"Why are we waiting for Uncle Nick, Papa?" James asked, bored now after waiting five minutes for his uncle to reappear through the swing doors. He swung on his father's pant legs as Heath struggled to keep Little Heath quiet in his arms. The attempt was made worse when Little Heath seeing James turned himself around and reached down to grab James' hair. "Oww!" James responded with understandable annoyance, rubbing his head and telling Little Heath off. "Papa, he pulled my hair," James protested loudly.
"C'mon Little Heath," Heath said with growing exasperation, though his exasperation was not directed at Little Heath but at Nick, his older brother. Little Heath proved quickly that he was not going to co-operate by crying loudly and struggling to get free and if it wasn't for Heath's strong hold he would be down on his feet and running off down the sidewalk. Heath rubbed James' head and sympathised. He looked for his other sons and found them not where he wanted to find them. Little Nicholas and Matty were kneeling down on the sidewalk, their bottoms sticking out from under the swing doors of the saloon.
"Nicholas, Matty," Heath said sharply, startling them both. "Come here now! Both of you!"
Two little boys hastily shuffled out from under the swing doors and got to their feet, returning to their father quickly.
"I'm sorry." Matty said first, followed quickly by Little Nicholas.
Heath felt guilty. It wasn't the boys fault they were outside a saloon. It was Nick's. "Heath," he had said, not five minutes before. "I just need to see Harry about something." Harry was the barkeep. "Won't take a minute." Nick had added, pressing Little Heath into Heath's arms. Heath didn't even have time to react. The last he saw of his brother was the doors left swinging as Nick had pushed his way into the saloon.
Heath had no doubt whatsoever that whatever Nick wanted to discuss with Harry had now developed into a discussion which involved Harry, Nick and the whiskey glass Nick now nursed in his hand. The trouble was with four children, Heath was not able to check. He knew Nick though. Oh yes, he knew his brother, Nick, too well and that whisky glass would be sitting in his hand.
"Pa, what is Uncle Nick doing in there?" Nicholas asked, swinging on the hitching rail after his telling off.
Heath had to think quickly. Nicholas was a natural chatterbox and whatever he said was bound to get back to Meg.
"Talking." Heath answered solemnly. "Uncle Nick is talking."
Little Nicholas forgetting his father's reprimand ducked under the saloon doors, sat back up and and shook his head. "He doesn't look like he is talking, Papa." He announced, his eyes wide like saucers.
"Nicholas. I've told you once. Now get away from those doors and stand over here. Your Uncle Nick will be out in a minute."
"But Papa?" Nicholas persisted, trying to draw his father's attention to inside the saloon.
"Nicholas!" Heath reprimanded him again. Little Heath was now bawling in his arms and standing with four children outside a saloon was attracting attention of a sort he didn't want. This was bound to get back to Meg. He just knew it.
"But Papa? Uncle Nick?"
"Nicholas!" Heath repeated.
Just at that moment Nick Barkley came flying through the doors at twice the speed he had gone in. He landed in a sorry heap, boots and spurs raised in the air and the wind completely knocked out of him. The look on his face suggested celestial stars were his only focus.
"That's what I was trying to tell you, Papa." Nicholas said excitedly. "I think Uncle Nick might be in trouble."
"Tending The Earth"
Heath got the gardening tools down from the wagon and Max, wagging his tail, jumped out following him to the first of the graves where Heath knelt down to work on weeding and cutting the grass. The grave belonged to Jarrod's first wife, Beth, barely known to the family but finding a place in their hearts over time because Jarrod loved her and they loved Jarrod.
It was a small headstone, nothing grand, nothing ostentatious. Jarrod had preferred it that way. Beth, by Heath's short acquaintance of her was a sweet, unassuming young girl. He had a feeling, had she lived, they would have liked each other, but a bullet put an end to Beth's short life and for a time, Jarrod's too, with his need to seek revenge, blind as he had been at the time with grief.
All that was a long time ago. Beth had been dead over twenty years now, but Heath knew, as someone who had lost a young wife too, that Jarrod, though very happily married to his second wife now, as Heath was to Meg, would from time to time think of the young wife who no longer shared his life.
He began cutting away the grass, tidying it up as he went along, weeding out the weeds and straightening the stones that marked out the grave. Nick had been out this way the last time and tidied up the graves on that visit. Usually, it was either Nick or Heath who took on the responsibility, their mother for a long time now no longer able to do so.
