Heath lay in bed, utterly fed up, sore, embarrassed, bored and restless. Life was made worse by the fact that he had to lie on his stomach and only on his stomach. Why because his faithful horse had thrown him four days ago and landed him painfully and bloodily in twisted barbed wire. And it hurt, boy did it hurt! Nick had got to him quick and with one of the hands, quickly cut away at the barbed wire that Heath lay on. Heath fortunately, knowing how barbed wire worked, lay as still as he could, though Nick could see the pain it was causing him as each barb dug into or scraped his skin. They had carried him, torn clothes and skin, bleeding and in pain to a supply wagon where they quickly gave him what medical attention they could before making the journey home. His back, buttocks and legs were affected the worst and though they had placed him on his stomach, each jolt of the wagon on the unforgiving roads of the day added to his misery and pain.
With relief all round they reached the mansion and carried him inside and then quickly upstairs. Meg, her legs made swift from seeing her husband hurt and in pain, ran up the stairs to prepare the bed, swiftly pulling the bed covers back and gather water and medical supplies to tend her injured husband, whilst Victoria moved quickly to gather the worried children so they kept out of the way.
Some time later, Heath, lay sleeping in bed, his clothes removed, his body washed and his cuts cleaned and dressed, fresh blood seeping through as it would do for a while whilst his body healed. A single sheet covered him as he lay there and Doctor Merar had just left, advising care for the injured man.
He had spent four days like this, alone in this bed, for Meg had moved into the guest room next door, not a situation which pleased him, but physically he was in no shape to do anything about it. Fortunately, he had slept for a good part and that suited him. Awake, he had to suffer the temporary indignities his incapacity caused him. Nick helped him with bathroom requirements, Meg fed him, sponge bathed him and dressed his wounds and his mother applied her tried and tested liniment, the smell of which made him poor company even for himself.
"I need to take your temperature," seventy-five year old Doctor Merar advised.
"Alright," Heath sighed, attempting to raise himself up so he could accept the thermometer in his mouth. Instead of the thermometer he inhaled a sharp gasp of air when he felt the cool instrument invade cheeks that in no way could be described as any where near his face. "Hey, what the!" he exclaimed as he lay helpless against the undignified assault.
The increasingly eccentric Doctor Merar just laughed at the younger man's objection, "Stop complaining Heath, it's as good as place to take your temperature as anywhere. Now lie still and don't break it, whilst I take a look at these wounds." As the doctor's hands investigated, Heath soon forget how his temperature was being taken and instead grimaced and bit his lips as the doctor lifted various dressings from his sensitive and still painful skin. "Healing nicely there," he heard the doctor comment, but the good news was lost as Heath continued to ride out the pain. "I'll leave the dressings off now," the doctor continued, but I want you to rest in bed for a couple of more days and keep the pressure of the wounds."
"Can I at least get up to go the bathroom?" Heath said, finally finding the power of speech after riding out the last of the sharp stabs of pain.
"With help. Get Nick to help you still. There are lots of nasty lacerations on your buttocks and sitting down is going to painful for a while. You will finding lying flat, boring as it is, far more comfortable for a few days." Heath sighed into his pillow but was brought around by the swift removal of the thermometer from his backside. It was pointless objecting and so he just waited for Doctor Merar to tell him if his temperature was coming down, going up, or staying the same.
"Good," the doctor said, adding no more. Lately, the doctor started a sentence and did not finish it, but waived off concerns that he should think about retiring. It was left to Heath to ask for more details. "Good, as in it's coming down, or just about the same?"
"Good as in your temperature is now perfectly normal. Rest is what you need now Heath. Quiet and rest. Now try get some sleep. I'll go tell Meg the good news."
Heath's head fell back to the pillow and left alone in the room he quietly began to doze.
"Well, Doc. Merar says you're doing just fine," said Nick as he entered the bedroom.
The booming, distinctly unsubtle tones woke up Heath instantly but in trying to respond with his own voice he found his power of speech lagged momentarily behind. "Huh?" he replied groggily, partially lifting his head before deciding the effort was too much and letting it fall back unceremoniously to the pillow again. No doubt about it, his brother Nick had come into the room.
After a few moments when he sensed his brother had not left the room, Heath coughed several times, trying to find the remnants of something resembling a voice and finally spluttered, "He says I need peace and quiet, Nick. Lots of peace and quiet." Half the words were lost in the pillow from where Heath had barely raised his head but enough served to get through and he hoped that his short statement would provide sufficient enough hint.
"Well he's damned right, boy!" Nick exclaimed, charging on with the conversation and sitting down on the side of the bed. The action caused Heath to grimace as his body suddenly remembered in all too many places it had been hurt. Then, without warning, Nick lifted the bed sheet off him, exposing him to anyone who might walk in and inspected the wounds.
Now Heath knew his brother very well, had done for nigh on nearly thirty years and he knew when it was both pertinent and useless to protest. This was one of those moments when it was not even worth trying.
A long whistle escaped Nick's pursed lips as he perused the angry wounds the barbed wire had inflicted on his brother. For a moment he remembered his brother trapped in its awful spiked clutches. Barbed wire was necessary to stop the cattle from straying onto neighboring land, but it was to be respected by cattle and man alike. It wasn't like Heath's horse to unseat him, but something had spooked the old thing and the consequence was a bed-ridden brother.
Heath was well use to being undressed when he was ill or injured, and was no longer modest about such things, but lying there on his front, his legs, butt and back on show, he could still find room to object, "Nick, can you put the sheet down now?" he pleaded.
