Heath walked though the corridor of the school, his eyes searching for the classroom of Matty, Nicholas and James. Locating it, he knocked on the door.
"Come in," a female voice said.
Heath opened the door and took off his hat. "Miss. Davies? Heath Barkley, I got your message about my son, Matty."
Miss. Davies who was a new teacher in town had not met the Barkleys before and was glad of the introduction. "Oh, Mr. Barkley, I'm so glad you have come. I am really sorry for what has happened. Johnny and Matty are such good friends. I don't know what got into Johnny to hurt him that way."
"Pa, Johnny Edwards called Matty a bad word," Nicholas volunteered as he ran to his father from the back of the class. He and his brother James had been comforting Matty who was sitting at the back of the room crying. The brothers were very close with only a year separating them. Matty was the eldest at seven, then came Nicholas at six and last came James who was just five years old and in his first year of school.
Nicholas and James hadn't really understood why Matty was so upset, their innocent minds not knowing what the word bastard meant, but their support for their brother came all the same.
Heath's face was stern when confronted with the news, but softened for the sake of his worried son. Ruffling his son's hair, he said: "Nicholas, will you take Matty and James out to the buggy? I'll be out in a minute. I just want a word with Miss. Davies."
Nicholas nodded, knowing he was been given an important responsibility. Taking his brothers' hands he led them outside. Heath and Miss. Davies watched the little boys go and close the door behind them.
"I'm so sorry Mr. Barkley. I want you to know that I will be seeing Mr. Edwards about Johnny's unacceptable behavior. Johnny and Matty are such good friends. I know it is just an argument that got out of hand. I don't even think Johnny fully understands what he said, though where he picked the word up I have no idea."
Heath nodded. "I appreciate that. I know Hank Edwards. His son, Johnny isn't a bad child. A few words from his father will help him understand his behavior was wrong. Now, if you'll excuse me I want to talk to my sons."
"Of course.. And Mr. Barkley. Again, I'm so sorry."
Heath smiled a sad smile. "Life isn't always fair. I hoped to protect my children, but I've learned you can't always do that."
Heath drove his sons out of town and stopped by the river that meandered just on the outskirts and fed lazily into the south part of the ranch. It was a hot summers day and as he helped each of them down from the buggy, he gave into Nicholas and James' cries for them to take off their shoes and socks so they could dip their feet in the water to cool off.
Removing his own shoes and socks and then those of a subdued Matty, he walked down to the water's edge holding Matty's hand securely in his and soon four pairs of feet were kicking the cool water.
Matty's face remained tear strained and his face deep in thought. Heath put a comforting arm around him and Matty instantly climbed up and then curled up on to his father's lap. Nicholas and James looked on, their little faces full of concern. Heath held Matty close for several moments, just letting him know he was loved.
It was Nicholas' forthright voice which asked the question they all wanted the answer to. "Pa? What is a bastard?"
Heath saw Matty's head lift up, waiting for his father to answer.
Heath sighed, remembering his own past and regretting that Matty had to experience something similar. "A bastard is a child whose parents are not married."
Nicholas considered the matter for the moment. "A mommy and a daddy should be married, shouldn't they?" he reasoned.
How to answer, Heath thought. "Well yes, in the sight of God and according to society's rules, but it is not always the case. Sometimes circumstances mean a mommy and a daddy aren't always married. It doesn't mean though that they love their child any less."
"My mommy and daddy weren't married?" Matty asked.
"No. From what we were able to find out, no they weren't." Heath answered honestly
"Oh, I see.. Then when Johnny called me a bastard, he wasn't telling a lie, like I thought?"
"No, he wasn't, but I don't really think Johnny understood what he was saying. What he said was hurtful and not nice. I think you will find he will realize that and apologize tomorrow."
"I don't want to be a bastard. I don't want to be different from my friends."
"I know," Heath said, pulling him closer. "It's hard to be different when all you want to do is fit in."
"You know? How?"
Heath kissed Matty's head and whispered in his ear. "Because I am a bastard too."
Matty gasped and so did his brothers. "You are? You mean your parents weren't married either?"
"No. My father was married to your Grandmother Victoria but my real mother's name was Leah. She and my father met and loved each other for a while and I was born out of that love."
"Out of love? Was I born out of love?"
"I am absolutely sure of it Matty," Heath reassured him. "Your real mother and father couldn't stay with you very long. God took them to His kingdom to look after them and then he sent me to look after and raise you."
Heath nodded. "And I am so glad he did Matty. I am very proud to have you for a son. And I know your mother is too. We both love you very much, just as we love Nicholas and James here and all your brothers and sisters.
"I can't promise that someone won't call you a bastard again, Matty, or try to hurt you. Unfortunately, there are people who take pleasure in hurting others. Often, I think it is because these people are unhappy themselves that they strike out at others. I don't think Johnny is like that and so if he apologizes tomorrow, I suggest you accept his apology and be friends again. I think you will both learn from this experience and be better friends because of it."
"You think? I do like Johnny. I don't want to lose him as a friend."
"Well, there you go then. Don't you think he deserves a second chance to be your friend?"
Matty thought about the subject. "I guess so."
"I love you and mommy."
A beautiful smile swept across Heath's face as he took in his son's words. "Oh and we love you too, Matty. More than you will ever know."
Father and son hugged each other for several minutes and Nicholas and James quickly joined in.
Collecting himself, Heath said eventually through a slightly choked voice, "Now which of my sons wants a swim?"
"Me! Me!" Nicholas and James chorused. "And Me!" Matty added, his little soul happy and secure again.