Sixteen-year old Heath had a dilemma. Nick was giving him more responsibility and orders to give. He loved the trust placed in him and being a part of discussions with his father and Nick. He always took pride in his work but would make doubly sure not to let his brother down when given a job to do, or tackle one on his own.
Most of the seasoned ranch hands had known Heath since he was knee-high to them and liked him. He was a very different character to Nick. As quiet as the other was loud, as likely not to talk as to talk, solitary where Nick was gregarious, the list of opposites could go on and on. But even in these early days of their working together the evidence was growing that the two young Barkleys were on the verge of forging a powerful partnership which would take Tom Barkley’s empire through the rest of the century and into the next.
And so long as the hands were treated and paid fair that sat all right with them. With Heath they saw nothing to upset that arrangement. They had no problem taking orders from him. He was an unassuming lad, not one to play on being the boss’s son and eager to learn from men who had been doing the job long before he was born.
A small number saw things different though. They were new to the ranch with no long term plans to stay and so unafraid of creating a bit of trouble. To Nick, who had hired them, they presented themselves as trouble-free and hard-working hands; however, no such similar respect was shown to Heath. Instead, they saw they could have some fun with the young teenager and made it their business to give the fledgling boss a tough time.
They were careful though. They’d only done small things to date and usually out of the sight of Tom and Nick Barkley and the other ranch hands, but their needling and insubordination was growing and Heath knew he had to handle it before it threatened him or the ranch. With his teenage pride he did not want to go running back to his father or Nick saying he couldn’t handle things. As far as he saw it, he’d face far worse things in future so he better learn now. He was guarded with them, watching for the next move.
After a full morning’s work helping with the branding, Heath had been given the time off between late afternoon and dinner.
“Are you sure, Nick? I don’t mind staying,” Heath had answered.
“Scoot, or I’ll change my mind, and don’t be late for dinner!” Nick bellowed.
Heath didn’t have to ask twice. He was off on his horse and heading off in the direction of his favourite place on the ranch, the swimming hole, already anticipating the coolness of the water on such a hot day. Shelby, one of the hands who gave the young boss trouble, saw Heath ride off and whispered something to one of his group and the other nodded conspiratorially.
Heath loved swimming and was a strong swimmer. He swam with an easy, smooth action that demonstrated grace and power, and the outline of his body cresting the water and diving into its depths showed similar style. If he was swimming with his father and brothers he would race and more often beat them, the strength in his upper arms winning out over theirs'. That gave him great satisfaction for it was always good to beat his older brothers.
When at last it was time for him to get out of the water he did so reluctantly. But out of respect for his mother he would not be late for dinner. He set off in search of his clothes and soon discovered they were no longer where he had placed them. He scouted around in case an animal had carried them off but his search was in vain. No animal had carried off his clothes.
It didn’t take long for Heath to realize that his clothes had been taken by human hands. And he knew just who had taken them. He mentally kicked himself. He’d let his guard down and left the door open for them to steal his clothes. He had been left his horse and it was soon clear why. He was expected to ride back to the ranch in his birthday suit, no doubt to the laughter and derision of the men.
He stood for some minutes wondering what he could do. He certainly wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of riding back in daylight. But then if he didn’t go home, he’d be late for dinner. Nick would be sure to send out a search party for the missing brother. Then what would he say. He’d have to admit the trouble he was getting from the men and then Nick would step in and sort it out in his own fashion. Then were would he be? He’d be forever known as the Barkley who needed his big brother to sort out his fights. He no more wanted that than he did to ride home naked.
He heard the sound of a horse and retreated back into the water. Was one of them coming back? Were they going to take his horse now? All his questions were answered when he saw his sister ride to the side of the lake a little way from his own camp and dismount from her horse. He couldn’t believe his luck! He swam closer to get her attention. “Audra!” He shouted as his legs tread water in the lake.
Audra didn’t hear. She was clearly looking around to ensure no one was around so she could have a swim. “Audra!” Heath shouted again. “Audra!”
The startled girl looked up to see who was calling her.
“Here! I’m in the lake. It’s Heath!”
Audra gazed out towards the sound of the voice, shading her eyes from the strong sun and saw her brother bobbing up and down on the water.
“Oh Heath! You’ll have to swim away. I want to swim here.”
“Audra. Listen to me. Someone has taken my clothes. I can’t get out of the water.”