Nick in his thinking had forgotten he was still holding the sheet aloft. "What? Oh sure." He said, finally letting the sheet gently fall back to the patient.
"How do they look?" Heath asked.
"Truthfully, Heath? There's a few days healing still left in them cuts."
Nick regarded his brother lying on his stomach, his only view the wall in front of him. It was awkward talking to the back of his brother's head, and it obviously strained Heath to keep half-turning it in order to meet the eye of the person he was talking to.
"Heath," Nick announced, standing up. "I don't reckon it's helping your recovery none when you consider all you got to look at all day is that damn blasted wall. I tells you what I'm going to do for you. You just lie still and I'll swing this bed here around and move it so the headrest is facing the window. That way you'll be able to look out and see a bit of what's going on outside."
Without waiting for an answer, Nick set about moving the bed, until Heath lay facing the window. "How's that?" Nick asked, pleased with his work. Again, Heath knew the answer to give, "Fine, Nick." And then just as quickly he found the bed pushed back a little so that Nick could sit down on the window sill and face his brother himself. "Knew you would prefer it," Nick said confidently, not realizing that his action had blocked out the view.
Nick crossed his arms and regarded the view from the window. "Sure is a fine day!" he exclaimed with a deep satisfying sigh. "I'll take your word for it Nick," Heath said dryly. "Nick?"
"I'm kind of tired, I think I'm going to take the doc. up on his advice and get some shuteye."
Nick took the hint without offense. "Okay, Heath. You just get better. I'll tell everyone to stay away so you can get some sleep. Count on me brother."
"Thanks Nick." Heath said putting his head down on the pillow and letting sleep claim him. Before closing his eyes he stole a glimpse outside the window and let the sun's rays warm him. Nick was right, it was better than staring at the wall.
Meg had just come down the stairs from checking Heath and was surprised to see a forlorn looking Matty sitting on the bottom step, his face resting in his hands, a desperately sad look on his face. "What is it, my darling?" She said softly as she joined him on the bottom step and hugged him close.
Matty, a cuddler, climbed up on her lap and just sat there sobbing for a while, his little body shaking with each sob. Meg held onto him close and dropped regular kisses to the top of his head as she soothed him and encouraged him to tell her what was wrong. Eventually, his sobs quietening, he lifted his tear stained face from her now moistened blouse. Wiping his eyes with the back of his hand he said in words so hushed that she struggled to hear, "Is Papa going to be alright, Mama? He isn't going to leave us, is he?"
Meg regarded her sensitive young son's face; a son gifted to her to raise, his own parents long since dead. He had lived such a sad little life until Heath had come across him in New York; an ill-treated, undernourished waif, working in a factory and running away from employers bent on punishing him with a stick. Outwardly, a tough little character in behavior and speech; needing to be to survive on his own, but underneath, a little boy, a child in need of parents to love him and a desperately sad soul.
As his parents, Heath and Meg has showered him with love, sat with him through heart-rendering nightmares and help to mend his precious, fractured heart, life and soul. He was as deep in their hearts as all their other children and they made sure he knew it, so he would never ever doubt how much he was loved. Nonetheless, a tender soul that has seen too much of the dark side of life for its early years as Matty had, is aware in a way that other children are not, that love and people are not permanent; that they can be taken away. Seeing Heath hurt, Matty feared that he too would be taken away from him, just like his own parents had been. It was too much.
"Papa is going to be just fine, my darling," Meg reassured him as she took his face tenderly in the palms of her hands so that he could look up at her and see the truth in her eyes. "He's hurt, but with rest and care your Papa is going to be just fine."
"You're sure?" Matty sniffed. It hurt so much in his chest to think that he might lose his Papa that he had to be sure. He loved him so. Him and Mama.
"I'm sure, my darling," replied Meg, using the term of endearment she reserved for all her children. She took out a clean handkerchief, not one of her lace ones, so impractical when you had small children, but one of Heath's and dabbed Matty's eyes dry with it, planting a kiss on the end of his nose as she finished which made him produce an engaging half-smile. She wanted to put a full smile on his face and suggested they go upstairs so that Matty could see his father was really alright and only sleeping. "We have to be very quiet because daddy is sleeping, alright?" Matty nodded and held his mother's hand as they climbed up the stairs. Then reaching his mother and father's bedroom they went inside and Matty was able to see his Papa for himself. Inside he crawled up on to the bed and lay down next to his father, rubbing his daddy's hand with his own small one. Meg was about to stop him, fearing Heath would wake up but considered it more important for Matty to have this time with his father. Father and son had two very different injuries but being together would help heal them both.
A while later, Matty came downstairs to find his mother. He'd slept a little and when he had awoken his father was still asleep, making that noise that Nicholas told him was snoring. His heart felt happier and he had a smile on his face when he met his mother in the kitchen. She was talking to his older brother, Thomas, who was twenty-four and he found himself playfully scooped up in his brother's arms before he reached his mother.
"What ya up to, kid?" Thomas asked. Matty giggled as his brother dangled him upside down.
"Careful, Thomas" Meg cautioned. "We'll be having lunch soon, I don't want Matty to get sick." Thomas up righted Matty and held him in his arms as they watched their mother bake.
"What say we try and steal us one?" Thomas asked his brother conspiratorially. He was well aware that Matty had been upset that morning, the story having been told to him by their mama. Matty's eyes were big as saucers as he took in the freshly baked cookies which could easily find a new home in his tummy but looked with childish censure at his brother. "We shouldn't steal one. Best to ask mama, don't you think?" he whispered.
