"Five short stories from the Heath-Meg series"


by
JV04


"Heath Attempts A Lie-In", "Letting Go", "Looking After Papa", "Love Across the Miles" and "What's In A Name?". Part of the Heath-Meg series

 
"Heath Attempts A Lie-In"


Heath was enjoying his lie-in. Usually an early riser, he allowed himself the luxury of sleeping just that little longer this morning. Well that was the plan. Meg had got up an hour earlier and left her husband to sleep on. The morning was lending a helping hand, too, by making only a muted appearance thus far.

Feeling as if had got away with it and that he could grab an extra half hour, he turned over with a sleepy, satisfied smile on his face and was met with a duo of faces and a wet, sloppy, kiss on his left cheek, quickly followed by another.

"Good morning, Papa,"

"Good morning, Papa,"

Heath's eyes opened from half-mast, the left one helped along by the raising of its corresponding eyebrow.

"Junior, Josh," he acknowledged in a lazy southern drawl, its guard down due to the early hour.

All his children spoke with a western accent, but every now and then they spoke the odd word with a Southern intonation which was especially charming to listeners. Junior, though, was the only one to imitate his father's "Boy Howdy" phrase, and it often amused the family to hear both Heath Sr and Jr, say it around the house within ear shot of each other.

With such a growing family, it could get confusing sometimes to place all the children. Heath and Meg had been married eight years now and were parents to five boys and five girls; Junior was their first son together and was now six years old. Josh was their second son and had followed quickly on the heels of his sister, Victoria. He was now four years old. Physically, they looked very much like their father, though their hair was much more blonde than their father's which had darkened over the years to a dirty blond. Both boys could sense their father was going back to sleep and roughly woke him again.

"Hmm.. hmmm." Heath snorted at his rough treatment. Little hands didn't know their own strength but his shoulder was sure feeling the force of them now.

"What is it boys?" He said sleepily and a little put out.

"Breakfast, Pa?"

"Breakfast, huh?" His sleepy conversation continued. "Sure sounds good to me. Go down to breakfast boys. I'll be down in a few minutes," he said, sleepily turning over, his body having no intention of forsaking his comfortable bed for breakfast, no matter how tempting the offer.

Within moments he felt his back assaulted as one by one his boys clambered up on to the bed and crawled over him like he was a rug underfoot, only he suspected the rug might get better treatment.

"Boys, boys!" he protested, as little hands and feet caught first his side and hips and then stepped on his outstretched arm for good measure. "Watch what you're doing. Why don't you go down to breakfast like good little boys. I promise I will be down shortly."

"But Papa!" the boys chorused as they started jumping on their parents bed. Up and down the mattress went and so did their father, his body in danger of being jumped on any minute and his chance of a lie in slipping further and further away. Desperately he tried to hold on to the elusive dream of sleep. "Just ten minutes more, he thought, "and then I'll be Papa again, I promise." "Please boys," he asked.

"But Papa!" Junior's voice cried out from in between jumps.

"Mama says you have to cook us breakfast this morning."

Heath gave them a skewed and disbelieving look. Meg had said that? His Meg? His Meg who had so lovingly kissed him good morning and told him to stay in bed. "I do?" he eventually croaked.

Both boys stopped jumping for which the bed and its occupant was eternally grateful.

"Yes," Junior reiterated.

"Where's your Mama?" Heath asked, hoping to abdicate his responsibility quickly.

"She's gone to town with the girls. They've gone shopping." Junior said, plopping down on the bed, next to his father, quickly followed by Josh, who crawled over to Heath for a cuddle.

"At this time?" Heath challenged as he sat up and took Josh in his arms.

"Mama said they had a lot of shopping to do." Junior said seriously, worrying Heath more. "She said not to expect her or the girls home until well after lunch. Said they were going to eat in town, too."

"Oh she did, did she?" Heath replied, his mind quickly taking in the damage to his wallet that six Barkley ladies let loose on Stockton's stores could do between 9 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. "Well, what about Silas?" he offered as alternative, "Silas can make you breakfast."

