It was a week before Christmas and the last day of school before leaving on a two-week holiday. Children at the Stockton school were in a state of excitement. Their joy could hardly be contained when their teacher, Miss Hanlon, told them she would be letting them off earlier than usual.
“I will see you all after the holidays, children. I wish you all a great Christmas and a Happy New Year. Be good to your folks.”
“Bye Miss Hanlon,” they all chorused as they stood from their desks and headed outside to shout their enthusiasm.
“Heath, may I see you for a minute?” Miss Hanlon hailed the young eight-year-old.
“Sure Miss Hanlon.” Heath turned to his big brother Nick who flashed a smile and relieved him of his books.
“I’ll wait for you outside, Squirt.”
Nick headed outside with the load of books while Heath stepped up to her teacher sitting behind her desk. “I did something wrong?” Heath asked with a tinge of apprehension.
“No, on the contrary, Heath,” she reassured, clasping the slightly trembling small hands in hers. “I just wanted to commend your work this past few months. Your spelling, reading and writing have improved a great deal.”
“That’s ‘cause of my brother Nick,” Heath proudly informed.
“Nicholas?” she exclaimed in surprise, her brows knitted in suspicion. “Are we talking about Nicholas Barkley?” She knew about Nick’s lazy streak in class and wondered if Heath wasn’t fibbing.
“Yes Ma’am. He taught me everything I know. You see when he found me I couldn’t talk. I was in an orphanage and people there used to hurt me bad if I said anything. I was happy to find Nick who became my big brother. He got me to speak again.”
“Well how about that! You learn something new every day. I never would have thought this of Nicholas. He’s got hidden talents.”
“He’s the greatest, Ma’am. The best brother in the whole world,” Heath exulted with pride mirroring in his twinkling blue eyes. It was obvious the young boy idolized his big brother.
“I’m happy for you, Heath. And I have something here which might interest you.” She opened a folder and placed it next to her prized student so he could take a peek at the sheet inside. “This is a writing contest opened to students from eight to ten years of age. It’s an essay of some sort. You can choose the topic you want.”
“I can write about anything?”
“Anything you want. You may want to write about your Christmas holiday.” Heath’s lips curled up at the idea that sprung into mind. “First prize is a blue ribbon and a huge dictionary that isn’t available in the stores.” Heath’s jaw dropped at the prospect of winning the dictionary.
“You think I can win?”
“I believe you have a very good chance, Heath. You are a gifted student. But know that you’ll be competing against several other schools in the states, but don’t let that stop you.”
“I won’t. I’ll do my best to make you proud of me, Miss Hanlon.” She was taken aback by his hug that she returned with an equal might.
“I’m already proud of you, Heath. Even if you don’t win, I’ll still be proud of you.”
“Thanks. You’re a great teacher. I’ll see you after Christmas.”
“Okay. Have fun! And you bring me that essay when you get back.”
Her heart soared as she watched this golden child bounced out of the classroom. Heath had been her pet student since the first day he set foot into the classroom with his brother Nick. She wasn’t about to let him know for fear of incurring jealousy among his classmate, which is something she couldn’t bare to see happening to him.
“Nick! Nick! Guess what?” Heath squealed as he ran towards his brother who luckily caught him before he tripped.
“Hey, hold on there, Squirt. Not so fast. What’s going on?”
“Miss Hanlon says I have a good chance of winning,” he panted, trying to catch his breath. “She said I am a gifted student and that I can win the ribbon and there’s a big dictionary…” Heath rambled on to finally choke on his breath.
“Heath, calm down there.” Nick began rubbing Heath’s back to soothe his coughing bout. “Take a deep breath and start at the beginning.”
“There’s a writing contest for kids my age and she said I can write about my Christmas holiday. If I win I’ll have a blue ribbon and a big dictionary.”
“Wow Squirt! You got to do it.”
“I will but will you help me, Nick?”
“Sure I will. I want you to win.”
They met with Duke who came to drive them home in the wagon. “Boys, how was the last day at school?”
“Great Duke. I’m glad it’s over for two weeks. Can’t wait to help dad on the ranch,” Nick said as he helped Heath hop in the back of the wagon.
“Me too,” Heath enthused. He sat next to Nick and snuggled under the blanket.
“Ready back there?”
“Ready,” they chorused.