Thomas eyed his brother seriously whilst suppressing an inward smile. "Mama could say no," he offered as a caution. Matty's face turned downcast. "I suppose Mama could," he said and then there was a heavy pause. "But we best ask all the same."
"Okay Pardner. We'll ask. Want me to do it, or do you want to ask?"
Matty got off his brother's knee and putting his hands behind his back walked over to his mother and asked politely. "Mama, please may Thomas and I have a cookie each."
Meg stopped what she was doing and bent down low to Matty's level. "Well for such a gallant request, I think you can have a glass of milk to go with it too."
Matty giggled and Meg smiled, happy to see her son laughing again.
"Mother, I'll pass on the milk, if you don't mind," Thomas announced as he stood up and made for the door. "I'll be right back down, I just need to see father about something."
Before Meg could stop him he was half-way up the stairs, his long legs taking him up two steps at a time.
Outside things were at a critical point between the Barkleys and Edwards.
"What ya done with him?" Nicholas asked, his chest puffed out with indignation, his face madder than hell. His fists flailing falling short of their target. It was all Josh could do to hold his brother back from punching eight year old Frankie Edwards even though the other boy was two years older than him and at least four inches taller.
Even held as he was by his jacket and by his big brother, Little Nicholas was rearing up to go again, his feet almost on tiptoes now as he fought to break away from Josh's hold on him.
"Be quiet Nicholas," Josh cautioned as Junior came up to face Jeb Edwards who was the same age as him. "Tell us where he is?" Heath Jr. asked. "What have you done with Little Heath?"
Thomas entered his parents bedroom. He saw his father struggling to get up.
"Father!" he shouted, rushing to his side.
Heath held onto the edge of the bed, "I'm alright son, just get me my robe, will you and then help me down the hall."
"I can get the bedpan, father." Thomas offered, worried that his father was in any fit state to move.
"You do and I'll not speak to you this side of Christmas." Heath threatened his son.
Little Heath stood staring out from the pen he had been put in wondering where his cousins were. He had been told to stand still and somebody would be by soon to let him out. He was also told not to be afraid but he was. He wasn't use to being away from his young cousins and they had all gone now.
He stood there in his little cowboy clothes and chaps and cried large pearls of tears hoping his daddy would come to get him.
Despite the stand off between Jeb Edwards and Heath jr., Jeb refused to disclose where Little Heath was being kept and a fight had ensued. Despite his brothers telling Little Nicholas to stay out of it, he threw himself into the scuffle with the help of Max the dog and was doing all he could to throw punches at Jake Edwards despite being held at arms length by the older boy. Max tried to fight for his little friend by getting hold of the Edwards boy's pant leg and pulling at it but this only served to make Jake Edwards kick out at the hound. Over to their left Heath jr and Jeb Edwards were rolling about in the dirt, Jeb's fist had contacted with Heath's eye and bloodied him slightly but the young Barkley was fighting back and now getting the upper hand. The third scuffle involved Josh Bakley and Frankie Edwards but the Edwards' lad was no match for Barkley and was soon overcome.
It was upon this scene that Jarrod Barkley stumbled as he rode his buggy into the Barkley compound. Seeing his nephews fighting he hastily secured the break to the wheel, got down from the buggy and ran over to the boys, pulling first one and then a second off the other. "Max! Let go!" he shouted at the dog who was still backing away with Jake's pant leg in his mouth. Max barked twice as he let go and received another censure.
Bending down to check Little Nicholas and seeing he was not hurt, Jarrod walked back to Josh and Heath jr to do the same. Josh was fine but the cut from Jr's eye was bleeding heavily. With a face like thunder, Jarrod reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief which he unfolded and pressed to the corner of the boy's eye, telling his nephew to keep it there. None of the boys said anything, they could see their uncle was mad.
"Now do you mind telling me what this is all about?" Jarrod asked in his lawyer voice and in a tone which would brook no nonsense. His face was stern and there was a determined set to his mouth which the boys had only rarely seen. Once seen, you did not want to encounter it twice. The boys quaked in their cowboy boots.
"They've done something with Little Heath, Uncle Jarrod!" Little Nicholas exclaimed, his face beaded with sweat from all the effort he had put in to fighting Jake Edwards in what had turned out to be a non-fight but which had felt very real for Little Nicholas.
"Is this true?" Jarrod asked, turning to the Edwards' boys.
"We ain't done anything to him. He's safe. We just took him prisoner for a while. We were only playing...."
Not wanting to hear anything more and only concerned for Little Heath's welfare, Jarrod uttered two words: "Show me!"
The Edwards' boys knowing they were going to get it not only from the Barkleys but from their own father too, ran to the pen in which they had Little Heath imprisoned. Seeing his nephew crying, Jarrod hastily got him out of there and scooped him up in his arms.
"Is he alright?" Little Nicholas asked fearfully, his little legs had meant that he was the last to arrive at the holding pen and he was panting when he arrived.
"Boys, inside!" Jarrod announced continuing to hold Little Heath and taking Nicholas by the hand. It would be some time before either Little Heath's crying or Jarrod's temper would abate and then the boys better have answers for their uncle's list of questions.
Inside, Meg was sitting reading to Anna whilst Matty lay happily on the floor coloring a drawing book, little realizing what had been happening outside. It was the quiet before the storm and the storm clouds were just about to enter the house.