He moved next to his father's gravesite which had the largest headstone of all those present. Heath had never known his father, had been bitter towards him for a long time, but with fatherhood, Heath's anger began to ebb and understanding replace it. Life was too short to harbor bitterness to a man who had sired him and thus enabled Heath to enjoy his life now. It was hard to look at his brothers, respecting them as he did, and deny that his father was not a great, if flawed man. Weren't all men flawed, himself included. But the flaws humanized his father for Heath and allowed him to develop a love for the man, which was different from that of his brothers but no less felt.
He took care tidying the grave, paying attention to the imposing stone memorial to a man who he had come to know, not just through his family but from his visits to the gravesite and more importantly through his own children. For a man raised without a father only real came to know that father when he had children of his own. Heath knew that not only his blood, but his father's blood ran through their veins and when he talked to them about Grandpa Thomas he did not have to make a pretense of the love and respect he had for the man.
Working away at his father's grave, Heath did not hear the approach of another wagon until the familiar sounds of Nicholas, Matty and James could be heard greeting their father. Heath stood up, surprised to see them, but delight showing across his face. As he approached the wagon he helped each one of them down and then was handed a sleeping George, who soon found a new place to rest his sleepy head on his father's shoulder.
"We were driving back from Jenny's and your sons wanted to see you and come and help with the tidying up." Meg stated, taking Heath's one spare hand to help steady her as she jumped down from the wagon.
Heath gifted her with a smile and a kiss. "And what about my wife? What did she want?" he teased.
"Oh, she just wanted to see you." Meg teased back.
"Boys been good?" Heath inquired.
"Define good." Meg replied cryptically.
Heath shifted George in his arms as George's head found the side of his neck and snuggled in closer. He arched an eyebrow at Meg. "What do you mean? Define good? Does it need defining? What did they do?" He croaked.
"Well let's just say Jenny's vegetable patch had five little garden helpers all working very hard, but I'm not sure it remains a vegetable patch any more."
"Oh." Heath gulped. "Is Jenny mad?" he asked, concerned at what damage the boys had done.
"Darling," Meg replied taking George from Heath, "Jenny is the most tolerant of women. Without batting an eye she thanked them all for their industrious help. Even the sight of Little Heath caked in dirt didn't phase her."
Suddenly, Heath found James at his feet clamouring to be picked up. "I hear you've been helping tidy your Aunt Jenny's vegetable patch." He asked James.
James nodded. "Aunt Jenny said we did a good job, too." He enthused in all innocence of the damage they had done. "We picked up all the weeds," he added, playing with his father's hair, pushing it up and then smoothing it down again over his ears.
"Vegetables," Meg mouthed silently to Heath when James mentioned weeds, indicating where the damage lay.
Heath pulled a face, thinking after tending the graves, he might have another job to do and an apology for his children's enthusiam to make. In the meantime, he had three little helpers wanting to help him tidy up the family graves.
Though the little ones were too young to have known the occupants of each grave, they had a natural curiosity about them all. Their understanding of death and where you went, gained from their parents, was of happy place and based on that, the small cemetry held no fear for them. Flowers were picked for each grave and little voices were heard introducing themselves to their Aunt Beth, their Grandpa Tom, their Grandma Leah and Aunt Cate, which is how the little ones addressed the headstone of their father's first wife.
After all the graves had been tended too, Heath closed the gate to the cemetry and returned the tools to the wagon. Then he took his family for a walk, the young ones running ahead with Max, throwing him a stick which he faithfully returned to them, though it was Heath's throws that gave him the greater exercise.
The boys got to spend time playing with their father in rough and tumble games which they all loved whilst Meg watched on with George in her arms. "Me play," he announced when he saw all his brothers having fun. And so he did until it was time to go home.
"Heath's Birthday Morning"
Heath Barkley woke up on his twenty-eighth birthday to a warm, sunny day filtering in through the window and the wonderful feeling of Meg spooned next to him. He could feel the softness of her silken skin, the fullness of her breasts pressed into him, her slender arm draped across his back and her hand resting langurously, possessively almost, on his right buttock as he lay sprawled on his front, his head to the side, his blue eyes looking through the window and to the clear blue sky beyond. The night has long given way to the morning and he and Meg were the last ones up in the household. Today was not a working day for Heath, a birthday present from his family, and Victoria had promised to look after the children, arranging for Nick to take Sean and Thomas to school, leaving Cate and the new twins, now three months old, in the nursery under her own care.
He felt Meg nestle in closer and sigh, her warm breath and long hair whispering feather light caresses across his skin. He smiled, because he knew when she woke up he would make love to her again and hear his name leave her lips as he showed her how much he loved her and was loved in return.