“Oh don’t be a goose! Who would want to steal your clothes? Now swim further down so I can get in the water.”
“I’m serious, Audra.”
“But who... I mean who would want.”
“Doesn’t matter. Look I need help. I’m getting cold and I need to get home. You got anything I can put round me?”
“Do you think I carry around a spare set of clothes with me all the time? Anyway, you’d look pretty silly wearing one of my skirts. I only came by on the off-chance I could have a solitary swim. Oh wait a minute. Mother asked me to pick up a parcel for you from town. Maybe she got you some new shirts, or pants?”
“Have a look, will you? I’m beginning to freeze in here.”
Audra unwrapped the brown paper parcel which was tied with string. To Heath’s consternation she took her time carefully unfastening the string. “Just rip the paper, will you?” He shouted.
“Don’t shout at me Heath Barkley! If these aren’t clothes you might just have to wear this brown paper home so don’t tell me to hurry.”
Heath was suitably silenced. He really didn’t have any bargaining power in the situation he was in.
Audra finally got into the parcel and opened it up to reveal two sets of new underwear for Heath. Heath let out a sigh of relief. He might not look dignified in his long johns but he sure would be covered and that was far better than his current situation. What fortune that Audra had chanced by.
“Okay, put them down and then turn around.” He instructed his sister.
Audra exacted a promise from him before she did. “I will, if you then tell me what happened here and who stole your clothes.”
“Okay, but turn around and keep turned around till I tell you.”
Audra did as she was instructed and listened for Heath coming out of the water. With no towel to dry himself, Heath used one of the sets of underwear to dry himself and then, hair still wet and curling, he quickly stepped into his new long johns, pulling them up his long legs, past his buttocks, quickly buttoning them up to his waist before letting his sister turn around. “Okay, I’m decent,” he said, rubbing his hair with the spare long johns. Audra laughed because he did look funny. “You don’t have to laugh,” he mumbled. “How would you feel without your clothes?”
“Well, you’ve got some now.”
“Thanks.” Heath, said appreciatively.
“So now will you tell me what happened?”
“If I do, you got to promise not to tell Pa or Nick. I want to sort this myself.”
Audra, who was just a year younger than her brother and therefore by age alone a natural ally, agreed.
Heath began to tell her of the problems he had been having with the new men and how he suspected that they had overheard that he was going to the swimming hole. He guessed correctly that they had plotted to steal his clothes then. “It’s just what they want to see - me make a fool of myself. Me! Riding back in the all-together. I’d be the laughing-stock of the whole ranch and they know it.”
“Oh, Heath.“ Audra said sadly as she sat down on the ground next to her brother. “I’m sorry you have been suffering this alone.”
Heath gave her a slow but easy smile. “It’s okay, Sis. I always know that one word to the family will sort it out for me, but if I’m going to help run the ranch one day the men have to take orders from me. And that means I have to know how to handle situations like this. There are Shelby’s in all walks of life.”
Audra admired his attitude. “So what are we going to do about it, then, Boss?” She said, elbowing him conspiratorially.
“What do you mean, “We”? I told you I need to sort this problem out myself.”
“And you will. But, if I can I’d like to help. We can start by me riding home ahead of you. You can wait by the creek and I’ll bring you some spare clothes from your room. Just think of the look on their faces when they see you riding in with your clothes on.”
Heath laughed. “You’re right, Sis. I’d thought about going in the back way. But your idea is better. Come on, let’s get started. I’ll tell you my plan on the way home.” Audra got the horses together whilst Heath finished putting buttoning up the top part of his long johns.
As predicted Shelby and his crew were on the porch of the bunkhouse to watch their teenage boss ride in. Shelby punched one hard in the side, “How the hell, did he get some clothes?”
“He didn’t have a piece of extra clothing with him, Shelby, I swear. Not a stitch.”
“Well, how do you account for his clothes, then?” Shelby sneered.
Heath couldn’t hear them, but he could see them. He rode on to the house, feeling their stares on his back. If he could, he stood a little taller in the saddle. “Round one, to me,” He mentally noted.
Audra smiled from her bedroom window.
Now for round two.
Heath and Audra ate their dinner that evening without a word of what had happened at the lake passing their lips. Instead they chatted happily about other things, their conversation attracting no further attention than it normally did because they often shared everyday conversation. They were so close in age that they were often treated as twins and shared friends and interests that often brought them together.
