing his hold and looking for the tenderfoot." Steadman came into view and Samuel called him over.

Heath tried not to let his smile show. Tenderfoot described Steadman perfectly. His pristine clothes, chaps and white hat made him stand out against the well-worn clothes worn by the other cowboys, including his sons. "Well, Steadman, think you're up to it?" Heath challenged good-naturedly.

Steadman smiled, aware that his presence in the group was of some amusement to his fellow hands. "Well, now Heath, I'm not saying it's going to look pretty, and there maybe moments when the horse knows than me and I don't know the back end of a cow, but I reckon if I'm prepared to give this a go, I'll be able to write a newspaper article about a cattle drive with first-hand experience, and that's a lot more than my fellow journalists can say. And with my trainee here, writing a first-hand account and taking illustrations" he said referring to Samuel, "you'll be able to read about it in the Stockton Gazette, over breakfast one day."

Heath shook his hand. "Look forward to it Robert. Be sure to be back Sunday week, "Meg asked me to invite you and Lizzie over to dinner. The rest of the family will be there." The words were said so naturally and Steadman liked that. He'd be having dinner with his family and that sounded damned good.


THE END


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