With his hat pulled down tight on his head, he flew across the fields as fast as his four-legged friend could carry him. Birds, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and butterflies all quickly darted aside as the pair raced by. Tucked neatly in his front shirt pocket was a note from his father. The more he thought about the note the faster his heartbeat and the more he willed his mount on faster.
Anna watched from the kitchen window as her eldest son came barreling across the field behind their home and up to the barn. "Mary dear, watch Jenny for me will you?" Anna stated as she placed the baby in her eldest daughter’s arms, "I'll be right back." Opening the door and walking out onto the back porch, Mary met up with her son as he ran up the back steps.
"Sean how many times has your father and I told you about riding so recklessly?" Anna stated as her 11 1/2-year-old son looked up at her.
"But Ma..." Sean started before Anna cut him off.
"No buts, you know how dangerous it is." Anna exclaimed as her little man looked up at her with eyes as blue as his fathers.
"But Mama Pa sent you this letter," Sean answered as he smiled and handed the folded up note to his mother.
Anna took the letter from Sean and her heart skipped a beat when she saw Heath's handwriting on the envelope. "Thank you," Anna exclaimed as she hugged him close to her. "But promise me, you'll never do that again. If anything ever happened to you I don't know what I'd do." She added squeezing him tighter.
"I promise Ma, yer not goanna tell Papa are ya?" He questioned shyly as he looked up at his mother with big blue eyes.
Anna knew how much her son worshipped his father; the pair was practically inseparable. "As long as you promise never to do it again, I think we can keep this between ourselves."
"I promise Mama," Sean stated happily, as he squeezed his mother.
"Well let's get inside and see what your father has to say shall we?" Offered up Anna as she took her sons hand and walked towards the back door.
Entering the house Anna took baby Jenny back from Mary and sat down at the kitchen table closely followed by both Mary and Sean. "Sean, will you run upstairs and get your brothers for me." Anna asked with a smile, as Sean raced through the kitchen and up the stairs, Anna ran her fingers over Heath's delicate handwriting on the outside of the envelope. She longed to reach out and touch her husband, to have him hold her in his strong arms. To feel his breath on the side of her cheek as they sat together on the porch swing and watched the children play in the early evening light. To lie in bed with her head on his chest listening to his heart beating as they both discussed their day. He had only been gone three weeks but to her it had been the longest three weeks of her life.
Hearing the thunder of little feet pounding down the stairs, Anna looked up as her boys rounded the corner and ran into the kitchen. Sean led the way closely followed by Thomas and the twins Liam and James.
"Boys," Mary sighed as she shook her head and watched her brothers fight over the chairs.
When they finally all settled in and were reasonably quiet Anna read the letter from Heath.
Send the children my love and let them know I miss them dearly. I'll be coming home on the Friday afternoon stage. The sale went well, even Nick was happy. I miss you Anna, and can't wait to hold you in my arms again.
"Pa's comin home Friday, that's tomorrow!" Sean shouted as he realized what day it was.
"I want Papa home now," stated little Thomas as he stuck his bottom lip out.
Anna had to laugh, Thomas looked like a miniature version of his father, he even had his father's facial expressions. "Thomas he'll be here tomorrow, surely you can wait one more day." Laughed Anna as Thomas looked up at her with one eyebrow raised. Even though he was only almost five, Thomas wanted to be just like his older brother Sean and his Papa. Anna watched as Sean put his arm around his little brother's shoulders.
"One more day ain't long at all Tom, I tell you what you can help me clean out the barn so Pa can see how good we do when he's not around." Sean said, as he looked down on his little brother assuredly.
"I can wait Mama, I wanna make Papa proud." Thomas stated as he stuck his little chest out.
"He's proud of you every day sweet heart, each of you." Anna added as she looked around the table and smiled. "Anyone hungry?" She asked as she rose from the table and placed Jenny on her blanket on the floor.
"I am," shouted just about everyone in unison.
"All right then, let’s see.... Sean and Thomas you boys go out into the meat cellar and bring out a nice steak. Liam and James you two run out to the garden and dig me up some potatoes and gather up some beans." Stated Anna as she handed the boys a basket. "And Mary how about helping me mix up some lemonade."
"I'll get the sugar from the pantry Mama," Mary exclaimed happily, as she jumped up from the table.
Anna smiled as each of her children ran off in a different direction eager to complete his or her task. Looking out the back door she watched as Sean and Thomas walked towards the barn. Sean had his arm draped across his little brother’s shoulders. Anna remembered how Jessie used to walk with Sean the same way before he married Katie and moved east. Sean had taken over Jessie's role with each of his siblings. However, with Thomas he seemed to share a special bond. Sean had inherited his father's gentle side and his love for the outdoors. He was an extremely smart child but keeping him interested in school was becoming more and more difficult. He'd much rather spend his time working with his father than anything else.