Josh shook his head as he lay cradled in his father's arms.

Heath mirrored his son's shake of the head, "No, huh?"

Josh nodded his head.

"So Silas had gone too?"

Josh nodded his head again.

"To town?"

Josh nodded in the affirmative.

Suddenly, Heath tickled his son's tummy and Josh gave out a loud squeal as he curled up to stop his father from tickling him further.

"Well! Thank the Lord! Just for a minute there, I thought my son had lost his voice," Heath teased, after finally eliciting sound from his silent son.

"I ain't lost my voice," Josh responded earnestly. "See, it's still here," he said with childish honesty, not realizing he was being teased. "But my tummy's real empty now. See," he said, putting his father's hand back on his tummy.

"Seem's pretty full to me," Heath teased further.

"Cross my heart, Papa. It's empty, honest! Why, I haven't eaten anything since mother gave me a biscuit with my milk last night."

"That long ago, huh?"

Josh nodded.

"Well, I guess I can't have my boys going without breakfast, can I?" Both boys shook their head in agreement. "So I suppose I better get up and make it, huh?"

"Reckon so," Junior agreed.

With resignation, Heath got up and put on his robe, whilst his two sons remained on the bed. Realizing he was the only moving towards the door, he turned, before opening it. "Am I the only one going down to breakfast?"

Both boys turned on their side, facing each other and as if going to sleep. "Be down in a minute Papa," their tired voices said, as one by one they drifted off to sleep.

"So much for my lie in," Heath mused, returning to place a blanket over them both. With a wry smile on his face, he gazed at his sleeping sons before proceeding downstairs to make breakfast for one!



"Letting Go"


It was left to Meg and Victoria to keep the strained dinner conversation going. Heath sat more quietly than usual at the head of the table. He was never one for small talk and so formal dinners were difficult for him. Both women knew this and covered for him by chatting about everything and nothing, managing in that particular way of theirs to make the conversation sound interesting and all important.

The dinner party was small, but that wasn't the real problem. The problem was that James Douglas had come that evening to see Heath. Specifically to ask Heath for permission to marry his daughter. Of course, after asking some pertinent questions about how Douglas would support his daughter and giving a lecture on how you had to make a marriage work, pointing out that it wasn't all plain sailing, Heath would consent; he was not a man to cause anyone unhappiness. But, deep down he also realized that this marked the beginning of him losing his daughter. After their marriage Cate and James would be destined to move to Boston where James had accepted a post as surgeon in a leading city hospital.

With six daughters, Heath knew that he would have to get use to this situation over the coming years, but Cate was the first and he would miss her dreadfully. Theirs' had not always been the easiest of relationships. Cate had been stubborn and strong-willed from the moment she was born and there had been many ups and downs. Nevertheless, Heath loved her dearly and Boston seemed so far away.

The night before he had made ready for bed and Meg, who after so many years of living with him could often anticipate what was troubling him before he knew himself, anticipated correctly that his thoughts were preoccupied with Cate and her young fiancee. She knew it was inconceivable that he we would say no to their wish to be married. It simply wasn't in his nature to deny Cate the happiness she had finally found. But she also knew he would not be able to forget that in giving his consent, he was also letting go of someone very special to him. He would no longer be the primary man in her life, and to any father that realization hurt. Somehow she would have to show him that he would never really lose Cate; not where it counted, deep inside his heart.

But for the moment Meg watched him turn his thoughts over in his head as he absently got undressed. Her husband, at forty-nine, was a fine figure of a man and it was with an appreciative eye that she watched him. She still found him devastatingly handsome and just one look of his, sent her way, would send her head spinning like a young girl again. He was so busy with his own thoughts he did not notice her keen interest in him and it was only when he pulled back the covers and got into bed to join her that he became aware of her gaze.

"What?" He asked wondering what she was staring at.

"Oh nothing," she said innocently, a pout forming on her lips in preparation for his goodnight kiss. Their lips met briefly and they both snuggled down to sleep.

