"A Brother's Pain"
Heath is 26 years old and a young widower of just over a year
Nick was playing a game of poker when Ruby Mae came up to him and whispered into his ear. The other men around the table raised their eyes from their cards for a moment, their eyes not immune to the buxom charms of Ruby Mae, the fullness of those charms now spilling forward as she bent to give them an eyeful as she talked to Nick. Each one of them wished they were in Nick Barkley's shoes at that moment. That was until they saw the smile on Barkley's face turn downwards and then Nick chuck in the game, apologising to all, but throwing in his hand all the same.
They watched as Nick went upstairs alone, his boots heavy on the wooden stairs, Ruby Mae staying downstairs, her eyes following him with a look of concern. All too soon their focus returned to their cards. Whatever was going on, it wasn't any of their business.
Nick knocked on the door he had been told to go to. A moment passed and then the door was opened. Out scooted Lilith, a pretty girl, the type Heath would go for - he did not like them brash and vulgar mouthed. Nick stopped Lilith for a moment. "You alright?" he asked.
She nodded. "He wouldn't hurt me, not even when he is hurting inside so much. He's tender and loving, always has been but tonight...."
"What about tonight?" Nick grew concerned.
"Tonight he's just hurting. And not even what I can give him can heal that hurt. Not permanent least ways. He's been drinking. I don't think he can make his own way home and he can't stay here. Ya see, I need the room."
Nick nodded. Lilith had a soft spot for his brother but she was a working girl. He understood.
She left them alone and Nick closed the door on the saloon and the world outside. The room was dark and Heath sat in a chair staring out of the window, bottle in hand, clothes in disarray. He'd tried dressing himself but with little success.
Nick searched around the room for his brother's boots and gathered what remaining possessions and clothing Heath had scattered around the room in his search for some intimacy with Lilith to blot out the pain that never seemed to go away since his wife's death.
He turned the lamp up and knelt down in front of Heath.
The torch fires lighting the street below flamed illuminating orange and red shadows across the window. Heath objected to the extra light, preferring the dark, and waved his brother's help away. "Don't need no help, Nick."
"Well even if you don't, you're getting it." Nick retorted. "Curse me all you want, but I'm getting you dressed, boots and all and taking you home."
Heath didn't respond. His eyes were looking out of the window, looking for someway in how to go on without Cate. It had been over a year and nothing seem to make it easier.
"I hurt, Nick. I hurt real bad."
Nick patted Heath's shoulder. "I know, Heath. I know."
Time passed silently as Nick removed the bottle from Heath's protesting and then defeated hand and Nick set about getting Heath decent again, not minding the task, just wishing he could heal the hurt that ate away inside. He'd objected loudly to his kid brother's marriage, citing that Heath was too young to take on such responsibility, thinking that Heath and Cate were just kids. But they had proved him wrong. Cate was good for Heath and it was with genuine tears he had mourned is sister-in-law's passing.
For the most part Heath did go on. He had no choice, there were the children to consider and the family would not let him give up. But it was hard. Grief is not temporary, even when dulled it remains present and then the dullness turns sharp at moments least expected. Days when you think you are doing okay and then you're not. Melancholy is your only companion, the ability to remember the good times lost and only sadness pervades. Heath was in such a depression now and Nick knew it. Not the feel of Lilith's soft warm body or the bottle to hand had dulled that pain and Heath was in a mess.
Buttoning up his brother's shirt and putting his jacket on against the cold night air, Nick tried to get Heath to his feet. Wobbly legs protested and Heath slid to his knees, his face in Nick's crotch, his rag doll arms raised up above, the only thing keeping them supported, being Nick's own strong arms.
"Can't feel my legs, Nick," Heath slurred, unaware of his pathetic state.
