"Pa? You Ever Have A Girlfriend?"
Heath rode into the Barkley compound, weary and dusty, knowing he had done perhaps too much and grateful when Jake, one of the hands working around the compound, took his horse. "Thanks, Jake," he said before turning to walk to the house. Inside, he was met by his wife and twins.
"Oh Heath!" Meg gently scolded him.
"I know, I know." Heath responded, taking off his hat and silencing her protests with a dusty kiss. "I'll be fine after a hot bath and something to eat."
Thomas, eager to hug his father and already standing on his father's boots to gain some extra advantage, climbed up for a kiss and a carry. Heath obliged, carrying Thomas upstairs with Sean and Meg following.
"Are you angry at Papa?" Sean asked his new mother, a little concerned.
"No," Meg reassured him, squeezing his hand which he had firmly snuck into hers.
Meg had not been married to Heath Barkley very long but already she understood the level of his stubbornness regarding his own health. She had learned with the rest of the family that confrontation did not work, subtler methods needed to be employed.
Upstairs, Heath dropped Thomas to the bed causing the youngster to giggle. He then grabbed a few things before heading for the bathroom. Thomas scrambled off the bed and ran in front of him eager to run his father's bath and fill it with as many soap suds as he could. After a while, when the suds threatened to spill over onto the bathroom floor, his father reached over and turned off the gushing faucet. Thomas looked disappointed as his entertainment was brought to a stop. Heath toussled his son's blond hair and teased out a smile. Patting Thomas on his rear Heath sent his son out of the bathroom and drained some of the water out of the over-filled tub.
Undressing, Heath placed his dusty work clothes in the laundry basket, unintentionally overlooking a shirt that remained on the floor. He padded over to the bath where he tested the water with his foot before stepping in. Already feeling the relaxing properties of the water he held on to the ornate handles of the tub and sank fully into the hot water. Immediately the soap suds receded at his body's intrusion and then slowly began reforming to cover his body. He let out a contented sigh as the water began to ease his aching limbs, penetrating the tightened muscles which he had felt so keenly in the saddle.
Emerging from dipping his head under the water he met Meg's eyes staring down at him. The silent communication between them both was enough to tell him what she was thinking. As she picked up his shirt from the floor and sat down on a nearby seat he reached across and spread his hand over her growing belly.
Meg reached down to cover his with her own and the parents-to-be gave over their thoughts to the growing baby inside; the reason for their sudden marriage. "You look beautiful," he said and watched her face bask in his loving words. It was true. Pregnancy suited her. She carried it well. Nevertheless she arched her back to relieve the ache and he knew that pregnancy also took its toll. "Tired?"
"Did you take a nap?"
She nodded. "Your mother made sure I did."
Heath began bathing, his routine always the same. Meg took pleasure in watching and helping him. Her husband was handsome with a beautiful, toned and tanned body from the hard work he did outside. He laughed when she had first told him so. "Men are not beautiful. Women are." He had corrected, his views on such things quite set. But she would not have it. She thought him beautiful and eventually he just smiled realizing he could not change her mind.
Getting out of the bath Heath reached for a towel to dry himself, pausing to drain the tub. Meg stood up to help dry him and inevitably found herself caught up in an embrace and a long, smouldering kiss, her dry clothes pressed to his wet body, his towel discarded as he held her. She brushed a large soap sud off his freckled shoulder and blew it into the air off her hand. Heath took the opportunity to entwine her hair through his fingers and drop a trail of kisses down her neck.
"Get dressed, dinner is in twenty minutes." She playfully reprimanded him, adding a slap to his backside.
"Spoiling my fun?"
"Thomas and Sean want some time with you. And so do your family. And then there's the small matter of dinner." He smiled, revelling in the ease of their relationship and banter. "Who'd have thought it?" He mused. Here he was happy, contented and yes, in love. Meg was good for him. He knew that already.
Meg left him to finish in the bathroom and once more arched her back as she closed the door behind her. She went downstairs to check on dinner. Shortly afterwards, Heath padded out of the bathroom and into the room he shared with Meg. His twins were playing on the bed. As Heath dressed they told him about their day at school, Heath's eyes opening wider when he heard Sean talk about having to stand in the corner because a friend had teased him over a girl.
"Trouble with standing in the corner, son, is that the only thing you get to study is the wall."
"But Frankie Johnson said I liked Molly Atkins."