At the ranch, no sooner had Duke reined back the horses that Nick and Heath both jumped out of the wagon and dashed inside the house to strode upstairs to their bedrooms. They were halfway up when Tom’s voice resounded in the foyer, calling for them to halt their course and retrace their steps back down.
“We have a special guest, boys. Come and say hello.”
“Uncle Jim!” Nick exulted, running to his uncle’s outstretched arms.
Jim lifted Nick in his arms and twirled him around. “My goodness, you’re getting to be a big boy. I can hardly lift you anymore.” He set him down and tousled his hair. “You’re a mighty fine looking young man.”
“Thanks. Uncle Jim,” he turned to Heath standing sheepishly in the background, afraid to intrude on a family reunion. He clasped his hand and pulled him over. “Uncle Jim, this is my little brother, Heath.”
Jim was taken aback by the striking resemblance with his own brother at that age. He inhaled a deep breath to quell the overwhelming emotion rising to his throat. He then turned to Tom and shot him a quizzical look. Tom read in his brother’s eyes that an explanation was in order. He simply smiled and nodded, conveying all the information Jim needed for the moment.
“Heath, it’s nice to finally meet you. My brother has told me so much about you.”
“Hello, sir,” Heath greeted with a formality that elicited a giggle out of Jim.
“Heath you can call me Uncle Jim. After all you are family.”
“Thank you si…I mean Uncle Jim,” Heath replied shyly, bowing his head to hide his blush. He glanced up at Nick who threw him an encouraging wink.
“Uncle Jim has bought the old Atkinson Place not far from here,” Tom started to explain as he handed Jim his drink. “He is looking for able bodies who aren’t afraid of hard work to help him do some repair on it. Would you boys be interested?”
“Sure we would,” Nick enthused before turning to Heath whose eyes shone with excitement. “You want to do it, Heath?”
“Yeah! That’ll be fun. But I need time to write my essay.”
“Did your teacher give you homework during the holidays?” Victoria queried with an edge of irritation at the thought of the woman burdening her students with a workload during their Christmas vacation.
“Oh no, mom. She told me about this writing contest and how I stood a good chance of winning.”
“Yeah. I’m going to help him write it.”
“You Nicolas?” Tom chuckled in spite of himself.
“Yeah. I want Heath to win that ribbon and that dictionary.”
“I promise not to overload you with too many chores,” Jim assured as he hugged his nephews one last time before the hurried up the stairs to get cracking on the essay.
Jim turned to Tom and Victoria with a stunned expression, his eyes shifting between the two to read the answer to his question he dared not ask.
“Striking, isn’t it?” Tom told his brother he sensed had already a strong suspicion about Heath’s parentage. “He’s my son.”
“Could have fooled me. How?”
“Remember a woman named Leah Thomson? I spoke about her in my letters.”
“Yeah I remember.”
“She was Heath’s mother. She died when he was a baby then later he was dropped at an orphanage. It was by a fluke that we ran into him. In fact Nick is the one that found him and befriended him when he accompanied me on a business trip.”
Jim exhaled a long shuddering breath at this startling revelation. He glanced at Victoria whose smile conveyed her acceptance of the young boy. “He is a part of Tom and therefore I love him as if he were my own,” Victoria said resolutely without any reservation.
“This is amazing. God meant for you to find him.”
“They say he works in mysterious ways.”
“Nick seems to worship that little guy.”
“And vice-versa. The two are inseparable,” Jarrod added as he entered the living room. “Uncle Jim, good to see you!” Jarrod exulted, clasping his uncle’s hand in a hearty handshake before the old man pulled him into a bear hug.
As the family continued chatting, upstairs Nick and Heath snuck into their ailing sister’s room to check on her.
“She’s sleeping,” Heath whispered as he gently pulled the blanket up to her shoulders. “I hope she’s going to be okay for Christmas. She’ll hate it if she has to stay in bed when Santa drops off all of our presents.”
“Don’t worry about it, Squirt. She just got the sniffles,” Nick whispered back. He was somehow troubled by Heath’s suggestion that Audra may not be well to see Christmas. He had a gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach that told him Heath would be the one missing Christmas with the folks, but he quickly dismissed the premonition as nonsense.
“She looks like an angel, doesn’t she?” Heath mused as he marvelled over his sister’s angelic face.
“When she’s sleeping maybe. But not when she’s awake. She’s a demon in disguise.”