What happened here would remain between brothers and Nick patted his brother's head, reassuring him that he would be alright. With struggle, for Heath was heavy, Nick got him to his feet and then moved quickly when Heath's stomach lurched threatening to be sick. A used chamber pot was the only receptacle Nick could find and Heath emptied his stomach into the bowl, the vomit mixing with the urine there.
"Sorry Nick," Heath apologized.
Nick got him to his feet again and cleaned him up. "Let's get you home. You'll feel better in your own bed. And then tomorrow will look better, I promise you." He hoped his words would come true.
"She's not there," Heath slurred, his drunken state unable to disguise the pure lonliness he felt.
"She is in a way, Heath" Nick soothed, like a father trying to ease a child's hurt. "She's in the children everyday of their lives and she's with you in your heart, Heath. She'll never leave your there."
"But I can't touch her, Nick. I can't talk to her and have her talk to me back. I love the children, you know that but the days and nights are empty now."
Nick did not have any answers, nothing new he could say. His priority now was to get Heath home. He would not leave Heath tonight. He might not be able to heal the hurt or make the pain go away, but he could be there in those dark moments of the night, those moments when Heath felt most alone.
When he put him to bed back at the mansion, he placed the picture of Cate in his brother's hand and saw Heath clutch it to his chest, his tears freely flowing, then lay down on the bed next to him, guarding him through the night and onto the dawn.
"Giving Into Meg"
1897 - Meg makes an unexpected and unusual request of Heath
"No Meg. I'm not doing it." Heath protested as he put his newspaper and cup of coffee down and then finally his glasses.
"Oh Heath, please. It is not as though anyone else will see it. It's just for our eyes only."
"I don't want to look at it!" Heath protested loudly, the whole idea alien to him.
"But I do!" Insisted Meg. "I have always wanted to do a life study of you."
"You have the real thing. Why do you want it? I don't understand. Meg we've been married twenty years. Everything I got is yours including this!" he said indicating to his own body.
The conversation moved upstairs and Heath began changing his shirt.
"Oh Heath, please." Meg continued. "No one will see it. Just us. I'll be very careful. I will keep it well hidden."
"What if it gets mislaid. Imagine someone seeing it. No Meg. I'm not doing it." Heath was adamant.
"Heath you know how much my painting is important to me. I love you, I've wanted to do this for such a long time. Please do this for me."
"Meg?" A tone of defeat was entering Heath's voice under Meg's persistence.
"Heath," Meg worked her way into Heath's bare arms. "I will be so careful. I want to do a portrait of you. I know I have you, but this is important to me."
Heath's voice grew soft, defeat definitely creeping into it. He found it hard to deny her anything. But this?
"But I'm old Meg. I'm not twenty-five anymore."
"And your not seventy-five either." Meg censured his attempt at self pity and plea of old age. "Oh Heath, you're in your prime. Just as handsome and athletic as the day I married you."
"Is that why I creak more?" Countered Heath, feeling the aches and pains even when they were not present.
Meg let her hands roam freely through his graying chest hair and across the spread of his chest, down and then up again to rest once more amongst the dense forest which she so loved, the tour of his bronzed, still finely toned, muscled torso distracting them both with her touch. "I don't notice any creaking," she observed with a smile. "Everything seems in working order to me."
"Well, I'm standing up," Heath protested weakly. "It's when I bend down that I creak."
"You'll be posing for me lying down. Nothing too exerting for an old man of your advanced years." She teased.
Heath pushed her hands down. "But it's how you want me to pose which is worrying me. If I was younger, Meg..."
"You still would have found a reason to say no." Meg answered him honestly, for she knew Heath inside and out.
Heath sat down on the bed. It was a mistake. Meg, was that mix of a free spirit in the bedroom and Victorian propriety outside of it, and Heath had always found it a heady mix.
When she sat on his lap and snaked her arms around his neck, then lifted his head and pressed her lips to his, he knew he was a 'goner'.
"You are sure everyone is out of the house?" Heath asked, his face displaying worried looks as he clutched a sheet around his middle and lower half.