Some ten minutes later, Meg returned from putting Anna down in her crib and took Little Heath from Jarrod's arms. She sat in her rocker and soothed the distressed child whilst Matty stood by her side, worried at what was going to happen to his brothers. Jarrod, mindful that his brother was sick upstairs, stood in for his sibling and paced the room in full lawyer/parent mode.
On the sofa Heath jr, Josh and Little Nicholas sat like co-defendants waiting to be cross-examined. The Edwards' boys had been sent home with a promise that Jarrod would be calling on their father later that day and also with a sharp reminder to pick on boys of their own age, not little boys who were not yet three. In truth, the boys had not meant any real harm, it was a game involving a sheriff, a posse and outlaws with the Barkleys playing the outlaws and they had not really intended any harm to Little Heath but things had got out of hand.
Jarrod regarded his three nephews. The bleeding on Jr's eye had stopped now under his mother's care and all the boys had survived the fracas more or less intact. Little Heath was the real casualty here. The boys had to understand that Little Heath for all his eagerness to join in was still small and sometimes their games simply could not include him. Above all it was incumbent on the older boys to protect the younger ones. He looked at Little Heath in Meg's arms. His crying was giving way now and safe in his aunt's arms he was beginning to settle and feel secure again. No doubt in a short time he would be up and around and will have forgotten all about it. Having heard the Edwards' boys side of the story and their admission of guilt in the proceedings Jarrod now asked his nephews to tell him and their mother their version. As he listened to Heath Jr take up the responsibility of spokesperson, he listened, his face not giving anything away and his thoughts drifting back to the fights he and his own brothers had been involved with over the years.
As Josh and Little Nicholas listened to their older brother give an account of what happened, Little Nicholas, whose arm rested on the arm of the sofa and his chin in the palm of his hand, looked over to his mother for support. Really all he wanted to do was run over to her skirts and have her ruffle his hair whilst he lay his head on her lap. Sometimes only a mother's touch would do. So he was rather surprised when his mother looked at him with disappointment in her eyes. He pondered the situation deep in his mind coming to the realization that he had hurt her by his actions and that if he had hurt her then he must have hurt his father too because as far as he was concerned his mother and father felt the same way about things. He'd wanted to play with the big boys because he thought he was grown up himself. Now he knew his fighting had upset his mother and he wasn't sure he could bear that disappointment. Nicholas was no goody-two-shoes but often his naughtiness was because of his over-exuberance. He'd never raised his fists before and yet today he had. His little mind tried to work it all out because he didn't like how he was feeling right now.
As he listened to his brother finish telling their side of events and then listened to his Uncle Jarrod express his own disappointment at how they had let their eagerness to fight overtake the more important issue of finding Little Heath he and his brothers began to learn a valuable lesson which would stand them in good stead. Whilst they maybe called upon to fight at some point in their lives, they must never let the desire for the fight overtake their reasons for doing so. Fighting had to be a last resort and it was a better man that could win by words and actions than his fists. In short it took more than the ability to fight to fill a man's boots; you had to learn when it was right and more importantly when it was not.
"They did what?" Heath lifted his head to hear better but was promptly pushed down again by Meg who then returned to trying to sponge bathe her husband whilst being careful to avoid the still angry wounds. She hated to see Heath this way, to see his skin torn in a way that made her think of the scars that had long since been on his back. Of course, the scars were old now. They would never go away but they had faded and for the most part Heath buried their memory, determined not to dwell on the past or let it rule the present. It was a good maxim. And he had taught her to do the same. Their lives traveled forward, still it served to remember the past once in a while - it made one appreciate the present even more.
"It's alright. Jr isn't hurt badly and Jarrod made them see the error of their ways." Meg continued as she updated her husband.
"Is Little Heath alright?" Heath said raising his head again and wincing as the effort made the rest of his body sting.
"He's fine. Now stop worrying." Meg replied helping him nestle down again. She learned how to handle Heath stubbornness over the years. "Your only job is to rest and get better."
"Fine job that is..." Heath said, feeling useless to his own family. If he had been up and around the fight would never had happened.
Meg heard Heath's moment of self pity. "Yes it is. It's the most important job right now, Heath Barkley," she admonished. "We need you Heath. We need you to be well, not feeling sorry for yourself. The children are just that ... children. And they will get into scrapes and we will get them out of them, hoping that they learn along the way. Some days they will make us happy and other days they will disappoint us but we will love them just the same."
"I do," Heath defended, not sure were the conversation was going.
"I know you do, darling. You couldn't love us more. I'm just saying this is normal family life and we should be well use to it by now. You being on your feet is no guarantee that you could have stopped what happened today."
Meg finished gently toweling Heath dry and placed a fresh sheet back over him, before kissing him on the side of his stubbled face. He was fed up, sore and very much out of things up here. She knew why he was talking the way that he did and made allowances. She moved to sit on the window seat so that she could face her husband.
"Hi," he said, offering her a half-smile, an acknowledgment that he knew he was being a bad patient again. She bent low and kissed his lips. "Hi," she replied as their lips parted and she returned to her seat.
"Thomas was up here before." Heath said changing the subject.
"Yes, I'm sorry about that. Nick and I have been trying to keep everyone away so that you can rest. Although I had to let Matty into see you. You were asleep, but it was so sweet, he was worried about you and so I let him come up to see you were just sleeping. Only, he climbed up on the bed. I felt sure he was going to wake you but he just lay there rubbing your hand whilst he fell asleep."
"I didn't know," Heath answered, thinking about his gentle-soul of a son. "Is he alright now?"
"He's fine. After we talked and he had seen you, he felt much better."