“I heard that Nick Barkley,” Audra mumbled groggily as she strained to open her eyes.
“Nick didn’t mean it, Audra. He’s just teasing you. Go back to sleep. We’ll leave.”
“No!” She grabbed Heath’s arm and pulled him to the bed. “Stay with me a bit. I’d like to know what happened at school today.”
“While you two chat I’ll go see if I can find where they hid the gifts,” Nick snickered with a mischievous grin. “I’ll report back to you.” Nick stepped out of Audra’s room and closed the door. As he headed for his own room he couldn’t help but feel something bad was about to happen to his little brother but couldn’t jab his finger on it. He vowed to stick close by his pal during their holidays to ensure his safety.
Before they began work on Jim’s ranch, he and Tom decided to take a trip up the mountains to chop down the perfect Christmas tree. This year Nick was deemed old enough to make the arduous journey, but problem was his little brother threw a fit when he found out his big brother would be going without him. Tom discussed the problem with his wife and although Victoria had reservations about allowing a young boy in rugged countryside, she agreed it would be best if Heath came along. To allay her qualms Jim promised his sister-in-law that he would keep an eye on all three.
After packing edibles and warm clothes, the foursome embarked on their journey up the mountains. Huddled together under a thick woollen blanket, Heath and Nick toyed with several different topics for Heath’s essay, none of them striking their fancy apart from the idea of relating the work that they would undertake on their uncle’s farm. It wasn’t much of an interesting topic but they kept it on their bottom mental shelf in case no grand ideas came their way.
“How much longer?” Nick sighed with a smidgen of exasperation about his voice that told Tom that the long trip was beginning to take its toll on his son.
“A couple of more miles. How you doing back there, boys?”
“We’re alright,” Nick fibbed, glancing at Heath who was fast asleep with a huge contended smug plastered on his face. “Squirt’s out like a light, grinning like an idiot.”
“It’s true. Look at that smirk.” Both Jim and Tom craned their necks back to take a peek at the sleeping angel. “You got to admit that looks corky.”
“Nick if I were to tell you that you look just like this when you’re asleep?”
“I do not!” Nick bellowed indignantly.
“Do too. And to your mother and I that smile is worth a thousand words. It fills us with joy. That serene grin says it all.”
Nick broke into a sly grin as he slowly leaned over Heath to pinch his nose.
“Nick!” Tom chided. “Let him sleep.”
“Sorry dad. But I couldn’t help myself,” Nick giggled before easing himself under the blanket next to his slumbering little brother.
Jim turned to Tom with a knowing smile. “These two must be a handful?”
“More than you can possible imagine,” Tom sighed in mock despair. “But I wouldn’t trade them for the world.” He flicked the horses at a light trot to quicken the pace up the mountain path.
Once they settled in the small cabin and got a fire going to warm up the premises, Jim and Tom mummified the youngsters in a second layer of winter clothes and picked up their axes. All four made the journey out back, ploughing through several inches of fresh snow to find the perfect tree. Realizing just how arduous the trip was to his kid brother, Nick offered to give him a piggyback ride, much to Heath’s delight who loved riding on his brother’s back.
They came to a cluster of trees that caught their eyes. “That’s it,” exclaimed Tom. “That’s the one. What do you think, boys?”
“It’s a beauty, dad,” Nick enthused, letting Heath slid down his back.
“I like it,” Heath echoed Nick’s sentiments.
“It’s unanimous, Tom. This is the one for sure.” Jim stepped up to the trunk next to his brother and unsheathed his axe. “Better stand back boys,” he warned Nick and Heath with a wave of the hand. “We wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
Nick and Heath heeded their uncle’s warning by taking a few steps backwards. While Nick was absorbed in the moment, Heath’s attention strayed to a moving heap of fur a few feet away. He squinted to make out the nature of this fur ball and as he drew closer, the rabbit’s ears pricked up and its head jerked towards the young curious boy. It stared at Heath intently; poised ready to scurry away at first sign of danger. Heath displayed a huge beam at his discovery. He inched towards the rabbit, which continued to stare at him. When the boy was too close for comfort, the small furry animal bounced away, much to Heath’s dismay.
Without weighing the consequences, Heath ploughed through the heavy snow to where he saw the rabbit disappear. He looked around for any sign of the furry creature. He took a few steps forward to search nearby bushes and there it was, munching on some crispy leaves. With eyes shining with wonder, Heath remained silent to observe the rabbit at work. It wasn’t long before the animal got a whiff of the human scent and scampered away. Again Heath was determined to follow the rabbit to his new hideout.