Thomas idolized both Sean and Heath, wherever they could be found Thomas was surely not far away. Anna laughed as she thought about how many times Heath had almost tripped over the small boy as Thomas followed him around the house and yard like a puppy dog. Each night before Thomas went to bed he'd curl up in his fathers lap and listen as Heath read to him or told him a tale of some adventure he'd had with Thomas's Uncle Nick. Most evenings Heath would carry the sleeping young man up to bed, as he'd fall asleep listening to his father.
Turning her view towards the garden, she watched as her two fiery red headed boys gathered vegetables. She remembered Heath's surprised but happy face eight years ago as Victoria led him into their bedroom after she had given birth to them. The light in his eyes as he held each of his new sons in a separate arm was magical. She watched as they raced towards the house together the basket held tightly between them as they ran. Their blue eyes sparkled as they raced through the back door.
"All done Mama," Liam exclaimed as he proudly held up the basket with James.
"We got lots a bean too," added James with a toothy smile.
Anna laughed quietly at the two identical faces smiling up at her. "My you two sure did a fine job," she stated as she inspected the contents of the basket. "How about washing the dirt off the potatoes for me, then you two can go outside till dinner."
"Sure Mama," they answered in unison before carrying the basket over to the sink.
"Mama is it all right if we use this?" Mary questioned as she came out of the pantry carrying their good porcelain pitcher.
"I don't see why not, after all we are celebrating." Anna replied. Bending down to pick up baby Jenny, Anna sat down with her at the table and watched her daughter slice up the lemons. At nine and a half Mary was tall for her age. She had long strawberry blonde hair that fell to the middle of her back when it wasn't up in braids. Her expressive green eyes were a window to her soul and Anna could read her like a book. Mary easily fell into the role of older sister when the twins were born; she wasn't even disappointed when Thomas was born even though all along she had been wishing for a little sister. However, when baby Jenny came along, Mary cried. Her wish had finally come true; she was no longer the only girl in the family besides her mama. She finally had a baby sister.
Anna held baby Jenny close as her thoughts turned to her husband. The excitement she felt made her heart practically beat out of her chest with joy. "Papa's coming home tomorrow Jenny," she said happily as the baby played with her hair. "Wait till he sees how much you've grown."
The stage creaked, rattled, and rocked to and fro down the bumpy road as Heath looked out the window at the passing countryside; satisfied with the knowledge that each passing mile only brought him closer to home. The trees, bushes, and hillsides all blended into one as he thought about his family.
Looking across the way at his brother Nick couldn't help but notice the smile on Heath's face as he watched the country side go by. "What's so interesting?" Questioned Nick as he bent forward and looked out the window for himself.
"What? Oh, nothin Nick." Heath replied as he snapped back to the present and sat up straighter in his seat.
"Thinkin about Anna?" Nick questioned as he watched the smile return to Heath's face.
"Her and the kids," he answered, as his cheeks grew red.
"Damn boy that girls got you just where she wants you." Nick laughed, as Heath grew even redder. "I think it's worse now then when you first met her." He added his eyes sparkling with laughter.
"I did leave her alone with six kids Nick, I'm just wonder’ in how she made out." Heath stated as he twisted uncomfortably in his seat.
"Oh if I know Mother she's been out there everyday helping Anna. She's probably enjoying the fact that we're gone, it gives her more time to spend with her grandchildren." Nick said as he slapped Heath's knee. "And you know how well her and Anna get along."
Heath had to smile; Anna and Victoria were like mother and daughter. Their relationship had grown over the years in to one any parent would envy.
"Besides we'll be there in a few hours, just relax." Nick added as sat back and tilted his hat down over his eyes. Lifting his hat back up he looked over at Heath, "besides with all those kids I doubt you'll have a quiet moment once your home." He said laughing before pulling his hat back down over his face.
"Home," how could one word mean so much he wondered? Thinking about his family, he closed his eyes and let the motion of the stagecoach lull him to sleep.
The call for Stockton and the sudden slowing of the stagecoach brought both of its passengers out of their slumber. Looking out the window as the stage pulled up to the station Heath saw her; Anna. His heart beat faster and his hands began to sweat as he drank in her beauty. His love for her only grew with each passing day, he was sure one day his heart would simply burst with in his chest unable to contain the love he felt for her.
"Papa! Papa!" Came a chorus of shouts as five young children rushed the stage. Opening the door and jumping down from the coach, Heath was instantly surrounded as each of his children tried to hug him at once. Being the smallest Thomas was squeezed out by his older brothers and sister and looked up at his father with such a sad face Heath had to chuckle. Kneeling down Heath extended his arms out to Thomas who rushed into them and clung with all his might around his father's neck.