"I'm sure," Meg assured him as she stood preparing her easel, brushes and paints.
Heath was in a bad mood for obvious reasons and hadn't slept the night before through worry. "I don't know why we couldn't do this in our room." He protested, his feet getting caught up in the excess length of the sheet and threatening to send him tumbling sans sheet to the floor.
"I told you Heath. I need the light of this room."
He stood like a little boy lost and she went to his aid, just as she would do with little James. She guided him to the sofa on which she wanted him to pose, struggled with him for the sheet which he was reluctant to let go of and set his arms and legs in a masculine pose which for Heath was anything but comfortable and left him feeling terribly exposed. "Can't I at least cover...?"
"No, Heath. What is the point of me doing a nude portrait of you, if you do that!" Meg was in a no-nonsense artist mode and was finding it difficult to understand her husband's shyness. They were alone in the house and she had long ago heard the story from Nick of when Heath had walked through the house buck naked at the age of twenty and surprised Victoria's guests, all because he was angry at his mother for enforcing his convalescence by taking away his clothes. Her sympathy on hearing the story was entirely with her mother-in-law for Heath did indeed make a bad patient.
"But Meg, how long have I got to lie here? Anyone could walk in!"
"I told you Heath. I have arranged it so that we are all alone."
"Meg we have fifteen children. How alone can we be???"
"Heath! Do you honestly think I would put you in a position where you would be embarrassed?"
"Look at me Meg. Believe me I'm embarrassed."
"Shush. I need to concentrate," Meg reprimanded him as she began sketching Heath's outline on the canvas with an expert hand.
Time passed slowly as Meg grew absorbed in her painting. Heath grew more and more uncomfortable, earning rebukes as he shifted his pose. He ached in ways foreign to him and Meg had only allowed him brief respites to walk around. He had attempted to look at the portrait but Meg swiftly ended such hope, not letting him see it until it was finished. In a huff, he grabbed his sheet round his middle, his feet negotiating the excess material so as not to trip up, and walked petulantly off to the foyer to grab himself an apple from the always bountiful display.
He munched happily until suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The color instantly drained from Heath's face to the tips of his exposed feet as he and Meg stared at each other wondering what he should do. Blank looks were exchanged. Max's barking alerted the caller to their presence inside the house and Heath glared at the dog like he was the enemy. Both dog and master ran for cover, hiding themselves behind the sofa when the door began to open under the caller's hand. Subsequently there ensued a tussle for the sheet which Heath desperately clung on to and Max equally fought for.
"Oh Meg, I'm so sorry. I knocked at the door but no one answered," announced her friend Adelaide Brummer as she swept into the Parlor. "We were just passing on our way to Roy's mother's and I thought I would drop off Cate's dress. I hope you like what I have done with it."
Meg moved swiftly to cover up the canvas and checked to see if any part of Heath was on view.
"Oh I can see I have interrupted you whilst you are painting. Can I see?" Adelaide asked as she moved closer towards the easel.
"No!" Meg shot out. Adelaide turned around shocked at her friend's tone. Meg modified it quickly. "I've...I've just started it and I'm always protective of my work until I feel it is ready to show." She explained.
Adelaide gave her an understanding look. "Not a problem. I will look forward to seeing it when it is finished. I do so love the other paintings you have done. That one of Matty when he first came to you is my favorite I think. You are indeed talented, my dear friend. Now come look at this dress," she said moving towards the sofa for better light so she could lay out the dress.
"Not there!" Meg shouted, immediately trying to stop her.
Adelaide once again turned, wondering what had got into her friend.
Again, Meg softened her tone in attempt to explain her behavior. "Really, the light is poor over there. Why not bring it over here where I can see the detail better. I'm sure Cate will be overjoyed that it is ready so soon."
"Oh nonsense Meg." Adelaide said good naturedly. "Look the window here will give us the perfect light. Come see."