Suddenly he felt the earth tremble beneath his feet. He froze to the spot not comprehending the meaning of this sudden tremor. Scared he decided to dash back to Nick but the snow made it hard for him to run. Instead he stumbled and fell face first into the snow.
“Heath!” was all he heard before he felt himself dragged downwards.
Nick leapt at his little brother and grabbed him by the sleeve seconds before the huge crust of snow came off the side of the mountain and tumbled down the hill with the speed of an avalanche. Tom and Jim held Nick’s legs as he pulled Heath to safe grounds.
“Heath for Heaven sake! Don’t you ever do that again!” Nick chided severely; his booming voice making Heath burst into tears. He drew his terrorized little brother into his arms and held him until the tears subsided. “I’m sorry for yelling at you, Squirt. It’s just that your scared me to death. We told you not to stray.”
“I’m sorry,” Heath whimpered, drying his tears with the back of his gloves. I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to follow the rabbit.”
“It’s okay, son,” Tom mollified in a soothing voice with a hand on Heath’s shuddering shoulder. “Just don’t it again without telling us, okay?”
Heath nodded and looked up at Nick with puppy-dog eyes to seek his forgiveness. Nick smiled and grabbed Heath in a loving neck hold that made the little boy giggled. “Ahhhhhhh Squirt! What am I going to do with you, heh?”
Later as the foursome enjoyed a hearty supper in the warmth of the crackling fire a scratching noise coming from the door caught Heath’s attention. Tom told his boy to sit tight while he went to investigate. As he opened the door he was surprised to see a shivering little bunny huddled against the cabin wall for warmth. Tom slowly squatted down and picked it up. He gave the furry creature a few pats before closing the door and walking up to Heath. “Look what I found outside? The poor little thing is icy cold.”
Heath bounced down his chair and squealed with delight at the bunny rabbit his father handed over to him. “Can I keep him?”
“Maybe just for now until he warms up. I’m sure his mommy must be looking for him.”
“But what if he doesn’t have a mommy? What if he’s just like I was? An orphan?”
Tom and Jim exchanged a rueful look. “Well then I guess you’ll just have to become his daddy.”
“Like you did?”
“Like I did.”
“Thank you,” Heath exulted, flinging one arm around Tom’s neck to hug him while holding the bunny with the other. He hurried over to the fireplace to bundle his new friend into a warm blanket. He sought Nick’s assistance to help him keep the rabbit from wiggling out of his cocoon, but to no avail. Their efforts came to a naught and the furry critter hopped his way to a corner of the wall where he huddled into a ball.
It wasn’t long before Heath’s charm won over the rabbit’s fear and the animal learned to trust the child. At night, before turning in, Tom checked on his boys who were sleeping soundly in their beds mummified in a heap of blankets. Peeking out from under Heath’s quilt were two long ears and a small twitching muzzle. He padded up to the bed to gaze at the heart-warming picture of his sleeping child hugging his pet. The sight melted his heart. He sent a silent prayer heavenwards to give thanks to the Supreme Being for bestowing upon him this golden child.
Early next morning, they packed up to head down the mountains back to the ranch. Heath stood outside scanning the horizon for any sign of the rabbit’s mommy.
“We’re ready to go!” Tom announced as he gave a last tug on the rope securing the tree in the back on the wagon.
“Daddy, his mommy didn’t show up. I think he’s an orphan. Can I bring him with me.”
“I guess it’d be cruel to live him out here alone. Okay, you can bring him.” Heath’s face lit up with glee at his father’s approval. He clutched the rabbit to his chest as Jim lifted him up to the back of the wagon where he settled on a thick layer of blankets, wedged in between the tree and Nick.
No sooner had the boys returned home that Heath brought his new friend to meet his sister. Audra may have been out of her bed but was still feeling a bit under the weather. To cheer her up, Heath brought her his small furry animal.
“He’s so cute,” Audra rhapsodized, squealing with glee as Heath put the bunny in her lap. Her children’s endearment for the furry critter made it hard for Victoria to forbid it into the house. She looked at Tom with a disapproving look that didn’t carry much weight with her husband who could see her eyes were belying her true emotion.