"I missed you Papa," he said in a small voice as he tried not to cry.
"And I you Thomas," Heath replied as he hugged the small child to him. "All of you," he added looking up at his children. Rushing forward they hugged their father as he remained on his knees.
"What's all the commotion out here?" Nick shouted as he jumped down out of the stage with his hat pulled low and his hands on his hips.
"Hi Uncle Nick!" Liam and James shouted as they raced up to their favorite uncle.
As the children left Heath to say their hellos to their uncle, Heath turned and faced Anna. The smile on her face matched the one on his own as he held out his hands to her. Taking her hands, he pulled her towards him and wrapped his arms around her tightly hugging her close. Turning her head so her face was in the snug hollow of his neck, Anna hugged him and drank in his scent as she felt his arms engulf her. She had waited so long to have him this close her emotions played a trick on her as a tear traced its way down her face.
Letting go, Heath held Anna out in front of him and took a good look at her. Seeing the tear on her cheek, he reached up with his hand and gently brushed it away with his thumb. "What is it Anna? What's wrong?" He asked quietly.
"Really it's nothing..." Anna began before Heath stopped her.
"Anna you're crying." Heath said as he cupped her cheek in his hand.
"I've just missed you so," Anna stated as she fell back into his arms.
Heath held her tight and ran his hand through her hair as he comforted her. Reaching his hand up, he swept a soft curl from her face, "I love you Anna," he said before brushing her forehead with a gentle kiss.
The wagon ride back to Heath and Anna's home was one of constant chatter and laughter. Thomas sat up front between Anna and Heath and enjoyed having his father so close. Sean, Mary, Liam and James sat in the back peppering their father with all kinds of questions as they made their way home. Heath took it all in good stride, answered all of their questions, and asked a few of his own in return.
Pulling up in front of his barn, Heath jumped down from the wagon with Thomas and then walked around to help Anna down.
"We can take care of the wagon Pa," Stated Sean as he Liam and James ran up next to their father.
"See’ in as how I'm a might tired, I'm gonna take you boys up on your offer." Heath replied as he smiled down at his boys.
Sean, Liam, and James were all smiles as they started to lead the team into the barn.
"Can I help too, Papa?" Thomas questioned as he looked up at his father.
"I thought you were going to read your new book to me?" Heath replied as he bent down and picked up his smallest son.
"Oh yah," Thomas stated as he hugged his fathers neck.
Anna laughed quietly at Thomas and Heath as Heath tried to walk with his son wrapped around his neck. "Thomas, let your father breathe," she stated trying hard not to laugh.
Thomas reluctantly let go and Heath lifted him up and placed him on his shoulders. Taking Anna's hand they continued towards the house as Mary ran up ahead. As they neared the front porch, the door opened and out stepped Victoria carrying baby Jennifer.
"Heath! Welcome home," Victoria stated as she waited for him to walk up the steps.
Taking Thomas down off his shoulders, Heath bent forward and kissed his Mother on the cheek. "Thank you, for everything Mother." He said as she embraced him.
Reaching out towards her father, Jenny made her presence known. "This can't be the same little girl I left a few short weeks ago." Heath stated as he took Jenny into his arms. "Look how big you've gotten," he added as he hugged her close.
Cooing with delight, baby Jenny grabbed her father's hair in one hand and his nose in another and hung on. "She's gotten stronger too," Heath laughed as he carried his daughter into the house. Sitting down in the large living room, Heath held baby Jenny out in front of him and sat her down on his knee.
"How's Papa's little one?" He asked as he held onto her hands and gently bounced her up and down on his knee. Jenny laughed and giggled as only babies can as her father played with her.
"Papa?" Mary questioned as she stood next to the chair Heath and Jenny were playing in.
"What is it Mary," Heath replied as he stopped bouncing Jenny and smiled up at her.
"Can I show you what Jenny learned while you were away?" She asked as her eyes sparkled with the anticipation of his answer.
"No time like the present," Heath stated as his daughter smiled and rushed over to the phonograph.
Winding it up, Mary set the needle down as the phonograph began to spin and a waltz was soon heard playing. Taking baby Jenny into her arms she began to waltz with her as their father watched. Letting Jenny down she placed her little sister’s feet on her own and held onto her hands as they slowly danced around the room together.
"Well I'll be," Heath stated happily, as he rose to his feet.
"It's just like when you taught me Papa," beamed Mary happily.