"Molly's a girl, I take it?" Heath bit down on the smile forming on his lips as he put on his shirt and looked at his indignant son through the reflection in the mirror.
"Of course she is Pa! And Frankie said I liked her! Well, that just ain't fer or right!"
"I can see how it's not good for a five-year old’s image. Pesky little creatures always following you around." Heath teased.
Sean and Thomas nodded in agreement. "They even want to join in your games. Well we don't play with their dolls so they shouldn't play in our games" Clearly, the lines between boys and girls hand been drawn.
As Heath sat down on the edge of the bed to put his socks on the two of them crawled across the bed. "Pa? You ever have a girlfriend?" Sean asked his face so serious Heath felt it best to mirror his son's earnest look before replying.
"Well, son, I cannot tell a lie. I did indeed have a girlfriend. In fact I had a few when I was younger...err older, well quite a bit older than you, let's say.."
"Yer did? But what fer, Pa?"
Heath felt the need to offer up a defence for himself and the girls he had dated. "Well they were very pretty and believe it or not son it's kind of nice to have a girlfriend. Of course, I can see at five, the appeal is not quite the same."
Sean folded his arms and shook his head at the betrayal. "But yer our Pa!" He exclaimed.
Heath placed a finger to his son's button nose. "Yes, but the girls were pretty. That kind of thing sorta disarms a man, yer know. Before you know it, you're not thinking about anything else and yer plucking up enough courage to invite her to the dance. And then, and then you're holding her in yer arms and staring into those amazing eyes, eyes a man could drown in." A quick glance at his sons' non-comprehending and disapproving faces told him he should leave this lesson for another day and quite a few years later. If he mentioned how good it felt to kiss a girl he felt sure his sons would just about lose any remaining vestige of respect for him. He tried to remember what he was like when he was five years old so that he could see it from their point of view but being five was such a long time ago.
Laughing he pulled them off the bed. "Come on. We'll save this talk for when you're older and have formed a different opinion of girls. In the meantime, Sean, I suggest the best way of dealing with Frankie Johnson is to ignore him. Girls and boys are just part of life and one day all that fighting and objecting you are doing to them will turn into something quite special."
Thomas and Sean scrunched up their faces, clearly not convinced. Even having a little sister was proving somewhat of a sufferance. As if on cue little Cate made her presence and powerful lungs known from the nursery. Exaggeratedly the two boy covered their ears. Smiling at their antics Heath left them to go see to his daughter, knowing that one day all this would change.
"Mom versus Son"
Heath woke up bored. Bored of the ceiling he had been looking up at for the past fortnight, bored of the dull wallpaper that graced the walls of his bedroom, bored by the paintings that stared back at him and bored even by the usually favourable vista afforded to him from his bedroom window. Bored, bored, bored, BORED!!!
An attentive son, not one to rock the Barkley boat, he had listened to his family and to the doctor's advice and had stayed in bed for the duration of his illness. But now he felt fine. And today? Well, today he had promised himself he was getting up!
"Well get up then Heath Barkley! Quit jawin' about it and do it!" He chided himself.
Throwing back the covers Heath attempted to jump out of bed and instead found himself sadly lacking his pre-illness energy. "Dammit!" He cursed with frustration. He added a few more army-learned expletives, dormant since he had been a boy foot soldier, when he saw he was wearing neither nightshirt nor sleeping pants. As cool morning air crept into parts where garments should have been and goose pimples began to appear, Heath remembered the verbal set-to he'd had with his mother which he had gone to sleep thinking he had won and which he now realized he had spectacularly lost.
Determined to stop him from getting up from his sick bed his mother had threatened, jokingly he had thought, to take away his pants and boy howdy she had carried out her threat! Clearly the deed had been done whilst he was asleep! His brothers, obviously, carrying out the task, or at least he hoped it had been his brothers. Heath scratched his head and promised himself sweet revenge for their betrayal.
He was getting cold and he needed clothes. Shifting his weight to stand up he found his legs were less enthusiastic about the idea. Through pure stubbornness he forced them to comply. Making his way to his closet he mentally picked out what he wanted to wear - blue shirt, tan pants and vest. Boy Howdy! Was he looking forward to putting them on and feeling human again. Eager hands opened the doors and his right one made to grab the selected clothes whilst his left hand steadied him. Defeat hit him when he saw the closet was empty. A check on the nearby set of drawers revealed that his mother had taken his underwear and socks too! A glance to the corner of his room showed his boots had gone too! His mother had not only stripped him, but stripped the room as well!