“Victoria I couldn’t say no. We didn’t come across that bunny by accident; it came to us last night. We heard a scratching noise on the door and there it was, shivering in the snow. Heath waited for its mom to show up but she didn’t come,” Tom related solemnly with an exaggerated pout that he knew would make Victoria lay down the arms. “Look, it’s only temporary until I build him a nice cage so it can sleep in the barn.”
“You try explaining to your son that his friend will have to sleep in the barn.” Victoria waited for Tom to reply but when he remained silent and hung his head in defeat she huffed out an exasperated sigh and cracked a knowing smile. “You build him a sturdy cage so it won’t run around the house.”
Tom enlaced her in his arms and placed a tender kiss on her lips. “It’s hard to say no, isn’t it?”
She gazed at her three children petting the rabbit. “You mean impossible, don’t you?”
Three days before Christmas, Jim took Heath and Nick to his new property. Both boys were raring to get to work and earn their money by the sweat of their brow, as opposed to getting an allowance. It was an unusually warm day with sparse tussocks of snow on the ground; ideal for working outside without freezing your toes. Heath brought his bunny, Dewey, along in his cage that he placed on the front porch as he busied himself washing the windows.
It was obvious to Heath that Dewey was getting restless in his small abode. He stared at his master with twitching nose and sad red eyes, begging to be released from his prison. Heath’s little heart melted and he surrendered to the bunny’s plea. He set aside his rag to go pick his friend up that he cradled in his arms.
“I know it’s small in there but it’s the only way I could bring you. Uncle Jim wouldn’t want you to get in the way of our work.” He scratched the bunny behind the ear before burying his face in its fur. Heath crinkled his nose at the foul smell. “Dewey, you need a bath.” He turned his attention to the small brook gently streaming down near the side of the house. He took a pail and off he went to fetch some water with his friend firmly clutched to his chest.
“Uncle Jim, I’m all done,” Nick announced proudly, putting the paintbrush into the bucket.
“That looks very good, Nick. You did a good job,” Jim commended with a tap on his nephew’s shoulder. “We’ll let it dry before we put another coat of paint.”
“I’ll just go do the bedroom now.”
“No you won’t. You deserve a break after all your hard work. Why don’t you get your brother and I’ll fix you a glass of hot chocolate?”
“I will.” Nick licked his lips in eager anticipation of that hot drink as he headed out onto the porch. “Hey Squirt, you’re about don….” Nick cut in mid sentence when he realized his brother was missing. His concerned stare swept the surroundings for any sign of Heath. He noticed that the pail of water was missing and figured that in all probability Heath was down by the creek. When he arrived at the gentle stream they were no sign of his brother. He called out his name but silence was his only reply.
Panic rapidly crept over Nick who ran back to the house to tell his Uncle. Both set out to search the premises, combing every inch of the area, repeatedly calling Heath’s name.
Suddenly a faint cry was heard in the distance. Nick silenced his Uncle. “Did you hear that?”
“Help!” came the muffled cry.
Nick pricked up his ears; his eyes swept the area in search of his missing brother that he could only hear, not see. Another muffled cry, this one dripping of terror made his heart pound at his neck. “Heath, where are you?” he cried at the top of his lungs. Never had he known abject fear as he did at this minute. His mind sought comfort in the faint cry; a sign that his little brother was alive. “Heath!”
“Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick!” Again a whimpering call, this one audible enough to lead Nick and his uncle to the troubled child.
Nick’s pace quickened at the last desperate cry for help. He dove to his stomach near a hole from which was wafting the terrifying pleading voice. “Heath, I’m here. Are you okay down there?”
“Nick get me out, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease.” Heath’s plea tore at Nick’s heart who tried vainly to reach his little brother down the old well.
“Uncle Jim, He’s too far down. I can’t get to him!” Nick cried out hysterically, going for another attempt that proved futile.
“Son, Nick, Let me try. I’m taller than you. Maybe I’ll have better luck.” Nick vacated his spot to his uncle who lay on his stomach and stretched out his arm as far as his limb would allow. “Heath, try to reach my hand.”
Heath giggled out a sigh of joy as the tips of his little fingers touched Jim’s. “Almost got it, Heath. Just a wee bit more,” Jim egged on, his face crumpling at the strain the stretching was inflicting on his adrenalin-pumping body.