"Good," Heath sighed. "Tell him to come up afterwards. I'll have a few words with him."
"You should rest Heath." Meg cautioned him.
"I'll rest better when I have seen him and then I will see the boys."
"No Heath." Meg was determined Heath would not have too many visitors or be upset. "They've had their punishment. Believe me Jarrod made them think long and hard about what they did."
Heath felt suddenly redundant until Meg bent low on the floor so she was eye level with her husband. "When are you going to stop scaring me half to death, Heath Barkley? When I saw Nick and the hands bring you in.... I.....I.."
"Meg don't." Heath hated to see his wife upset.
She dabbed her face with her handkerchief and attempted a sunny face for him. "So what did Thomas have to say," she said, trying her husband's ploy of changing the subject.
"Nothing much. He just wants to go to England, iz all."
"He wants to do what?"
"So you're uncle told you off, huh?" Old Duke bent low to help Nicholas unscrew the lid off a jar in which he intended catching worms.
"I never seen Uncle Jarrod as a Judge before Uncle Duke. Do you know he's got eyes that don't blink?"
"Don't blink, you say."
"Not once. I never seen Uncle Jarrod so angry and not blinking."
"Well I guess that just goes to show how upset he was with what you boys did. Tell me pardner. You learned your lesson from all this?"
"You apologized to Little Heath yet?"
"And your mother and Uncle Jarrod?"
Nicholas nodded. "Just got to tell Papa yet. Only he's sleeping a lot right now and I got to make sure he's awake when I tell him."
"Well I reckon once you've done that, you won't need to apologize any more. Want a ride home?"
Nicholas nodded. "Yes please, Uncle Duke."
Duke lifted Nicholas up on to the saddle and got up behind him.
"Can I hold the reins, Uncle Duke?" Nicholas asked eagerly. Duke smiled.
"How are your riding lessons coming along with that new pony of yours, Nicholas?"
"Oh Star and me are getting along just fine. Pa's teaching me, you know? But we've not been out since he got hurt."
"Well, how about you and me holding these reins together - teamwork you might say." Duke suggested, knowing the horse was too powerful for a six year old boy.
Nicholas nodded and held on to the reins as they ambled home.
Heath dozed and did not hear the door opening. If he had he would have heard Little Nicholas, Little Heath and Matty pad into the room. "He's asleep." Matty announced as they reached the bed. "We ought to go downstairs then," Nicholas advised and together they made to turn towards the door. As they did so, their grandmother entered the room. "What are you three doing here?" Victoria asked, her voice containing a note of censure out of concern for her son.
"We just came to see Papa," Matty said, his face a little flushed from being caught. Seeing his expression, Victoria's face softened into a smile. "Well, I think for now we should leave him sleeping, don't you?" she advised.
"But is he getting better?" Nicholas asked. He didn't like seeing his father sick.
"He is getting better," Victoria reassured her grandson. "He just needs some rest and care, Nicholas. You know, like you do when you are not well."
"That's what Mama said," Matty said, remembering his mother's talk with him earlier that day.
Victoria thought it best to change the subject. The boys needed occupying. Inactivity only fuelled their worries. "Nicholas, don't you have piano practice to do? And Matty, don't you have some drawing to do?" Both boys nodded, both a little disappointed that their grandmother had remembered. "Come on then. " Victoria encouraged.
"What's Little Heath going to do though?" Nicholas piped up. "Little Heath can help me, can't you?" Victoria said taking her grandson by the hand.
Nicholas looked up from the piano from where he was practicing and looked over to Matty who gave him a sympathetic look as he did his own school project. They sure weren't having fun but neither were as badly off as Little Heath. Both boys looked over at their young cousin. Little Heath was sat on a foot stool in front of his grandmother, both hands occupied with holding wool which their grandmother Victoria was rolling into a ball for her knitting. Every now and then Little Heath's hands would drop as they grew tired or he became distracted and Victoria would have to stop and lift them up again.
Spurs signaled the arrival of the little fellow's father, "Mother," he said, kissing his mother on her cheek which she graciously raised to accept. Nick bent down low to his son and tutted as he saw how he was occupied. "It's okay son, I'll rescue you, " he said, unwinding the wool from his son's hands and placing it on a table, earning a slight but not too serious censure from his mother. "How's Heath?" Nick asked as he scooped his son up in his arms.
"Sleeping." Victoria answered trying to salvage the mess he had made of her wool.
"Good," Nick remarked, satisfied.
"Are you staying for lunch?"
"Is Jenny still here?"
"Yes. She and Meg are talking in the garden. Jarrod is here too."
"He is? For lunch?"
Victoria nodded. "He came to see Heath."
"But Heath's sleeping right?" Nick double checked.
"Yes Nick, Heath is sleeping. Jarrod hasn't disturbed his sleep. If he wakes up, then I think Jarrod would like to see him."
In the background, Nicholas' reluctant practicing of his scales played in the background, his mis-hit notes causing everyone face in the room to wince."
At each mis-hit note, Nicholas would shout "Sorry!" until it seemed he began saying it before the note was even hit.
"That'll be enough for today Nicholas," his grandmother announced. "You must practise more." She advised, knowing that when Nicholas concentrated he played much better. Nick turned to give his nephew a sympathetic look, which Nicholas caught and then smiled at in return. "Matty, come and show me your pictures." Matty picked up his drawings and brought them over to his grandmother. "Very good dear," she said admiring her little grandson's talent. "After lunch, you can both practice your reading." Both boy's faces sank.