Open mouthed he turned to see the door open and his brother Nick walk freely into the room. Unable to articulate his anger Heath pointed towards the cupboard and left Nick to figure out the rest.
Embarrassed for his brother and feeling guilty for his own part in the proceedings, Nick coughed and mumbled apologetically, "I was going to tell you about that, Heath. Mother took them out last night when you had that bust up."
"And my sleeping pants? She took those off me too?"
"Now, you know mother wouldn't do that! I took them off you. On mother's instruction, you understand. Fact is you never knew a thing. Slept right through it just like a baby."
"Glad I was so obliging." Heath retorted with heavy sarcasm. "It's down right embarrassing! A man's mother confiscating his clothes. What am I expected to do? Walk around buck-naked!"
Nick resisted stating the obvious. Instead he attempted to build a bridge between warring mother and son. "Well I think the smart idea is that you will get back into bed where Mother thinks you should stay for a few more days."
"I'm twenty years old! I don't need mollycoddling like a child!"
"Nearly twenty. Technically, you're still nineteen." Nick pontificated.
"Nineteen, or twenty I don't need my mother or my brother to dress and undress me!"
"I sympathise, Heath, but you're wasting your breath. Mother has her way of doing things and it doesn't pay to go against her. She'll only return your clothes when you get this fool idea out of your head. To her way of thinking you're being the stubborn one."
"She's never taken your clothes or Jarrod's!" Heath protested.
Nick crossed his arms, a sure sign he was going to hypothesise, "Well, I reckon there's two reasons for that. Firstly, we're older, quite a bit older in fact.
"Four and eight years difference, that's all!"
"Believe me kid, it's enough to pull rank and keep an over protective mother at bay. Secondly, we know better than to get up before we are feeling better. Honestly, Heath, it's all our opinion that you're trying to run before you can walk. Why not give it a few more days. You still look a bit grey around the gills, you know."
"You might look the same without clothes." Heath shot back, making his way to the door.
"Where are you going?" Nick exclaimed, feeling himself unceremoniously pushed out of the way and his advice ignored.
"You've got clothes, haven't you? I'm going to get me a set of yours."
"Now wait just one minute!" Nick protested loudly, following his brother out of the room. "I'm not lending you any of my clothes! Look, I admire your stance, I really do, but I also have what is considered a healthy regard for self-preservation. Sorry kid, but you have a revolution of one going on here. Don't even think of roping me into your plans."
Standing in the corridor Heath couldn't believe his ears. "You won't lend me your clothes! You're can't be serious! Look at me! I'm wearing nothing but my birthday suit!"
Nick gave a helpless look. Heath's response was swift and unexpected. Suddenly Nick felt himself pushed out of the way for a second time and turned in time to see Heath heading down the stairs, both hands pressed to the banister to avoid a fall on still shaky legs. "Heath! You can't go downstairs like that!" he called after him.
"Oh no! Just watch me!" Heath shot back. He was determined to get his clothes back and some self-respect. If they kept him without clothes then he would walk around without them.
Nick ran into Heath's bedroom to fetch the coverlet from the end of the bed and ran after his brother.
"G...Good Morning Heath," Audra spluttered, blushing deeply as she passed her 'facial twin' on the stairs, her eyes not knowing where to look. Seeing Nick at the top of the stairs she threw him a "Do something now!" look, which begged him to intervene.
Nick, carrying the coverlet, shrugged his shoulders helplessly as if to say: 'What do you think I'm trying to do?"
Reaching the spacious foyer Heath passed Silas, who was holding out a tray as he walked towards the door. "For Mother?" Heath inquired, barely pausing for an answer as he took the silver tray from the faithful retainer.
"Yes'm Mista Heath. But Mista Heath? Your mother, she....." A startled Silas called after the naked man, the back of whom he saw fast disappearing on to veranda, arms aloft holding the tray.
Unable to stop Heath, he waited in line with Nick and Audra for the inevitable gasps to emanate from the veranda as the surprised middle-aged ladies of the Stockton Sewing Circle found a new way to make the acquaintance of Heath Barkley. "Your tea mother!" Heath drawled, his voice unable to hide his anger, the level of which blinded him to the ladies presence.