After a few moments Heath felt Meg's hands snake sensuously around him. He never could resist her touch. "You're a wicked woman, Meg Barkley," he drawled in that Southern way of his, knowing that it sent her weak at the knees when it was more pronounced. "All those women at the Women's Sewing Guild think you're so innocent."

Meg laughed. "Oh My, Heath Barkley! I think the last thing they consider me to be is innocent after giving birth to twelve of your children. I think by now they realize you've had your wicked way with me!" she laughed again.

"Feel like being wicked again?" He said huskily.

"Thought you would never ask," she laughed back.

He dimmed the lamp and together they joined each other under the covers.

"Mommeee," A little voice cried sleepily, as the door knob suddenly turned and the door opened. Both Heath and Meg quickly separated and made themselves decent.

"What is it, Anna?" Meg asked concerned, turning from a seductive wife into a mother once again.

"I had a bad dream," Anna said, rubbing a mixture of tears and sleep from her eyes with one hand as she held on to her dolly with the other.

"Oh my poor love. Come here and Mommy will make it all better." Meg replied with open arms to embrace her.

Heath smiled to himself at the sudden turn of events. He turned up the lamp and watched as Meg picked up Anna and rocked her gently in her arms. He lent his own hand to Anna's red cheek to soothe her. Tonight he would help quell his five year old's nightmares. Tomorrow he would allow his eldest daughter to marry. In both situations he would simply be their father and love them. What more could he be?



"Looking After Papa"


"Uncle Heath? Uncle Heath?" Mary Barkley cried out, her voice interspersed with frightened sobs.

Her uncle didn't respond, but remained lying where he had fallen. One minute he had been fine and the next he had collapsed to the ground. Now they were half way between the mansion from where they had come and her father's house. Little Nicholas and Little Heath stood nearby holding hands, equally frightened.

Mary, as the eldest knew they were looking to her to make things right. Poor little things she thought, I mustn't let them know I am frightened too. They and Uncle Heath are depending on me. Somehow she had to get home to her father and let him know what had happened.

All she could do was make her Uncle as comfortable and warm as she could and then she would have to drive the buggy on to the house. She had never driven the buggy before and at eleven she hoped she could manage it and get help.

She tried once more to waken her uncle, "Uncle Heath, Uncle Heath!" Her uncle stirred for a moment and groaned, but was soon unconscious again. He felt very hot, in fact he was burning up. "What should she do?" Like most in the family, she was aware that her uncle took very ill from time to time and it seemed that he was sickening again. But what should she do? How could she help him?

Whenever he was sick, the children were always kept well out of the way until the crisis passed. She was fond of her uncle. He was gentle and kind and always stopped and talked to the children and she knew that he and her father were very close. As close as you could be as brothers.

Little Nicholas looked so worried and bent down to stroke his father's hair. Tears were welling in his eyes and he had to rub them frequently to wipe away the falling tears from his face.

"Please Papa," he said. "Wake up. It's me, Nicholas and I'm scared. You've got to wake up, Papa. You can't go to sleep. I love you Papa, please wake up."

Little Heath came to join him and stroked his uncle's cheek with his still baby-like hand. Mary knew she had no choice. She would have to leave the boys here and go for help. Calling both the boys to her side, she told them to stay with her uncle and also to snuggle up to him so as to keep him warm. She lent her own coat for added warmth. She told them she had to drive for help. Both boys nodded as they listened intently, steeling themselves a little as they were told they had to be big boys now and do as they were told. She promised she would bring her father back to help and that he would make everything alright again. In their childish innocence, they believed every word that she said and together bravely held back their fears.

Seeing her drive away they curled up next to Heath and put his arm around them both, taking solace from his nearness and from being with each other. They cried and comforted each other and were intermittently brave and scared as they tried very hard to look after each other and Heath.

When Nick and Mary found them an hour later, all three were asleep, the two boys curled up together and next to a stricken Heath who remained unaware and still unconscious.

"Boys! Are you alright?" Nick cried, keeping back his own fear and huge relief at finding them safe. He had to be strong for these two little men, who had done exactly what Mary had asked them to do and been very brave.

"Uncle Nick!" Little Nicholas cried, tears quickly coming to the surface again.