Nick bent low to let Little Heath get down and run around. "Tough being a kid, huh?" he said, studying his nephew's sad faces. "I don't suppose either of you two students fancy a ride on the burro before lunch."
The swiftness of their running feet was their only reply as both made eagerly for the door.
"Walk don't run," their grandmother shot across the foyer, her words following them out of the door.
"What about you, son? Fancy a ride on the burro?" Little Heath nodded and lifted his arms so he could be picked up by his father and taken outside.
A week later, Heath allowed himself to be helped dressed by Meg. He was perfectly capable of dressing himself and had done so to a point, putting on his own pants, which unbuttoned hung loosely around his waist, but then as he had reached for his blue shirt he found Meg's hands had beaten him to it. From thereon in he just sat compliant as she carefully unfolded the laundered article and helped him into it. As she moved to do up the buttons, his hands caught hold of her waist and pulled her down so that she sat on his lap where they shared a kiss and then another. "Mornin'" he drawled, his lips not quite leaving hers as he spoke. "Morning," she replied into his.
Nick came into the house, spurs jangling, dust flying off his clothes and a morning's sweat from riding in the hot sun already beading his brow. "Sean, Thomas, Samuel, the day's a wastin'. You ready?"
"Comin' Uncle Nick," three voices chorused as they quickly gulped down the rest of their breakfast and made ready to leave.
Little faces still eating their breakfast under their grandmother's supervision, turned to greet their smiling Uncle Nick, who removing his hat bent low to give his mother a kiss. "Morning mother."
"Good morning Nick."
"Mornin' Uncle Nick," Nicholas chirped, his next words entirely predictable. "You didn't bring Little Heath?"
Nick sat back on his haunches next to his nephew's chair. "Nope not today Nicholas. He's with his mother today."
Little Nicholas had been spoken to a few times about having to share Little Heath more, but it was hard not seeing his best friend, even if he had seen him only yesterday. "Tomorrow?" Nicholas said hopefully.
Nick turned to his mother who refused to get involved. "We'll see," he replied.
Later that morning the boys were playing marbles when their father came out to see them.
"Papa! You're up!" shouted Matty getting to his feet and running over to his father. He was followed by his brothers and soon hugs and kisses were being exchanged.
"Careful of your father's back, boys," Meg censured, not wanting their exuberance to cause Heath further injury. The boys heeded their mother and allowed their father some space to get up from where he was kneeling.
Just at that moment Leah came out from the barn leading her horse. She kissed her father, expressing her delight to see him up and about, "And where are you going?" he asked with some concern.
"I'm out to help bring the herd in."
"Does your Uncle Nick know this?" Heath asked his daughter, knowing full well that he probably didn't. Nick's opinion of Barkley women helping out wasn't quite as enlightened as his own. But Leah's love for the ranch was no less than the boys and with six daughters he was sensible to the fact that they should learn about the ranch too.
Leah shook her head. "He rode out earlier with the boys, but I'm as good as rider as they are Pa." There was a plea for understanding and consent in her voice.
"Be careful, okay?" Heath counseled.
Leah's face broke into a broad smile, gratified in his trust.
Meg regarded her daughter in her jeans and shirt, her hair flowing in an unruly fashion. "Don't forget we're going to the town social on Saturday. I want you to try on your dress this evening."
"Oh mother!" Leah sighed, her smile turning downward, the thought of the social not interesting her one bit.
"Town social?" Heath queried Meg as they watched their daughter ride away.
Meg took his arm and they walked back to the house. "Yes, don't you remember?"
"Don't worry, you won't be required to dance much. Not since you are just up from your sick bed."
Heath smiled his half-smile. "Sure didn't feel like a sick bed this morning," he teased, remembering how they had both been required to dress not once but twice that morning.
Whilst the boys and his daughter were out on the round up, Heath had to settle for lighter duties at home. Over the course of the morning he found himself a helper though, well more like a shadow.
Little James clung to his father, not letting him out of his sight. Wherever Heath went, Little James followed. Heath knew the boy's reasons. It was hard for the young ones to see their father ill. This time it hadn't been so bad, the children had been allowed to visit him once he was past the need to sleep most of the day. During his more serious illnesses when fever would rage through his body, the children would be kept away, the family not wanting them to get distressed by seeing their father so ill.
They had finished tidying up the tack room when Meg came out carrying a picnic basket.
"A picnic?" Heath queried, accepting a kiss before Meg moved on to kiss her son who happily climbed up on to her lap as she sat on a bale of hay.
"And why not? Both my men have worked hard this morning, isn't that right James?" James snuggled into his mother and nodded his head. Then proceeded to tell his mother all the jobs he had helped his father do. He had been enjoying having some time on his own with his daddy.
Heath came and sat down on the next door bale. Wiping his brow and his neck with his neckerchief he peered into the basket. "Well just let's see what we have here? Want one James?" he said, handing James a sandwich. James reached out with two small hands and took the offered sandwich immediately taking a bite whilst Heath poured his son some milk. Before long a moustache of milk formed around his son's mouth who remained indifferent and happily eating.
Amused and full of love for her son, Meg dropped a kiss to his baby soft hair. Heath leaned over and kissed his wife before taking a bite from his own sandwich. "Good," he announced as he tasted it.
"Where are the girls?" he asked, most of his children accounted for. The older ones were helping moving the herd,
Heath jr and Josh had gone swimming with a friend having finished their morning chores
and Matty and Nicholas were playing in their den, a place no adult was allowed to step foot in. George and Anna were sleeping, leaving just the girls, Victoria, Clara and Rosie to account for.