Watching his daughters dance Heath felt Anna's arm slide around his waist. Turning towards his wife, he took her hand and led her out onto the dance floor with their daughters. Looking a little dejected Thomas watched as his Mama and Papa danced. He didn't watch for very long before his grandmother scooped him up as her dancing partner. All three couples danced and laughed together as the record played on. As the song ended, Heath held Anna close and gently brushed her lips with a kiss. "I love you Anna," he said quietly as he ran his hand across her cheek. Letting go of Anna, Heath turned towards Mary. "How about give’ in yer old Pa here a chance?" He asked as he extended his hand out to her.
Smiling Mary handed baby Jenny over to her mother and took her fathers hand. As the music began both father and daughter looked at one another, "Papa? Can we do it like old times?" She asked unsure of his answer.
"Of course we can," Heath replied as Mary lit up like the forth of July. Kicking off her shoes, she stepped up onto her father’s boots and danced around the room in his arms. Closing her eyes as her father held her close Mary realized just how much she had missed him. She wasn't big on the outdoors like her brothers but that never seemed to bother her father. He always managed to take time out of his busy schedule and do the things she liked. He'd taken her to plays with Uncle Jarrod and Aunt Audra in San Francisco; he would sit patiently and have a tea party with her and her dolls. He was also the first one in line to try her cooking, and he never complained if it wasn't very good. But dancing was what she loved doing with her father the most, the way he twirled her around and treated her like a princess straight out of one of Thomas books made her feel magical.
As the music, ended Heath hugged Mary and whispered in her ear. "You've done a fine job with Jenny Mary, I'm proud of you. You're a better teacher than I am."
"No ones as good as you Papa," Mary whispered back before kissing his cheek.
As he kissed his daughter on top of her head, he felt a tug on his pant leg. Looking down a pair of big blue eyes stared back up at him. "My turn now Papa." Thomas stated as he held his arms up to his father.
Picking his son up Heath asked him if he wanted to dance, "no Papa, story time." He answered as he pointed over to his father's favorite chair. Sitting down with Thomas on his lap, Heath asked the boy what book he wanted. "Uncle Nick story Papa," Thomas stated as he curled up next to Heath.
"OK an Uncle Nick story it is," replied Heath as he wrapped his arm around his son and began. With the excitement of having his father home and all the running around he'd done that day, it wasn't long before Thomas was fast asleep against his father's chest.
Hearing Thomas's heavy breathing, Heath ran his fingers through the small boy’s hair. Sitting back and cradling his son against his chest Heath remembered back to the night almost two years ago when they'd almost lost him. Scarlet fever had worked its way through the valley and landed on Heath and Anna's doorstep. Mary had been the first to come down with it followed by James, Liam, and finally Thomas. Heath, Anna, and Sean had all been spared. Mary and the twins both had mild cases and over came their illness rather quickly, but Thomas hadn't been quite so lucky. Being that Thomas was only two years old, his body wasn't able to fight off the illness as easily as his older brothers and sister.
His fever had jumped so high at one point that even bathing him in ice water wasn't bringing it down. Heath remembered how limp and lifeless Thomas felt as they tried along with the doctor to bring his temperature down. Then the unthinkable had happened, Thomas stopped breathing. The next few moments passed by in a blur as Heath took Thomas away from Doctor Merer and held him to his chest. "Breath Thomas!" He shouted as he held his son against his chest. "Listen to me Thomas if you don't breathe right now you won't be able to help me in the barn any more!" Heath said as tears streamed down his face.
Anna and doctor Merer were almost in shock as they watched Thomas start to move in his father's arms. Taking a big gulp of air Thomas began to cry.
"That's it Thomas," Heath cried as he held onto his son. Ever since that night, Thomas and Heath had formed a special bond. To Thomas his father was the greatest most magnificent person in the entire world and he followed him everywhere.
Coming back to the present, Heath kissed the little blonde head and cradled the boy in his arms as he stood up from the chair. Carrying him upstairs, Heath gently laid the sleeping child on his bed and covered him with a blanket. Turning around in the doorway before he walked out of the room, Heath stood and watched Thomas sleep.
"He really missed you," Anna said quietly as she walked up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
"I missed him too," Heath replied as he turned to face Anna, "and you." Heath stated as he placed his hand along her jaw line and gently tilted her head back. Anna raised her lips to meet his, his mouth was on hers, stifling her breath, his lips warm searching, sending spirals of ecstasy through her. Anna closed her eyes and arched against him as pleasurable little stabs shot down her body into the pit of her stomach. Waves of ecstasy throbbed through her as she felt his hand on her lower back pressing her even closer. Anna slipped her hand inside his shirt and let it glide over his warm, smooth skin and tangle in the curly hair on his chest. She had waited so long to feel his body next to hers again.