Victoria Barkley proved a cool customer. She had the measure of Heath in more ways than one. Slowly pouring a cup of tea and being careful to keep a straight face, she informed him calmly, "How nice of you to join us Heath. Perhaps now that you are here I can introduce you to Mrs. Van Meyer, Mrs. O'Shaughnessy, Mrs Holmes, Miss. Jackson and Mrs. Bauer. You remember, dear, I told you that our sewing group would be meeting here today."
She watched as the volcanic anger on her son's face gave way to crippling red-faced embarrassment. Heath was frozen to the spot on which he stood, unable to answer his mother, unable to turn around to face the ladies present, or walk out the way he had just come in.
Victoria extended her victory. Pouring another cup, she inquired of her son if he would like tea.
Heath's head automatically nodded, his brain unable to properly process the question asked. Victoria released the smile she had been holding as she reached for the sugar bowl, "Good." she commented, "Now will that be with one lump or two?"
Nick thumped his forehead in frustration and let out an almighty groan on hearing his mother's words. He had to salvage his brother somehow. With outstretched arms he quickly wrapped the coverlet around his brother's waist. Heath fumbled to clutch the material tightly. "Ladies!" Nick addressed, holding up his freed hands somewhat theatrically. "Ladies, do not be alarmed by my brother's state of undress." The ladies turned their attention from Heath to Nick giving Silas and Audra a chance to bundle the younger brother out of the room. "Heath, as Mother may have informed you, has been unwell. Isn't that correct, Mother?" Victoria played her part and confirmed it.
"The doctor did warn us that sleepwalking might be a side affect of the medication Heath has been taking. Well, as you can see my brother has just done that. Admittedly, none of us, least of all him I suspect, expected him to do it buck-naked or quite so publicly." The ladies giggled and Nick grinned back at them - the situation was funny after all. Nick coughed, clearing his throat and remembering the beetroot -faced bundle that was his brother outside. "Yes, well, I suppose you have a little more knowledge about my brother than you did yesterday." Again, the ladies giggled, quickly stopping when they received a censorious look from Victoria.
"Ladies," Nick continued, sitting down to join them. Conspiratorially he lowered his voice so that Heath could no longer hear him. "I must impress upon you that we cannot alarm him in his current state. It's imperative, in fact, that we do not try to wake him. That's why my mother was talking to him as though everything was normal in circumstances that are anything but normal. After all, what man in his right senses would walk buck naked into a meeting of the Ladies Sewing Circle?" The ladies nodded in agreement again, this time more soberly, Mrs. Van Meyer adding, "But, of course, the boy is unwell. Allowances should be made."
"You are so right, Mrs.Van Meyer," Nick replied, standing up. "I knew you would understand. Now, if you'll excuse me ladies, I'm going to assist my brother back to his room so he can rest. I know that you will not want to add to my brother's anxiety by repeating what has happened here. That boy would be mortified to know his behaviour had offended you. You know how he is."
The ladies all voiced that Heath Barkley was one of the politest and considerate young men of their acquaintance with manners to match.
"Don't say a word!" Nick mouthed as he joined his brother in the foyer and pushed him upstairs. Audra, quickly followed whilst Silas tried to restore order to serving tea on the Veranda. The ladies eyes followed Nick and his brother up the stairs before returning their attention to Victoria with an understanding look. The Barkley matriarch allowed herself a smile and poured them another cup of tea.
In due course Victoria said goodbye to her guests. Closing the door she paused momentarily to reflect on the day's events before crossing the foyer to climb the stairs to the first floor. From her own room she retrieved a set of her son's clothes and made her way to Heath's room. Opening the door she placed the clothes on a nearby chair. Heath feigned sleep, but Victoria knew he was observing her actions. Closing the door she met Nick in the hallway and they exchanged smiles. "That was quite a performance you gave downstairs." She congratulated.
"Believe me! It was nothing compared to Heath's!"
"Yes, well I don't think the ladies of the sewing circle will forget it soon."
"Not all of those ladies looked at him with maternal eyes, you know."
"Yes, well, don't embarrass Heath further by telling him. You will be pleased to know your somewhat flamboyant defense of him was very persuasive. The ladies have promised to keep what they have seen quiet."
"What about his clothes? Do they get a reprieve too?"
"I just put a set in his room along with some sleeping pants. You might want to tell him."
"Then he is allowed to up?"
"I think he answered that question for himself, don't you?"