"They've been helping me with some sewing and are now reading in their room.
I'm taking them and mother in to town this afternoon. We are going to see if we can help getting things ready for the social and your mother wants to visit Eleanor Johnson. You know they've been friends for years?"
Heath nodded. Eleanor Johnson was one of the first of his mother's friends to welcome him when he first joined the family
"It seems she doesn't have long." Meg said sadly, "Victoria wants to say goodbye."
A respectful silence ensued as both Meg and Heath contemplated the imminent passing of another friend. Victoria had lost a few friends lately and they worried how it would affect her losing another. Such was the price of getting older.
"What say we invite your mother to visit. It's been four years since we last saw her. She's not seen the twins yet or this little fella," he said, ruffling James' hair. "And it would be good for mother."
Meg thought about her seventy-seven year old mother making the trip out west. "It's a long way?" she queried.
"Your mother is more than capable of making the journey," Heath reassured her, remembering the feisty woman who was his mother-in-law and his mother's sister. "And the air out here will do her good. She can spend the summer with us. It will make you happy and mother happy and the kids would love seeing their grandmother again."
"Okay, okay," Meg laughed. "I will write to her tonight. You're a good man, Heath Barkley," she said, becoming serious for a moment.
"Well if I am, it's the womenfolk in my life who have made me so. I reckon I've been a lucky man in that regard." He said nothing further but simply took her hand in his and that's how they sat for a while.
Sean Barkley rode into camp, dismounted with youthful flamboyance and with chaps flapping sauntered over to the camp fire to pour himself a cup of hot coffee. A few minutes later Thomas, Sean's twin and younger brother by just four minutes rode in and in quieter fashion did the same. Both boys shared a few words with some of the hands who had rode in before them before retreating to a higher level of ground where they could watch the round up continue.
"Catch that stray?" Sean asked as he raised his cup to his lips and cast a look his brother's way.
"Yep," Thomas answered. "I got her."
Sean provided no other comment than the word good and for a while both brothers sat in silence surveying the herd being moved.
"Mother tells me your going to England." Sean finally spoke.
"Looks like it." Thomas answered, making Sean work hard for information.
"Must be something or someone you really want to see over there," Sean pushed, knowing that his brother had been corresponding with a young woman he had met in New York on the eve of her return to her own country.
"You reckon?" Thomas said, still not intent in making it a discussion between the two. The brothers were close, but Thomas played things close to his chest where matters of the heart was concerned.
Sean stopped watching the herd and rolled over on to his front to face Thomas. "Wouldn't be a Miss. Abigail Davies from Surrey, England, would it?"
Thomas coughed and threw the remnants of his coffee on to the ground. "Day's a wastin' as our uncle would say. Let's get back to work."
Sean watched his brother walk away and then smiled "Yep. There was a lady involved, no doubt about it." He correctly surmised.
Nick, Jarrod and Heath sat in the study of Nick and Jenny's house. In decoration the house very much reflected Jenny's taste and gift for making a family home, but the study was Nick's domain and was characterized as such. It was a cattleman's study for Nick was a rancher by blood and by heritage. The brothers had been studying a map of the Barkley ranch and were considering the purchase of a neighboring ranch.
"Look's good." Jarrod agreed finally after hearing Nick talk enthusiastically about the purchase for the last half hour.
"Heath nodded in agreement. It was a sound purchase.
"I'll ride across to the Petersons tomorrow and make them an offer." Nick said, pleased that they had reached an agreement.
"Shame they couldn't, or rather didn't want to hang on to the place after their boy died." Jarrod observed sadly. His brothers nodded. The Petersons had been their neighbors for the last fifteen years, having come to America from Denmark. A month before their only son and child had died of the fever and left them bereft and wanting to return home, neighbors including the Barkleys had tried to persuade them to stay on but the heart had gone out of them with the death of their son.
The arrival of Jenny with Little Heath interrupted their thoughts. "This young man has come to say goodnight," Jenny announced. Nick put down the map and immediately took his son from his wife's arms. "Had a good day son?" he asked. Little Heath nodded and began chatting away in an effort to stave of his bedtime. He then wriggled so he could get down and immediately went over to his Uncle Heath who picked him up and put him on his knee from where he engaged his two uncles in childish conversation before asking the inevitable question.
"Nicholas?" Little Heath asked his Uncle Heath.
Heath smiled indulgently. "Is back at a school tomorrow," he answered in defense of the fact that Little Heath would not be able to see his best friend the next day.
"Me go to school too," Little Heath suggested.
Jenny who could see where the conversation was going, intervened to stop her little one from getting upset. "C'mon young man. Say goodnight to your uncles." Little Heath kissed both his uncles on the cheek and was handed over to Nick so that he and Jenny could take him upstairs.
"Drink, Heath?" Jarrod said as they were both left alone. Heath nodded and went to walk over to the open window. Jarrod joined him, having poured drinks for them all, including the absent Nick. "You're looking well, Heath," he observed, putting an older brother's hand on his brother's left shoulder.
"I feel good." Heath acknowledged with his usual economy of words.
Jarrod smiled. It was as much of a response as he was going to get from his youngest brother. Heath didn't give much away about his health and it was left to the family to interpret what little he did say. "I hear Thomas is going to England? he continued, changing the subject for the moment.
"Leaves a week tomorrow." Heath answered.
"I also hear there might be a young lady involved."
Heath nodded. "I daresay we will hear all about it when he gets home. His mother and I will miss him though. Still he's full grown. Got his own life to lead."