Heath's love for Anna was like a title wave rushing over him, drowning him. He was lost in its massive current, quickly being swept away. Breaking off their kiss, he held her close trying to bring himself under control. "Well Mrs. Barkley, I see we have some catching up to do," he said as he brushed his hand through her hair.
"That we do Mr. Barkley, that we do," laughed Anna as she swatted his arm playfully.
Life quickly returned to normal around the Barkley ranches as spring turned into summer and school let out. No one was happier about that then Sean Barkley. It meant he could finally spend his days around the ranch with his father working with the horses he so loved. It also meant Jessie and Katie might visit soon; he missed not having his older brother around. He knew Jessie wasn't really his blood brother but that never stopped Sean or his brothers and sisters from loving him like one. His Pa had explained a long time ago how Jessie had come to live with him and Anna after the death of his family. The older Sean grew the more he realized how hard it must have been for Jessie, he couldn't imagine going through the pain his older brother had.
"That's the last one," Heath stated as he threw the last hay bale up into the loft. "We'd better get cleaned up for dinner; your Ma would kill us if we brought all this into the house." He added while he swatted hay off his cloths.
Laughing, Sean walked out of the barn and over to the water pump with his father. After running his head under the cool water, Sean shook the water from his hair and looked off down the road. "Someone's comin Pa," he said wiping the water from his face.
As Heath looked up at the rider, a strange feeling overcame him, the rider looked familiar but he couldn't quite place him. As the rider continued on his slow pace, Heath shielded his eyes against the sun to get a better look. "Jessie," Heath whispered as he recognized the rider.
"Who is it Pa?" Sean questioned as he watched his fathers face light up.
"Sean go run to the house and tell yer Mother, Jessie's home," Heath stated as he smiled and held onto his son's upper arms.
A smile a mile wide lit up Sean's face as he took off across the yard towards the house. "Ma, Ma!" He shouted as he raced up the front steps and burst through the front door.
"Sean what is it?" Asked a concerned Anna as she met her son just inside the front door.
"Jessie's comin!" Sean replied as he pointed out the door.
Walking out onto the front porch with Sean, Anna looked down the road and saw a lone rider off in the distance. Her heart skipped a beat as she recognized Jessie. "Sean run and find Liam and James, they're out back. I'll get the girls and Thomas." Anna stated before racing back into the house.
Heath stood by the barn and watched as Jessie picked up his horses pace and quickly covered the rest of the distance between them. Dismounting he tied up his horse and turned to greet Heath, "howdy Heath!" He said jubilantly as he extended his hand.
"Boy howdy Jessie, why didn't you tell us you were comin?" Heath questioned as he grabbed Jessie's outstretched hand and pulled him into a bear hug. "It sure is good ta see ya," he added as he finally let go. "Where's Katie?"
"She's still back east, she had a few things ta finish up before movin out here." Jessie stated as he watched Heath's shocked expression.
"Moving?" Heath questioned, as he took a step closer to Jessie, almost not daring to believe what he’d just heard.
"That's right, yer look’ in at Stockton's newest veterinarian." Stated Jessie proudly.
"When did all this happen?" Heath asked as he shook Jessie's hand heartedly.
"Ole Doc Severenson mailed me a letter about two months ago asking if I wanted to take over his practice at the end of June. Seems his misses finally talked him into retiring;" laughed Jessie, "sorry I didn't tell ya sooner Heath, I kind a wanted it to be a surprise."
"Oh it's a surprise all right, just wait until Anna sees you." Heath stated as he put his arm across Jessie's shoulders and walked him towards the house. They hadn't gone far when Anna came rushing across the yard towards them.
"Jessie!" She shouted as she raced across the yard to greet him. Meeting her half way Jessie caught her in his arms and spun her around.
"You're as beautiful as ever Anna," he said smiling as he placed her back down on the ground.
"Oh Jessie, it's good to see you." Anna stated as she lovingly ran her hand over his cheek.
"Now that can't be Mary and little Thomas," Jessie stated as he looked over Anna's shoulder at the three children behind her.
"Hi Jessie!" Mary said as she walked up next to her mother-carrying baby Jenny on her hip. "This is Jennifer, you haven't met her yet." Mary added as she took a step closer to Jessie. "Jenny this here is our big brother Jessie, you don't gotta worry he's real nice." She said before handing Jenny over to Jessie.
The little girl looked at the new man and then back at her mother and father. Both wore big smiles on their faces so she figured she could trust the man holding her.
"Hi there little lady, sorry I haven't been around till now. I promise I'll be around a lot more real soon." Jessie stated as Jenny held onto his finger and looked at him. Deciding she liked this new man with the soft green eyes, Jenny grabbed onto his hair with one hand and his nose with the other. "Ouch," Jessie stated as his eyes began to water. "She's got some grip," he laughed.