Suddenly, the fingers slipped; a deafening crack followed by a splash down below speared Jim’s heart. He stopped breathing altogether as he watched in numb horror his nephew fall to a certain death into an underground stream. “Heeeeeeeeeeeath!” Jim screamed, his eyes bulging out of their sockets in terror. “Oh God, no!”
“Uncle Jim, was is it? What’s happening? Can you reach him?” Nick sputtered in frenzy. “Uncle Jim? Do you have him?”
Jim slowly heaved his upper torso back up the hole and lay recumbent, a hand on his chest; his eyes registering a mix of terror and hopelessness. “I’m sorry, boy. He’s gone. He slipped from my fingers and fell down the water below. He was dragged by the current.”
“No!” Nick cried out in denial. “He’s got to be there. We have to get down and help him or he’ll drown.” Nick dive to his knees and was poised ready to jump down the well when Jim grabbed a hold of his arm and pulled him away from the edge.
“Nick, don’t you dare! I don’t want to lose you too, boy.”
“Let go of me” Nick spat, trying to wrench his arm free from his uncle’s vice-like grip. “Let me go! I want to go to Heath. I can save him.”
“No you can,” Jim chided, taking Nick firmly by the shoulders to shake him out of his hysteria. “Nick, listen to me. LISTEN TO ME!” Nick stopped squirming, but kept his eyes fastened on his little brother’s watery grave. “He’s gone.”
“Nooooooooooo,” Nick whimpered, shaking his head vehemently to block out his uncle’s words that rang true. “He’s down there, clinging on to a branch or something. I know he is. Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease we just can’t give up. Pleeeeeeeeeease.”
Nick’s plea tore at Jim’s heart. How he wanted to comply with the grieving boy’s wish but knew from experience that these falls were fatal, particularly where an eight-year-old child was concerned. If there had been a remote chance of Heath having survived the death fall, the freezing water below was sure to send his system into shock and almost instantly would suffer extreme hypothermia. Despite the certainly of his nephew’s death, Jim needed to exhaust all possibilities that Heath might have survived.
“Nick, come with me. We’ll see if Heath made it out somehow.” He clasped Nick’s hand and together they scanned the river bank in hopes the underground stream might have sent the body floating into the river. A desperate search that would prove fruitless, much to their dismay.
Gentle hands lifted the frigid little body out of the water and carried it to a dry cave hewn out of the rocks. The old man knelt down and gingerly laid the drenched boy on the soft ground. He proceeded to remove the wet clothes off the shivering body and mummified it in wool blankets. He then threw another log into the fire to revive the dying flame, this to provide much-needed heat to reverse the hypothermia.
The old man sat back and gazed at the once serene pink face now a death mask. His brows knitted in worry at the little man’s chances of survival, but vowed to do everything humanly possible to keep him from crossing the pearly gates.
‘Your parents must be agonizing, wondering where you are. Or perhaps they believe you are dead,’ the old man wondered to himself. He leaned forward to the cocooned boy and smiled. “Such a nice little boy. I cannot believe that God has already called you to his side. You fight now. I will be here to help you through.’
Nick sat prostrated in front of the cabin’s fireplace, numbed of all senses. Barely blinking, his eyes had taken a vacuous look as they stared impassively at the dancing flame. His little brother was gone. He inwardly cursed God for taking his little brother. “I hate him,” he mumbled underneath his breath.
“What did you say Nick?” Jim asked.
“I said I hate him,” Nick vociferated between clenched teeth. “I hate God. I’m never going to church again.”
With a heavy heart, Jim came to sit by his nephew and wrapped a friendly arm around Nick’s shoulders. He was at a lost for soothing words considering how Nick’s thought reflected his.
“Why? Why did he take him away?”
“I don’t know, Nick,” Jim shook his head dejectedly. “Just know that God has his reasons.”
“I wished him to give me a little brother and now that he did, he took him away from me. What kind of monster is he?”
Again, Jim could only provide a comforting squeeze to his grieving nephew and knew Nick’s pain was just the tip of the iceberg. He feared Tom’s wrath at the news of his Heath’s death. ‘How could I have been so careless?’ he berated himself.
As they were getting to leave for the ranch, Nick and Jim noticed Heath’s little bunny huddle in a corner of the front porch.
