Victoria inspected her family before they set off for church and the family knowing that they could not leave before said inspection was carried out stood still for the verdict. Not even Tom Barkley, titular head of the family, could hurry the routine.
Victoria straightened her only daughter’s bonnet, ensuring four-year old Audra’s blonde hair was not escaping untidily. Next she brought out a comb from her purse to comb five -year old Heath’s naturally wavy hair. The little boy stoically let his mother comb his tangled locks; his lack of complaint earning him a kiss on his cheek from his mother. With his blond hair and similar looks and height the second youngest was often taken for Audra’s twin and they made a sweet pair.
Next came eleven-year old Nick; his character already striking out for independence. As dark as his aforementioned siblings were fair he had the promise of striking good looks and height. He was leaving childhood behind and running fast towards to adulthood, already making himself a feature around the ranch with his willingness to work and to learn. He took it upon himself to make himself useful to the hands, learning the various trades and skills that went into running a ranch. Tom admired his son’s enthusiasm and saw in him a natural heir.
Jarrod was last to be inspected. Victoria found, as she always did with her fifteen year-old, a neatly turned out young man. She had great pride in her eldest son. He had told them he wanted to become a lawyer and they were happy to support him in his chosen career; a task perhaps made easier by their second son’s obvious passion for the ranch.
With one last look in the mirror to check her own appearance and straighten her bonnet, 37-year old Victoria Barkley ushered her brood out of the mansion. “Do I pass, too?” Tom joked as he held the door for his wife. Her kiss told her approval.
Arriving at the church Nick, the little rancher in-the-making, reluctantly parted company with his family. For the last two years he had been in the choir – something he had had been happy to do at nine but less so at eleven. Though he liked singing and had a good voice, it seemed to jar with his image of how a tough rancher should appear. And yet he was a God-fearing little boy and would not dare to show disrespect to the Lord by refusing to sing.
He felt a tug on his jacket. It was Heath, his baby brother wanting to join him. “No, Heath. You have to go and sit with Mama and Papa.” He instructed.
“But I want to come with you. I want to sing.” Heath pleaded.
“You’re too young. Look, I got to hurry. Now scoot, or else Mama will wonder where you are.”
Heath’s young face betrayed his disappointment and as always that bothered Nick who was fond of his young brother. “Go on kid. I promise I will play with you later.”
Heath’s face split open. “Promise?”
With that the little blond ran back to his parents and went with inside with them into church. As always the non-twins drew admiring comments from the congregation. Tom and Jarrod stood back to allow Victoria and the children into their familiar pew. Audra found her way to her father’s lap and Heath to his mother’s whilst Jarrod sat self-contained and with his own thoughts. When Heath wanted to sit on his lap he obliged without complaint and held him when they stood for prayers. Despite their separating years, Jarrod like Nick had a special regard and protectiveness for their younger siblings.
Little Heath Barkley liked to sing and when the choir sang, even though the congregation were meant to stay silent during their singing, his voice could be heard singing along when he knew the words and humming when he didn’t. No one said hush or told him to be quiet; they were quite happy to hear him sing, even when he finished a few notes later than the choir. Little Heath and his sister were often the stars of the show.
Later, the Barkleys returned to the ranch and enjoyed a Sunday lunch with all the trimmings and afterwards the Barkley children went out to play with all the rough and tumble that involved. Heath loved the attention of his older brothers. It made him feel grown up. In the years to come they would become close as brothers, their ten and six year old differences of little consequence but for now the age differences played a part and often the two older brothers were just a little old or otherwise occupied to play with Heath.
Nevertheless when he got their attention it was pure fun. Heath loved to play tag and hide and seek and ball, and all the other games young boys liked to play. Jarrod gave him a piggy back ride and then let him sit on his back whilst he raced Nick and Audra in a horseback race. By the end of the afternoon, Heath was plum tuckered out and he and his sister were carried by Tom upstairs for a nap.
“I’m worn out,” an exhausted Jarrod said as he sank into a chair. “Our kid brother doesn’t know when to stop.”
Nick, less exhausted but happy for some time on his own, agreed. “I’m going to get my present for Heath’s birthday and wrap it whilst he’s asleep.”
Jarrod eased his boots off and decided to do the same, both boys retiring to their father’s study to find their hidden presents. Their father was studying some papers. “Papa, can you tell us now what you and Mama got Heath for his birthday?” Nick had asked the question several times before but their father had kept his own counsel on the subject.