"Daddy" Little Heath cried too, his little arms instinctively reaching out for his father's arms. Nick's arms quickly found him and Little Nicholas too.

"Papa won't wake up," Little Nicholas wailed, his tears and fear gushing freely now.

"Shush. Shush, now. It's alright boys." Nick soothed. "I'm just going to look at him now. Do you think you can both be brave again and sit here quietly whilst I do that?"

Both boys nodded their sad little faces. Nicholas was distraught now because his father hadn't woken up.

Nick eased both boys down on the ground and moved over to where his brother was lying very still. One feel of his brother's brow confirmed the worst. Heath was sickening again. He knew it must have come on sudden as his brother wouldn't risk a journey with the children if he felt unwell.

With great care, he lifted his stricken brother off the ground and placed him in the back of the buggy. He knew he would have to be the one to keep his brother upright on the journey back to the house and so instructed his daughter, of whom he was bursting with pride and to whom he communicated just as much by placing his further trust, to drive the buggy, following the road as she had done before. He had Little Heath sit next to him so he could keep an eye on him and also so the boy would know his father was close and Little Nicholas sit next to Mary on the front seat.

All through the journey Little Nicholas constantly knelt up on the seat and turned around to check on his father. Each time he did, Nick, gave him a reassuring nod. Little Nicholas held onto that nod of reassurance, firmly believing that Uncle Nick would be the one to make his Papa wake up again.

As the gates to Nick's house came into view, Nick sighed with relief and held his brother and son close, saying to Nicholas. "Everything's going to be okay now Nicholas. You'll see."

It was many days before Heath was well again and could fulfill his brother's promise, but fulfill it he did and in doing so brought a smile once again to his son's face.



"Love Across the Miles"


1880


Meg woke up to the cries of Leah and whilst still half asleep she pushed back the covers, got up and padded over to her daughter's crib to pick her up. Soothing the distressed cries of her infant daughter she padded over to the nursing chair and undid her nightgown to release a breast from which to feed her child. The cries stopped and instantly Leah began suckling, her tiny hands clasping her mother's breast in her eagerness as her lips and tongue concentrated on working the oozing nipple and her baby blue eyes fixed solely on her mother.

Though desperately tired, Meg never failed to be in awe of these intimate moments of motherhood. They acted as a balm, soothing the child and the once nervous mother as well. For she had been nervous when the twins had been born. The breast feeding that she managed now with practiced ease had been faltering and anxious at first, causing the young mother to despair that she would ever be able to nurse her twins herself. Victoria and her sister-in-laws had been the ones to guide her and, of course, she had Heath by her side.

Leah continued suckling and Meg found a moment to look across to Samuel's crib to check on her son. He was still sleeping, but soon he would be awake and require feeding as well. Meg had to pinch herself sometimes, so different was her life now to the one she was living little over a year ago, before she had even met Heath.

Then she'd been a socialite in New York. Now she was married to a rancher, a cousin of sorts and step-mother to his three children and mother to their five month old twins. Being mother to Sean and Thomas and yes, even the precocious little Cate had been a very different experience from being mother to newborn babies.

Sean, Thomas and Cate's personalities were already forming, the twins were totally dependent on her. It was a different kind of responsibility and totally overwhelming at first. Meg sighed loudly, momentarily disturbing her nursing daughter whose little body let out a spasm in her arms. Gently she guided the baby's lips back to her breast and Leah settled again.

Mother to five children! She ~ Meg Stanhope Barkley. No not Meg Stanhope Barkley anymore, Meg Barkley ~ Mrs. Heath Barkley. She closed her eyes for a moment and dreamed of her husband. How quickly she had fallen in love with him; her handsome and introverted husband; her sweet, gentle and yet strong and principled husband who showed her what true love was about.

How she missed his presence; the beauty of waking up spooned in his arms, the warmth of his body next to hers; his breath caressing her neck and ear which on awakening turned into kisses traveling the same course. As she watched him leave the intimacy of their bed, she would take undisguised pleasure in watching him wash and get dressed; his routine always the same.