“There’s Dewey,” Nick motioned to the furry ball staring at him with his big red eyes. He inched towards him and gently picked him up. “I think he knows he’s lost his best friend. He looks sad.” Jim knew Nick’s remark was mostly directed at himself rather than at the rabbit. It tore at his heart to see his nephew hug the animal as though he were embracing his little brother. How was he going to break the news to his brother and his family? The very thought plunged him into a sea of despair.
Nick remained silent throughout the drive back to the ranch. He sat in the back of the wagon with Dewey cuddled in his arms. He clung to Heath’s little friend as though his own survival depended on keeping the rabbit safe. As they neared the main house Nick’s body suddenly broke into violent uncontrollable tremors. He froze, unable to move or talk. Jim helped him down the wagon, clasped his hand and tried to steer him towards the front door but Nick wouldn’t budge. He pulled at his uncle’s hand and shook his head.
“No. I can’t go into the house. Please don’t ask me to go in there.” Nick beseeched his uncle, his whimpering spearing Jim’s heart. “Dad is going to be mad and mom is going to cry. I can’t face that now.”
Jim squatted down in front of Nick and held him by the arms. “Nick, you can’t avoid them forever. You know they are going to need you know more than ever, your mother especially. She’ll need support from all of her children.”
“But I can’t,” he cried. “It hurts too much.”
“I know it does, son.” Jim stood and clenched his distraught nephew in his arms in an attempt to allay the pain. “I tell you what. Why don’t you go give your horse a good brush down while I go talk to your parents?”
“I think I’d like that,” Nick answered between sobs.
“Alright.” Jim handed his bandana over to Nick. “Here, dry your tears. You go talk to Runner. I’ll come and get you a little later, okay?”
Nick nodded and clutching the bunny tightly to his chest he walked to the barn to pour his heart out to his cherished horse.
Jim drew in a few deep breaths to recover his composure and collect his thoughts. He stepped up to the front door and inhaled deeply one last time to summon his courage before entering the house. He peeked into the living room to see if anyone was there. Silas came up to him from behind. “May I help you Mister Jim?”
“Yes. Would you happen to know where my brother and his wife are?”
“They are out back, looking over the new stock that was shipped an hour ago.”
“Out back?” Jim panicked, knowing that’s where his nephew was headed. “With lightning speed he hurried out back through the kitchen door. He stopped dead in his track at the sight of Nick weeping in his father’s arms.
Tom looked up at Jim with a mixture of fear and anger.
“It’s all his fault!” Nick hurled at his uncle. “Why did he have to come here? Why? I hate him! He’s the reason why Heath is dead!” On these scathingly crushing words, Nick made a mad dash toward the field.
“Nick, wait!” Victoria tried catching up to him but Nick’s adrenalin-pumped legs were no match for hers. She asked a hand working nearby to chase after her son and bring him back safely. The man acknowledged with a tip of the hat and mounted his horse.
“Jim, for God’s sake…what is going on here? Where’s Heath?” Tom asked, perplexed and somewhat disturbed by his son’s outburst.
“Tom,” he quavered, lowering his head in shame. “I tried everything. Believe me, I did. I searched everywhere but I couldn’t find him. God help me,” Jim cried out and crumbled to his knees. “I couldn’t find him.”
“Nick said that he was dead? How is that possible?” Seeing how Jim continued to wallow in self-pity, he grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him to his feet. “ANSWER ME!!!!!!!”
Jim swallowed hard the emotional lump caught his throat before he slowly lifted his sorrowful eyes to meet with Tom’s steely brown. “The boys were working with me on the house. Nick was inside washing the windows and Heath did the ones outside. I had my eyes on them the whole time.”
“Apparently not!” Tom lashed out.
“Tom!” Victoria chided, gripped her husband’s arm to prevent him from jumping down his brother’s throat. “Let him tell us what happened.” She herself was on the verge of gouging Jim’s eyes out but managed to suppress her fury until she heard his version.
As hard as he tried Jim could not alleviate the impact of the tragedy. He lowered his head in shame, steeling himself for the vials of wrath to pour over him. Instead Victoria fell into his arms and clenched him into a soul-stirring embrace. Shocked by her unexpected reaction, Jim took a few seconds to register her embrace as one of love and not hate before he wrapped his arms around her body racked with sobs. He risked a glance up at Tom who was standing shellshock with tears in his eyes. Without so much of a glance at his brother hugging his wife, he silently walked away, wandering aimlessly to an open area where he screamed out his son’s name before crumbling to his knees in complete prostration.