Tom Barkley considered the matter. He wanted the present to be a surprise for the whole family and decided to keep the secret for one more day. He smiled, imagining all their faces when they saw what he had bought, particularly his youngest son’s. It just seemed a perfect present for a little boy his age and with his love for animals.
Nick pushed to know what it was but Tom would not say. “Wait till tomorrow.” Was all his father would say. Nick picked up his own present for Heath and made to leave the room. Tom remembered he had something to discuss with his middle son and called him back. “Nick.”
“If I told you, you could finish singing in the choir at the end of the school year, would that make you happy?”
Nick’s face gave him his answer. “But what about Mother?”
“Your mother and I have spoken and we are both in agreement that you can make the decision to either continue or stop then. I think I know what decision you have made.”
The next morning the new six-year old opened all his cards and presents before breakfast. It was a school day and time restrictions meant that the main celebrations and birthday party would be delayed until after school. Some of his friends from school were coming to his party and Tom Barkley had rearranged his schedule to ensure he was able to pick them all up from school. Before Heath left his face was wet from birthday kisses from his mother.
At school the children in his class sung him Happy Birthday and gave him a present of a new ball which they kicked about at recess. It was most definitely Heath’s special day and the day continued happily when the class went for a nature trail walk in the afternoon and there were no more class room lessons.
Later the birthday boy enjoyed a birthday tea with all his friends and family and then was mysteriously led out to the barn by his father, everyone else in tow, to see his birthday present from his parents.
Stood before the small six-year old was a tiny horse, the like of which none of the children had ever seen before. It was a Shetland pony and instantly Heath fell in love with the small animal. “Is he mine, Papa?” he said, unafraid to stroke the amazingly gentlel pony.
“He sure is,” Tom reassured him. “Now, you got to be careful of him. He’s not like the other horses. He’ll never be big like them so you got to protect him.”
“I will, Papa. Oh, I will.” Heath enthused as he stood stroking the mane of his new pony. In friendship the pony nuzzled Heath’s hand. The other children wanted to stroke the pony, too, but Tom was careful not to let them crowd the animal.
“How about leading him out of the barn so we can all get a good look of him.” Tom said, handing Heath the rope.
Careful of his charge, Heath led him gently out of the barn, a look of pure love on his face. The little pony was his new best friend. On the way out, Heath gave his father a spontaneous hug, all the thanks his father needed. The little boy then tried hard to think of a name for his new friend. Nick tried to come up with some suggestions for him but Heath just kept shaking his head. “Nope. That’s not his name.” Nick tried again, but every suggestion was rejected. “Ain’t you got anymore, Nick?” Heath asked, expecting his big brother to have an answer like he did for everything in life.
“Well, kid, I’ve given you all my best suggestions.” Nick replied, visibly defeated by his task and looking to his father for help.
“Papa?” Heath asked, hopefully.
Tom pushed back his hat in a manner that Heath would also do as an adult in future. “Well son, he’s different from the other ponies and that makes him a bit special, but you know I think he kinda like an simple name to remember. What about Shadow. No other horse has got that name on this ranch and so that makes it special to him.”
Heath took to it straight away. “I like that Papa. What about you Shadow? You like your new name?” Whether he did or not, Shadow shoved his new little master forward and it was taken as a ready sign that he did.
“Well thank goodness for that,” whispered Tom to his wife. “Nick had thought about just every other name I could think of.” The smiling parents of Heath Barkley watched as their little boy took his pony out of the barn. “It was a good present for him Tom,” Victoria opined. “He’ll get a new friend and be able to take care of it, and whilst he’s small he’ll be able to ride it, too. I think we’re going to have trouble keeping them apart.”
Tom Barkley took a moment to hold his wife in the doorway of the barn while they watched the kids follow Heath and his pony. “Maybe,” he mused. “But just seeing him happy makes it worth it.”
Later that day, it took some persuading to get Heath to retire to bed. He so wanted to stay with Shadow and even suggested he could sleep out in the barn with him. When that didn’t square with his parents he suggested Shadow could sleep in his room. “Please Mama. He’s only small.”
“A little boy belongs in his bed and a pony in his stall. Let’s not get those two things confused, young man. ” Victoria was quick to tell him. “He’s not going anywhere and he’ll be right there in the morning for you to go to see him before school.”
That sparked another idea. “Can I take him to school, Mama?”
Victoria could see this conversation was not going to end soon or easily. She sat down on the edge of the bed and prepared to reason at length with her excited son.