So whilst they talked their teenage talk, their father and mother talked business with their older brothers and happily allowed them to be excused when they wanted to leave the table.
As soon as they reached the foyer and were clear from the view of their parents they ran up the stairs to the privacy of Heath’s room to talk through Heath’s plan to sort out Shelby and his crew.
“Oh, I wish I could see it,” Audra declared.
Heath was shocked. “It ain’t decent, Sis. You being a girl an’ all.”
“I’m very nearly a woman.”
Heath used his one year advantage, “Well, you’re not one yet. Look, I’m not doing this unless you promise.”
“It’s like preparing a party and then not going yourself.” Audra pouted.
They talked through the plan again, just to make sure they had everything correct. Audra then kissed her brother and left him lying on the bed to go downstairs.
“Where’s your brother, Audra?” Her mother asked as she reached the bottom of the stairs. “Upstairs, lying on his bed.”
“Is he alright?”
Victoria watched her daughter amble out into the garden and then with one look at the top of the stairs climbed the stairs to her son’s room. Inside she found her young son lying on the bed.
“Is everything alright, sweetheart,” she asked, her mother’s instinct unable to resist the need to check for herself.
A sleepy Heath turned at the touch of her hand and he turned over to face her. “I’m fine, Mother. I’ll be down in a minute. I want to go check on my horse.”
Victoria sat down on the side of the bed, “I didn’t ask you about your day. Nick says the branding went well.”
Heath sat up, warming to the subject and eagerly told her about his day. His excitement was a joy for Victoria to see. “So you don’t miss school then?”
“Do you mind?” Heath’s earnest eyes tried to read those of his mothers. He always wanted to work full-time on the ranch.
“I was proud the day you graduated, but no, I don’t mind. This is what you love, I can see that. How are you finding the men? Nick tells me he is giving you more responsibility.”
It was the only moment of hesitancy and Victoria caught it.
“They’re fine. Duke and Sam are real good.”
“And the new men?”
Heath played with the cuffs of his shirt. Victoria recognised her son’s outward sign of anxiety.
“They’re okay. I don’t know them very well.”
The serious turn to his face worried Victoria. “Sweetheart, is there something you want to tell me?”
Heath’s face jerked upwards. “No. Mama. Really, there isn’t.”
“The parcel of new underwear? Silas tells me it is in the laundry already?”
Heath felt relieved. His mother was talking about the parcel, not about anything she had seen between him and the men. “I’m sorry about that. I had an accident at the lake and got them wet. Audra came by and gave me the package. It’s my fault, Mama.”
Victoria wouldn’t push it now but she knew there was something troubling her son. She patted his hand and decided she would watch and wait, ready to be there if he needed her or if she thought her’s or Tom’s intervention was necessary, “Bring that shirt down for mending in the morning, dear.” She said referring to the stressed cuffs. “Your new underwear will be washed and dried for the morning.”
Heath gave her a truly wonderful smile. As always it felt like a special gift. Perhaps there was nothing to worry about after all. “Thanks, Mama,” he said appreciatively. He leaned forward adn gave her an enthusiastic kiss on her cheek.
“Don’t be long. I think your father wants a game of chess with you.”
“I’ll be right down.”
Victoria bent to give him a kiss and allowed him the privacy of his room again. Heath sighed, thankful that his mother had not pressed him.
He scooted his hand under his pillow and read to himself a letter from a girl he was sweet on. Young love fluttered within his youthful heart. It wasn’t all bad being sixteen, he thought. And it will be even better when I carry out my plan. Before long his long legs had made easy work of descending the stairs and he joined his father in his study where a particularly intense game of chess followed.
Nick was up and ready for the day ahead and called into Heath’s room on his way back from the bathroom.
He stopped his whistling when he saw his kid brother was still asleep and softened his footfalls to creep up to the bed undetected. He was just about to yell into his brother’s ear when he spied a letter sneaking out from under the boy’s pillow. Aha, he thought, as he read the words and made himself a seat on the one part of the bed Heath was not sprawled out on. His brother had a sweetheart. And it was Suzy Jenkinson at that! He admired his brother’s taste.
A disturbed Heath opened one still sleep-ridden eye and saw his brother reading the letter. “You shouldn’t be reading that. As far as I recall it says Dear Heath and that’s me, not you.” He said, grabbing back the letter with one extended hand.
Nick grinned as he dabbed his face dry with a towel he had carried from the bathroom. He was mighty glad to see his brother awake and in time for a little brotherly teasing. “Incorrect. It says ‘My dearest Heath”.