Then she would quickly grab her robe and follow him downstairs, cooking him an early breakfast, before sharing a kiss with him on the verandah; her robe shamelessly swirling in the breeze as he took her in his arms and her bare feet danced on the wooden boards as the kiss reached her toes. Then as her pregnancy advanced and tiredness overtook her, the shared mornings had become less and it was Heath's turn to wait and attend her; his concern and gentle ministrations making her feel overwhelmingly loved. Oh how she missed him on this their first wedding anniversary.

Leah's suckling had ceased as her belly became full and her eyes had grown sleepy. Meg stood up and went over to the window to witness with her daughter the dawning of a new day. She dropped a kiss to Leah's head and sent out her love to her husband, wishing him home.

Two hundred miles away on a cattle trail, Heath threw his coffee away on the fire, ready to rouse his brother and the rest of the crew. He caught the sudden caress of the gentle wind on his unshaven cheek and his thoughts turned to his wife. "I love you Meg. You and the children are my life and I can't wait to get back to you." Ignoring the ache in his heart, he signaled the start of a new day and one more that would bring him closer to home.



"What's In A Name?"


Little Nicholas was helping his father wash Max the dog and amidst the soap suds and the protests of Max he suddenly asked his father a question which stumped Heath for a moment.

"Pa, why is Little Heath called Little Heath?"

A big, wet paw from Max on his blue shirt front gave Heath a few, if damp moments, to try and formulate an answer for his six year old son. Unlike himself, his look-alike son never stopped chattering from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night.

That morning he had chatted non-stop as he was washed, dressed and fed, stopping only just long enough to be observed that he was cleaning his teeth properly. Even then, he would punctuate the brushing of his teeth with white frothy words. The boy just couldn't be silent!

'Now where had this question sprung from?' Heath thought as he tried to get his answer together, knowing that Nicholas would probably have another question at the ready if his answer was not good enough.

"Well," Heath replied sitting back on his haunches for a moment, a further ploy for more time.

With activity ceased, Max took it as an indication that his bath was ended and in full flight, leaped out of the tin tub, shook himself dry and showered Heath and Nicholas with soap suds before finally pouncing enthusiastically and lovingly on his master who naturally fell backwards with the force of the uncontrollable hound.

His thoughts diverted whilst he tried to get the spread-eagled mutt off him and stop himself from being licked to death, Heath momentarily forgot his son's question. Nicholas, though, did not.

"Well why, Pa?" he said fetching a nearby towel which he then handed to his now upright father.

"Thanks son," Heath said, as he began toweling Max dry. Max at least had the decency to look a little shame-faced at his exploits.

"Well?"

"Well what son?"

"Little Heath?" Nicholas said with growing exasperation, though he did not quite understand that exasperation was what he was feeling, right now. As much as he adored his father, he simply could not understand how his father did not like talking much when he himself could talk all day. Talking seemed perfectly natural to him.

"Well.. Hmm. Let me see. Yes well," said Heath, stumbling along with his explanation, "Little Heath is called err.... Little Heath because he's called Heath and he's little."

Nicholas went to say something and then immediately thought better of it as he sat and pondered the answer. On that score, he was just like his father - a deep thinker. Heath could sense his answer wasn't up to the mark. 'Here it comes,' he thought. 'Another question.'

"Yes I know he's little but why Little Heath? One day he is going to be big. He's going to look very silly being called Little Heath when he is. Uncle Nick really ought to have thought of that, him being a grown-up and all." Nicholas reasoned intelligently.

Heath was impressed. He may not have an adequate answer for his son but he was impressed by his reply.

On the verandah, Victoria Barkley and her newly arrived middle son, Nick, watched on amused, knowing that Heath, through modesty, was trying to avoid giving the real answer to Nicholas' question.

"Well..." Heath began again, throwing a ball up in the air for Max to run after, wishing he could follow suit. "It helps to tell him apart from the other Heath's in the family."

"How do you mean?" Nicholas replied earnestly. He really wanted to understand. He was sat on a tree stump now, his head in his hands, listening intently.