"Jenny stop that," Anna said as she lifted the small girl out of Jessie's arms.
Looking down Jessie noticed a set of small arms wrapped around Heath's leg. Squatting down he looked around Heath's leg trying to find the body belonging to the arms. Looking over at him plastered to the side of his father's leg was a carbon copy of Heath. "What's the matter Thomas, don't ya remember me?" Jessie questioned as he smiled at the shy youngster.
Shaking his head no, Thomas remained glued to his father's leg.
"Well I know it's been almost two years but surly ya haven't forgotten our favorite song." Jessie said as he tried to help Thomas remember.
"Oh, come by the hills to the land where fancy is free. Stand where the peaks meet the sky and the boughs meet the sea; where rivers run clear, bracken is gold in the sun; Ah, the cares of tomorrow can wait till this day is done."
"Oh, come by the hills to the land where life is a song. Stand where the birds fill the air with their joy all day long, Where the trees sway in time, even the wind sings a tune; Ah, the cares of tomorrow can wait till this day is done."
As Jessie finished part of the song Thomas's eyes lit up. "Jessie!" he shouted as he ran into his brother's arms.
"See I knew ya wouldn't go forgettin me," Jessie said as he hugged Thomas.
"Jessie! Jessie!" Came a chorus of shouts as three young boys raced across the yard towards them. Sean was the first to reach Jessie and crashed into him like a runaway freight train. Liam and James followed closely behind their older brother and slammed into Jessie with equal force.
"Whoa," stated Jessie as he tried to catch his balance.
"Come on boys, let's get Jessie settled. He's had a long trip." Anna stated as she started walking towards the house.
"Come on Jessie we can share a room like we used to!" Sean exclaimed as he pulled on Jessie's arm.
"We want Jessie to stay with us," stated Liam and James as they pulled on Jessie's other arm.
“Boys that's enough, at least let your brother get inside the house before you pull him apart." Anna laughed as she looked back at Jessie.
Chuckling, Heath stood and watched as poor Jessie was led all the way to the house by his over exuberant brothers. "Papa?" Thomas questioned as he squeezed his father's hand. Looking down Heath had to smile at the small boy looking up at him. "Yes Thomas."
"Since’ in Jessie is stay’ in with Sean can you stay with me tonight?" Thomas asked, as he held on even tighter to Heath's hand.
Bending down Heath took off his hat and placed it on the young boys head, looking him in the eye, Heath replied. "What about your Mama? Don't you think she'd get mighty lonely without me in the room with her?" Heath questioned as he watched Thomas think it over.
"But Mama has Mary and Jenny; they could stay with her while you stayed with me." He answered his smile lighting up his face.
"Why don't we go inside and see what your Mama has to say about all this, OK?" Said Heath as he lifted Thomas up over his head and placed him on his shoulders.
"OK Papa," replied Thomas as he held on to his father's head as they walked across the yard.
Poor Jessie hardly had a moment's peace all evening as he was pulled from activity to activity between five different siblings. Anna finally brought a halt to the evening by ushering the children up to bed. As Jessie, Anna and Heath sat in the kitchen talking over Jessie's future move back to the valley; Heath felt a small tug on his shirtsleeve. Looking down he wasn't at all surprised to see Thomas looking up at him.
"Thomas you're supposed to be sleeping," Heath stated as he picked the small boy up and placed him on his knee.
"I can't Papa," Thomas replied in a sad voice.
"Oh and why is that?" Heath questioned as he raised an eyebrow.
Bending forward and whispering in his father's ear, Thomas replied. "Because I need a story."
"Oh I see," replied Heath as he stood up from the table with Thomas in his arms. "If you'll excuse me I'll be back in a few minutes." Heath said as he carried Thomas towards the stairs.
"Nite Mama, nite Jessie," Thomas yelled as he waved at them.
"What was all that about?" Jessie questioned as he looked over at Anna's smiling face.
"A story," Anna replied as she took a sip of her coffee.
"A story?" Jessie questioned as he looked to Anna for answers.
"Remember two years ago when we almost lost Thomas?" Anna questioned as she took Jessie's hand.
"Of course," Jessie replied thinking back to that awful night.
"Well ever since that night Heath and Thomas have shared a very special bond. Every night before bed, Heath tells Thomas a story. Usually they're tales about adventures he and Nick had while working out on the range. Thomas usually never lasts more than 5 minutes before falling asleep in his father's arms. I don't think he's made it through a single story yet.” Laughed Anna.
"I could tell he's pretty close to Heath, you can see it every time he looks at him." Stated Jessie.
"I know, I worry about it sometimes," Anna stated quietly. "I mean his fathers his whole world right now."
"Don't worry Anna, I grew out of it." Jessie laughed, "just give him some time." He added squeezing her hand.