Heath yawned and turned over. “That’s still me. Don’t see your name on there anywhere.”
“That’s because she didn’t meet me first, younger brother.”
“You’re not her type.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she likes me. ”
“Have you kissed her yet?”
“None of your business.”
“Well, don’t leave it too long brother. A girl’s likely to take offence.”
Not rising to the bait or expanding anymore on his fledgling love life, Heath turned his back to Nick and put his head back on the pillow.
Nick could see his brother was falling asleep again. He let sleep claim him just a bit more before tipping the boy out of bed, bedding and all. “Rise and shine, kid. The only cure for the type of dreams you’re about to have is to sweat them out with a hard day’s work on the range. I’ll see you downstairs for breakfast.
“Nick!” Heath shouted from under the bedclothes which had topped over him.
Nick already knew what his brother was going to say. “It’s okay, kid. You’re secret is safe with me. Now come on, I’ll go over the work detail with you downstairs. That is if you still want to be a full-time rancher.”
Heath’s head jerked up. “You know I do! Only...”
“Only what, kid?”
“Can I suggest something?” Heath offered tentatively, initiating the early part of his plan and dumping himself and his bed clothes back on the bed.
“No law against speaking up.” Nick with an extended arm pulled his brother back off the bed. “C’mon let’s get this bed straight again, before Mother has both our hides “
The two brothers stood on either side of the bed and set about stripping and re-making the bed.
“Nick.” Heath began again.
“I’m still listening. Here, get the corner of the sheet.”
“Yesterday when I was at the lake I saw some work that needed doing over there. Part of that bridge has fallen away and it really needs fixing.”
“You want to go over there and fix it?”
“I want to help with the branding.” Heath said indignantly.
His brother’s enthusiasm for all things cattle made Nick smile. “Well, I’ll send a couple of men over there. It shouldn’t take long to fix.”
“What about sending the new men, Nick?”
“Shelby, Emmet and Davis?”
Heath tried to look disinterested in their names.
“I suppose. Don’t really care who does it as long as it gets fixed.”
The two brothers met each other in the middle of the bed as they flattened out the creases in the sheets. “I could ride out at lunch time and check they’ve done the work.”
Nick wasn’t paying too much attention to the matter and so readily agreed. “Okay. Now get dressed.”
“I’d of been dressed five minutes ago iff’n you hadn’t destroyed my bed.”
“I’ll do it again if you don’t get a move on.”
Shelby and his friends were in the element. A job by the lake very quickly became an excuse not to do any work and take a swim instead. They gave the bridge a cosmetic repair, hardly one likely to last before they took the morning off to swim. Heath had read the men’s minds well. When it came to lunch time he checked with Nick it was okay to check on them and rode off. Only momentarily did Nick pause to wonder what his brother was up to.
Audra met Heath at their agreed meeting place.
“I’ll bring the horses here, Sis.”
“But I can help, Heath?”
“No! I told you before. They’ll be swimming with nothing on.”
“Well, I’ve seen you swimming with nothing on.”
Heath’s head jerked up. “Not since I was seven, you haven’t!”
“That’s what you think.”
“I don’t even want to know. Look, it’s got to be this way or not at all.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll wait here.”
Heath wondered for a minute if she would stick to her word and then decided he had to trust her. His sister could be all angelic one moment and a minx the next. He rode off and headed towards the lake. Sure enough the men had abandoned their work and were enjoying themselves. He was careful to stay out of sight and his eyes scouted around to locate their clothes and horses. It would be tricky but Heath possessed one advantage. He was light on his feet. He waited for his chance. When it came he was quick to seize the moment. First he gathered the three sets of clothes; he considered taking the boots and hats and then decided against it. Having achieved his goal he headed towards the horses using his skill with them to keep them quiet. Slowly he walked them away and rejoined his own horse. Taking one last look at the lake he couldn’t help wishing he could see the men’s reaction when they got out of the lake. Two can play at this game, he thought.
He headed back to where Audra had remained. “How did it go?” she asked, still miffed at being left out from the fun.
“It couldn’t have been easier. They were too busy in the lake to even see me.”
“What?” Heath asked.
“You! You can’t help smiling.” Heath confirmed the statement by smiling even more. It felt good to have the upper hand.