Heath raised an eyebrow, a sure sign that he was feeling uncomfortable with the line of questioning. Victoria and Nick, just out of view, smiled even more.

"Well, there are three Heaths in the family, aren't there?"

Nicholas nodded and proceeded to name them," There's you, Heath Junior and Little Heath,"

"Well there you go then? Now imagine your Granny calling one of us over and just shouting Heath. Which one of us would know to come?"

"Granny wouldn't shout. Only Uncle Nick shouts. He shouts so loud he makes the house shake," Nicholas said in defense of his grandmother, his honest answer wiping the smile of his uncle's hidden face in one fell stroke.

"Out of the mouths of babes...." Victoria whispered in her middle son's ear as she closed his gaping mouth.

Totally ignorant of their presence, Heath coughed uncomfortably as he was forced to continue.

"Well what if she asked for one of us? How would she know to ask for Heath Junior, Little Heath or me?" Heath smiled. He was pleased with his explanation. 'Let Nicholas find a hole in that argument,' he thought.

"She would ask for Heath if it was you, Junior if was Heath Junior and Little Heath if it was Little Heath," replied Nicholas logically.

"Exactly." Heath said, feeling pleased that the explanation had proved its point.

Nicholas played with his fingers and then sat on his hands. Then he leaned forward. "But why didn't Uncle Nick simply call Little Heath, Davey or Freddie, or Bobby instead? That way there would have been no confusion for Granny to be confused about. Why did he call him Heath after you and confuse Granny?"

Heath was cornered. He was never a man to draw attention to himself and though he was undeniably proud and humbled on the day his brother said he wanted to name his only son after him, he had carried that pride quietly and with affection inside.

Nick leaned forward on the verandah as typically Heath's voice turned low because of his embarrassment.

"Well son," Heath said, beckoning Nicholas to come and sit on his lap. Feeling emotional, he needed to hug his son right at that moment and hoped for one back. Then with a slow, soft drawl and deeply meant words, he said: "Your Uncle Nick named Little Heath after me and I named you after your Uncle Nick, because we love and respect each other and brothers and best friends and wanted to honor each other and our sons in that way."

Nicholas looked up to his father. "Like Little Heath and me? We're not brothers, but I feel like we are. And we are best friends. He's the bestestfriend I will every have," he said with real feeling.

Heath smiled as he embraced his son, because he knew with certainty that Little Nicholas and Little Heath's relationship mirrored that of their fathers and would probably hold true throughout their life. He felt good about that.

"Well you know what you have to do then. You have to be like your uncle and me. You and Little Heath have got to look out for each other all through your lives, because a friendship and kinship like you and Little Heath have is rare and doesn't come along often, even in families."

"Do you look out for Uncle Nick, Pa?" Nicholas' earnest little voice said.

Heath nodded.

"And does he look out for you?"

"Yep."

"Will you be friends for ever? Like Little Heath and me?"

"I reckon so," Heath replied. "I reckon I've got use to your Uncle Nick's ways by now and he to mine."

Nicholas hugged his father and Heath savored the moment, knowing that Nicholas would be off to play in a while in that butterfly way children had when something else caught their interest.

"Being best friends with Uncle Nick, does that mean that you don't mind his shouting? Granny says she gave up asking him to stop shouting in 1881, knowing he would never change."

Heath laughed, hearing his mother's words come out of his six-year old's mouth.

"Well son, at least when your uncle is shouting, I know where he is. And knowing where your uncle is comes in real handy throughout life, believe me. I mean if your uncle was here right now, don't you reckon you and me would know about it by now?" he said conspiratorially.

"Reckon so, Pa." Nicholas agreed with a smile that was never far away from his face.

"Well what say we round up Max and then you and I can go for a ride this afternoon over to your Uncle Nick's to see both of our best friends."

Nicholas's face came alight. "Oh yes please."

Nick would never admit that his eyes moistened that afternoon, but Victoria's old eyes were witness to the fact that they did. With quietness not usually associated with Nick Barkley, he exited the verandah without being seen and headed off home to welcome his brother and best friend.


THE END


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