"Another wedding, you think?"
"Sean and Libby seem happy. Next thing you'll know they'll be making you a grandpa, old timer!" Jarrod declared with humor in his voice.
Heath smiled, recognizing the irony of the comment coming from a brother who was eight years his senior. Jarrod's returning smile acknowledged that he saw the irony too.
"Well it ain't a bad name to be called. I think I kinda like it." Heath said eventually. And with that both brothers waited for their absent brother to return.
Thomas observed four sets of eyes observing him. "How long are you going away?" Matty asked a little soulfully. He had a good relationship with his older brother and would miss him.
"Three months," Thomas answered.
"Three months is a long time," piped up Nicholas as he fetched his brother some things that he wanted.
Thomas didn't have to wonder why his packing was taking so long as his possessions and clothes were picked over by his young siblings whilst Little Heath sat a top of a pile of new shirts. With an exasperated look he picked up his young cousin and retrieved his now crumpled shirts.
"Are you going to get married?" Nicholas asked with all the subtlety of his six years.
"We'll see." Thomas answered, trying hard to control his growing frustration.
Little James tugged his tall brother's pants. "Can we come too?"
Thomas scooped up his little brother and put him on top of the case. His usual good humor returned he jokingly said, "Sure little fella. Why not?"
James beamed and indicated he wanted to be put down. Then he ran out of the room. A while later his brothers came across him packing a bag.
"What are ya doing?" Nicholas asked.
"Packing to go with Thomas. He said we could go with him." Little James answered innocently as he stuffed his favorite toys and books into an already overstuffed bag. No clothes mind, just toys and books.
Nicholas started doing the same and Matty soon followed. Then they all trundled down the stairs carrying their similarly filled bags.
"I forgot something," Nicholas said as they sat themselves down on the verandah steps to wait for Thomas and the trip to town. He ran inside and came out with Little Heath who had no idea what was going on and just sat down by his cousins.
Inside, farewells were being said and tears being shed. As the family filed out on to the verandah to wave Thomas off, no one expected the sight of four little Barkleys sitting patiently with their bags ready to travel with their older brother.
"And just where do you think you four are going?" Heath asked his sons and nephew.
Matty got up from where he was sitting and spoke for the group. "We're off to England, Papa!" he said with childish enthusiasm.
"England huh?" Heath said, playing along as the family looked on amused. He felt Meg tug his vest somewhat violently from behind in her anxiety and turned slightly to calm her fears with his eyes.
"That's right Papa," piped up Little James who put up his arms so his father could pick him up. Happily Settled in Heath's arms the normally quiet little fellow babbled non-stop, much to his family's surprise for James was like Thomas and his father, shy and economical with words. "Thomas said we could go with him, so we packed and we got all our bags and we are ready to leave and....."
Little James did not see his older brothers and sisters trying to hide their knowledgeable smiles knowing that there was no way on earth that their parents would allow four small boys to embark on such a journey. But then their father surprised them, saying as he surveyed the bags packed by the boys. "You got everything you need?"
"Yes Papa," Little Nicholas declared as he stood up to show them their bags, books and toys over spilling on to the verandah steps.
"Toothbrush and powder?" Heath asked, still holding James.
Matty and Nicholas thought long and hard and shook their heads.
"Change of clothing?" Heath continued.
Again Matty and Nicholas shook their heads.
The pattern was already established. Matty and Nicholas shook their heads.
"I see." Heath observed, breaking one hand away from holding James and rubbing his chin.
He dug his hand into his vest pocket and pulled out a silver dollar for each of them. The boys looked like they had been awarded a fortune and held tightly on to their dollar piece in their hands.
"Okay boys," Heath announced. "Looks like we are going to need the wagon hitching since there are more of you going to England that we originally thought."
The boys were besides themselves on hearing their father giving them permission to go. Meg thought he had gone mad. Victoria just smiled, knowing her son's plan. Before long the buggy had been returned to the barn and replaced by the wagon and the boys were tumbling into it one by one with their overstuffed bags.
Heath went to his wife and before giving her a kiss promised her he would bring her chicks home. She went to kiss her sons goodbye and exacted promises from them that they would say their prayers and go to bed early and also promise to do their letters and write to mommy and daddy. Her tearful smile as they eagerly promised almost tore her in half, such was her protectiveness to her young ones; her chicks. She tried to remember that in a few hours they would be tucked up in their own beds; their adventure over for the day, but it was hard. She was a loving but pragmatic mother all through her marriage but as her child-bearing days neared their end, she clung on to her precious ones and knew she stood guilty of being over-protective to them all. It was Heath that anchored her in these moments, just as he was doing now. He had no intention of letting his young sons go gallivanting off without their parents protection but he was sensitive to their need to act out their adventure. The journey to town promised to be interesting but there was no doubt in Heath Barkley's mind that it would be five Barkleys returning that late afternoon, not one.
Suddenly Nicholas remembered he needed to say goodbye to someone else and with help from his father got down from the wagon and ran over to the stables.
This prompted Matty and Little James to get down too to say their goodbyes.
Inside the stables Nicholas went up to Star and hugged his new pony. "I'm going to miss you Star. You be good, ya hear? Me and my brothers are going to England for a while, but I'm coming back. I'm coming back, ya hear."
Elsewhere, Matty grew sad saying goodbye to Max and not far away Little James shed little tears over saying goodbye to his new puppy, Patch.
Standing by the wagon, Heath just smiled, wondering if he would reach the gates of the ranch before his boys changed their minds and decided to stay.