The two younger Barkleys rode off with their prize, Heath parting company with Audra part of the way to return to work. The stage was set for the final scene.
Heath and Nick finished the day’s branding and rode back to the ranch. Heath looked at his time piece. Estimating the time it would take to walk back from the ranch he calculated that he would be back before they were. He was unusually chatty all the way home.
“What’s got into you, boy?” Nick inquired, puzzled by his animated brother.
“Oh, nothing. I’ve just enjoyed myself today.”
“Give it a few more years, that’ll change.”
Heath didn’t believe it for a minute.
Back at the ranch, Heath offered to put the horses away. He was anxious for the return of Shelby and his crew and kept finding little jobs to do to keep him in the compound. He spied Audra at her bedroom window and waved her away with his hand. Audra kept pointing at something. Heath turned to hear the hands break out in a loud guffaw that just kept going. Nick, munching on a chicken leg, came out to see what all the fuss was about.
In a line, much like a chain gang, Shelby, Emmet and Davis marched or rather slunk into in to the compound. Their hands were positioned low down and in front of them; they were completely naked save for the boots that they wore and the hats Heath had allowed them to keep, the two extremities of clothing serving to make them look even more ridiculous than they could look without them. More men came out of the bunkhouse to see what was going on and the guffaws grew louder. Many of them had waited for this day. It was clear that Shelby and his crew had few friends and they were enjoying the spectacle.
Heath folded his arms to stop himself form laughing too loudly but his youthful spirit was less disciplined and he creased up despite himself. He heard his brother yell and that brought him upright again.
“What the hell do you think you men are doing?” Nick bellowed at Shelby, Emmett and Daivs.
Nick’s march and stance told Heath his brother was not best pleased. The older brother stood in front of the naked men and thundered: “You better have a damned good reason for coming back here like this! I send you to do a morning’s work fixing a bridge and I don’t see you for the rest of the day. You mind telling me how you managed to lose your clothes?”
Shelby was the first to speak up, “Well, boss it was like this...” The explanation did not satisfy.
“I know just how it was!” Nick yelled back. “You went swimming, didn’ you? I just bet if I go out to that bridge tomorrow I’ll see it in just as bad repair as it was this morning. Well, I don’t take lightly to men who take me for a fool! What’s more you were damned fool enough to let someone steal your clothes while you were doing it! I should fire you on the spot!”
“But boss nothing. I pay a man for a day’s work. Now you got two choices. You can pick up what you’re owed at the main house or you can show me you're worth keeping on. I don’t really care which it is, but any repeat of this incident and I’ll personally see you off the ranch and it’ll be anything but cordial. Now, get inside. It makes me sick just looking at you!””
Sheepishly and humiliated the men trudged inside, the last image offered of them, their bare rather sunburnt behinds.
Nick marched back to the ranch, slapping his hat against his thigh in disgust and throwing away the chicken he had been eating. Somehow his appetite had gone. He caught his brother still laughing and observed his blond sibling suspiciously.
“You have anything to do with this? You were out at the lake earlier.” He said accusingly.
“I just gave them a taste of their own medicine.”
“They did this to you? When?”
Heath nodded. “Yesterday.”
“Want me to fire them?”
“Nope. I reckon they’ll be happy to toe the line now.”
“Why didn’t you tell me they had been giving you trouble?”
“I handled it, didn’t I?”
Nick turned back to where the men had been standing and then looked back at Heath.
“Reckon you did at that.” He grinned. “Of course, it would have been easier telling me.”
Heath shook his head in that stubborn way Nick knew too well. “Too easy that way. I had to get my point across.”
“Well, I think you did that all right, little brother. I reckon they’ll listen to you now.”
He watched as Heath headed in the direction of the bunkhouse. “Where are you going?”
“Just one outstanding matter and then I’m done. I’m going to get my clothes back.”
Tom and Victoria Barkley came out of the house, only lately aware of an incident taking place.
“Anything wrong, son?” Tom asked his middle son warily.
“Not now there isn’t. Heath’s handling it.”
“Heath? Why Heath?”
“He’s one of the bosses around here, isn’t he?”
“Well, he’s handling it and for a kid, he ain’t doing half bad. I think I’ll run the bath for him”
“You! But you normally take the first soak.”
Nick considered the matter. “I do, don’t I? Well, he’s earned it. I may even drop in some of those sweet-smelling bath salts Audra has lined up on the shelf. Make the boy all pretty smelling for that girl of his."