Nick gifted his mother with a smile, "That he did, the fool kid. You play dirty, Mother. Did anyone tell you that?"
"I think it may have been mentioned from time to time."
"And you don't care?"
"On the contrary, I care very much about my family, one particularly stubborn son in particular at the moment."
Nick kissed his mother on the cheek. "Don't ever stop. Just don't play the same trick on me."
Victoria smiled and watched her son walk away. She placed a hand on the panelled wood of Heath's door and then slowly let her hand fall away, choosing not to disturb him again. No, she considered after the day's events. She wouldn't take his clothes away again.
Inside his room Heath wasn't too sure and so hid away his newly restored clothes just in case.
"An Adoption Shared"
Heath's eyes feasted on a panoramic view that took in the lush valley and sweeping hills.
"Watch ya lookin' at Papa?" his adopted son, Matty asked him as the little cowboy sat himself between his father's legs and sucked on the juices of an orange his mother had just given him.
"God's glorious countryside, son. His own backyard, so to speak."
"It's real pretty." Matty enthused, keen to join in his father's pastime. "Much nicer and cleaner than the city."
Remembering Matty's tough life before his adoption, Heath pulled his son closer and kissed the top of his head. "That it is son. That it is."
"Will this be my home for always, Papa?" Matty asked, the matter still of concern to the little boy.
"For as long as you want son."
"I never want to leave you Papa."
"You might one day. When you're all growed up."
He watched his son shake his head with a child's emphatic determination and view of life and smiled, knowing that one day that view might change. "Whatever you want to do, or wherever you want to go, your family, including your Mama, and me will always travel with you in here," Heath pointed to the place above his son's heart.
Matty cupped his hand over his father's. "Promise?"
Matty took another bite of his orange. "I think I just want to live here always. I like the horses and the cows."
"It's a good life, son. I felt the same when I came here too."
"Tell me again, how you were adopted like me Papa."
Heath ruffled his son's hair understanding that Matty found comfort in the story that they had been both adopted.
"Well, it happened thirty years ago. I was seventeen."
"How much older was that than I am now?"
"Twelve years. My mother had recently died."
"That's right, Grandma Leah. And I learned that my father was Tom Barkley."
Heath squeezed his son's shoulder in confirmation.
"I was mad and angry because he never acknowledged me as his son, or bothered to get to know me. And I came riding on to the ranch all fired up to claim my heritage and kick up as much of a ruccus as I could."
"And you met Aunt Audra."
"Seems to me know you know this story better than I do."
"Tell me Papa! Tell me Papa!"
"Well I came upon your grandfather's grave up there on the hill. He had died six years before I even knew of him. Your Aunt Audra, well now she thought I was trespassing and started to take her horse whip to me. Well, we fought for a bit and I overcame her. Then after we had both calmed down she told me who she was ..."
"But you didn't tell her who you were."
"That's right. I kept quiet. "She told me Tom Barkley had died six years before. She brought me to this ranch and I got a job working for your Uncle Nick."
Matty's eyes swung around to his Uncle Nick who was innocently standing nearby drinking a cup of coffee.
"And he hit you." Matty said accusingly.
Nick pleaded a defence. "It wasn't quite like that. Look! I would no more hit your father than I would your Aunt. Besides if I remember correctly your father punched me back." Nick rubbed his chin at the memory.
"Let's say we fought for the first and last time."
Heath added soberly. "Your uncle had an instinct I wasn't being truthful and in that respect he was correct. I had hidden my identity from him."`
"Well, I guess you could say we became acquainted. Only, I was full of anger and I didn't handle it all that well."
Nick coughed. "I guess I would have handled it the same if I had been you."
"And you became friends?"
"Friends and brothers."
"And Grandma Victoria adopted you. Just like you and Mama adopted me."
"That's right. And she's been my mother ever since."
"It's special to be adopted, isn't it Papa?"
"Well, I think so, Son. What you must remember and never forget is that we all love you. And that love is for always. It doesn't doesn't come at any price and it will never be taken away from you."
Matty turned around and snuggled into his father, letting his sticky hands grab on to Heath's shirt in his search for more comfort. "I won't Papa. I promise."
Heath knew Matty would ask for the story to be told to him again and he would oblige, knowing that it worked to strengthen the bond between them. One day the questions would cease but until then the story would serve as reassurance to a little boy who even in a big family sometimes felt a little lost.