"That's right," laughed Anna, "you followed Heath everywhere, you even dressed like him."
"Ya had to go and bring that up," Jessie exclaimed before he joined Anna in a good laugh.
Anna and Jessie continued to catch up with one another until Jessie found it hard to keep his eyes open any longer. "Sorry Anna," he said as another yawn escaped his lips. "All that rough house’ in did me in."
"Come on Jessie, let's get you settled in upstairs." Anna stated as she stood up and extended her hand out to him.
As Anna led Jessie up the stairs, she stopped to peek in on her husband. Opening the door to their bedroom Anna found Heath sound asleep in a chair with Thomas curled up on top of him. Motioning for Jessie to join her, Anna whispered in his ear. "Looks like neither one made it to the end tonight."
Warm memories flooded back as Jessie watched the sleeping pair. He remembered how secure he once felt in Heath's arms and knew exactly why Thomas would rather be there than anywhere else. "I can tuck myself in Anna, why don't you get them settled." Jessie whispered before kissing her cheek.
"I'm glad you're home Jessie," Anna replied as she returned his kiss.
Walking down the all too familiar hall, Jessie soon found himself standing in front of his old bedroom door. The good times he'd shared here brought a tear to his eye. Opening the door, he had to carefully step over the twins as they slept on the floor together. Making his way quietly over to his old bed, he glanced over at Sean who was sleeping peacefully across the room. Undressing he crawled under the covers and listened to all the familiar night sounds of the house he'd loved so much growing up. It wasn't long before the sandman claimed him and he drifted of into a peaceful sleep.
The smell of bacon roused him from his slumber, stretching his arms and legs he looked out the window and noticed how high in the sky the sun was. Flinging back the covers Jessie jumped out of bed and quickly dressed. Running a hand through his hair on the way downstairs, he soon found himself in the kitchen with Anna and baby Jenny.
"Morn’ in Anna," Jessie greeted happily, as he kissed her cheek. "And how's our pretty little lady doing this morning?" He asked Jenny as he sat down next to her high chair. Jenny smiled at Jessie and babbled on as only babies can.
Jessie's eyes widened as Anna set a large plate of eggs, bacon, ham, and toast in front of him. "This smells heavenly Anna," Jessie commented as he savored the delicious aromas. "You won't be interested in giving Katie a few cooking lessons when she comes, would you?" Jessie questioned as he dug into his plate.
"Jessie!" Anna stated as she crossed her arms and smiled at him. "She can't be all that bad."
"Let's put it this way Anna, I'd rather eat Heath's beans." He laughed as he continued to shove in more food.
"I'll see what I can do Jessie, but no promises." She laughed as she cleaned up the rest of the breakfast dishes. "When you're finished, Heath's out in the corral working with a new mare."
"Thanks Anna," Jessie said as he crammed the last bit of food into his mouth and headed out the back door. Anna smiled as she watched him run across the yard towards the corral. He might be all grown up now but she could still easily see the little boy in him.
Approaching the corral Jessie wasn't at all surprised to see Thomas watching his father as he tried to tame a new mare. Picking the small boy up, Jessie placed him on the fence and held onto him so he could get a better view.
"Papa's talk’ in to her so she's not scared," Thomas whispered as he pointed towards the mare.
"Your Papa's really good with horses," Jessie replied in a whisper.
"He's the best," replied little Thomas, as his love for his father shown clearly on his face and in his voice.
Jessie and Thomas continued to watch Heath in silence as he walked the mare around the ring and talked to her. Before long, the mare was following Heath around and playfully nudging him with her nose. Leading the horse over towards Jessie and Thomas, Heath picked up Thomas and took him towards the mare.
"All right Thomas, she's still a little shy so you'll need to use your church voice when you talk to her. Move real slow and let her smell you before you touch her, all right?" Heath questioned as he carried the small boy out into the coral.
"Yes Papa," Thomas replied in a whisper as his eyes sparkled with excitement.
Heath brought Thomas to within a few feet of the mare before stopping. "All right Thomas, why don't you try talking to her?" Heath said quietly as he held onto his son.
Looking from his father to the mare, Thomas began to talk. "Hi I'm Thomas," he said quietly. "My Papa said you was scared. You don't have ta be he's real nice. I promise he won't hurt ya none. Yer real pretty, I bet yer Mama was too. My Mama's in the house and she's the prettiest Mama ever. Even prettier than Aunt Audra, she's my Papa's sister and she's real nice too. She likes horses. See that guy over there?" Thomas asked as he slowly pointed at Jessie. "He's my big brother Jessie. I haven't seen him since I was a baby. He went out east after he got married. He learned how to be a doctor. But not a people doctor a animal doctor. He could take care of you if you got sick. And he's comin back here to live too."
The mare took a step closer to Thomas and nudged the boy's arm as he continued to talk. Reaching his small hand out slowly he gently rubbed the mare's nose. "Yer real soft, Papa says you have a real nice coat. Doesn't it get hot out in the sun with a coat on?" Thomas questioned as Heath took a step backwards. The mare followed and kept her eyes on the little boy he was carrying. Thomas continued talking to the mare as Heath backed up to the fence with the mare following his every move.
"I gotta go now, it was real nice talk’ in to ya." Thomas stated as he rubbed the mares nose one last time. Handing Thomas over the fence to Jessie, Heath led the mare towards the pasture.
"You did a real fine job with that mare Thomas," Jessie stated as he set the boy down on the ground.
"She's a good horse; I can see it in her eyes." Thomas replied as he beamed a smile up at Jessie.
Jessie ruffled Thomas's blonde hair and was taken back again at how closely he resembled Heath. Jessie imagined Heath must have looked just like Thomas when he was younger.
"Thomas..." Anna called from the back porch as she held baby Jenny in her arms.
"I gotta go Jessie, Mama wants me." Thomas stated as he took off running towards the house. Jessie laughed as the little boy in tan pants and a blue shirt ran up to his Mama on the back porch and hugged her skirt.
Vaulting over the fence Heath landed next to Jessie. "What ya say we ride out and find Nick, I know he'd love ta see ya." Heath stated as he slapped Jessie on the back.
"Ya know I've actually missed that old bark of his." Jessie laughed as the pair walked into the barn.
Riding across Barkley range, Jessie marveled in the beauty all around him. He hadn't realized until now how much he truly missed the valley. He'd dearly missed Heath and Anna not to mention all his brothers and sisters but he truly never thought you could miss a place as much as he had. He'd learned a lot in Boston and loved the diversity the town offered but when the chance to come home again presented itself, Jessie had jumped at the opportunity. He'd been worried that Katie wouldn't want to leave Boston but as he told her about the job back here in the valley she too jumped at the chance to come home.
Wiping the sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve, Nick looked up as he heard the sound off approaching horses. Quickly picking out his brother on Charger, it took him a moment to place the other rider. "Jessie!" He said aloud as he dropped his hammer and waited for the approaching riders.
"Well I'll be, look who finally decided to come home!" Nick shouted as Jessie jumped down from his mount and walked over to him.
"It's good ta see ya Nick," Jessie said as he was pulled into Nick's strong embrace.
"How are ya boy?" Nick questioned as he held Jessie out in front of him and looked him over.
"Good Nick," Jessie replied with a smile a mile wide.
"When'd ya get here? And what brought ya back?" Nick questioned enthusiastically as he continued to look Jessie over.
Looking up at Heath Jessie had to laugh, Nick hadn't changed at all. Age hadn't mellowed him one bit, and for that Jessie was grateful.
"Yer looking at Stockton's newest Vet," Heath stated as he clapped Jessie on the shoulder.
Nick looked from Heath to Jessie and then back to Heath, " what? What about Doc Severenson?"
"Seems his wife finally talked him into retire’ in." Heath replied as he smiled at Jessie.
"He offered me his practice," Jessie added as he watched Nick's surprised expression.
"So that means........" Nick started before Jessie stepped forward and put his hand on Nick's shoulder.
"It means Katie and I are moving home," Jessie replied as he gripped Nick's shoulder.
"Ha ha! That's wonderful!" Nick shouted as he hugged Jessie so hard he lifted him right off the ground. "That my boy is cause for a celebration!" Nick added as he finally let go of Jessie. "What'd ya say we ride into town and have a few drinks at Big Annie's."
"Nick it's only 10:30 in the morning," Heath informed him.
"Oh," Nick replied a little dejected.
"How about we help you finish up here Nick, by then it should be lunchtime." Jessie offered up as he walked over towards the fence Nick was mending.
"You better throw on a pair of gloves; I wouldn't want you to get a blister on those lily white hands." Nick joked, as he tossed a pair of gloves at Jessie.
"Funny Nick, I can still out work you any day." Jessie countered as he winked at Heath.
"Oh is that so!" Nick exclaimed as he picked up his hammer. "Well we'll just see about that!" He added as he tore back into his work.
Heath pushed back his hat and watched as Nick tried to work harder and faster than Jessie. A smile crept across his face as Jessie continued to badger Nick. Listening to them took him back to the time Jessie first arrived on the ranch. He'd been so shy and quiet but quickly came out of his shell in a large part thanks to Nick. He remembered even as a child Jessie could get Nick riled up almost as quickly as himself. It was good to see Jessie hadn't lost that ability.