The window was directly behind the sofa behind which Heath was still hiding. When he heard the rustle of her skirts approaching he dived out from behind it to escape to the next sofa and Max followed, nose to Heath's rear still trying to grab at the sheet. Meg just had time to see a white-sheeted form crawling across the floor which fortunately Adelaide, intent on showing off the dress, did not see. Meg was beside herself with worry. She had worked so hard to ensure she and Heath would be alone today and now everything was going wrong. Why hadn't she locked the door? Now, poor Heath was crawling about on the floor, dressed only in a sheet and his nude portrait stood center of the room, just waiting to be discovered by curious eyes. When suddenly Max appeared growling and trailing Heath's sheet across the floor, she knew things had just got worse. "Oh no! she uttered, not realizing she had said it out loud.
"Meg! Whatever is wrong?" asked a concerned Adelaide, then seeing Max trailing the length of an unravelled sheet she understood. "Oh dear," she said, bending down to pick the sheet up for her friend. "It appears Max has got amongst the laundry. Naughty Max," she scolded verbally, retrieving the sheet and spoiling Max's play. As she was about to stand up, something out of the corner of her eye made her realize it was not the best of times to be visiting. A turn of her head confirmed she was right as in the gap provided by the ornate legs of the plush two-seated sofa to her right, she was treated to a fine view of Heath's naked lower back, upper thighs and lower legs, tightly wrapped up in two equally bare arms. From his position it was obvious he had his back to the chair, his legs drawn up and was clearly intent on keeping himself hidden. A smile filled her face as she put two and two together. The painting... a naked Heath...a flustered Meg... a sheet. She quickly made her excuses.
"Dear Meg. Don't worry. Tell Cate to contact me if any further adjustments are required. I must be off. Roy's mother does not like to be kept waiting." She kissed Meg, avoiding the paint on her cheek and cast a look towards the painting. "I think, my dear, I will especially look forward to seeing this painting when it is finished."
Meg was not yet understanding. "Oh Adelaide, I'm sorry," Meg apologized. "Perhaps we can get together later this week."
"I look forward to it," Adelaide answered, reaching for her gloves and hat which she had taken off earlier. "Goodbye Meg." She kissed her friend again. "And goodbye Heath," she added as she left the room leaving both Meg and Heath speechless.
"Oh my dear, your face!" Adelaide laughed on seeing Meg's blushing face as Meg saw her to the door. "Believe me if I had a husband who looked as good as Heath, I would be tempted to paint him too. As it is I have Roy and much as I love him he does not have the figure for it and I'm afraid, my dear, never will."
Both ladies laughed, Meg a little nervously, realizing she and Heath had been discovered, but the laugh on Meg's face soon disappeared when she returned to the Parlor to face Heath. He was no longer there and in his place was a vase of flowers sitting on the sofa telling her exactly what she could do with her portrait.
"Oh dear," she sighed, pressing a hand to her mouth. "It will take me a month of Sundays to persuade him to do it now." She carefully packed up her paints and easel, taking special care of an unfinished painting, musing on just such a plan.
"The Hunting Trip"
Heath finished dressing and walked over to the crib were Meg was laying down the new baby, Heath Jr, after his feed. "Hungry little fella, ain't he?"
Meg smiled contentedly as they both gazed at their sleeping son for a few minutes, simply enjoying just watching him settle off to sleep. Then she turned and finished buttoning the remaining buttons of her husband's shirt. "You and Nick going hunting today?"
Heath nodded, putting on his vest. "You mind?"
Meg shook her head. "No. You and Nick have not been hunting for a while. It will do you both good."
"We'll not be out late." He said kissing her and then coming back for another one which made her laugh. He looked so young with the excitement of going hunting. He had been so good helping her with the baby and the children, who now numbered six with Heath Jr's arrival. The oldest twins, Sean and Thomas, were now seven, Cate four, twins, Samuel and Leah, nearly two and now Junior, who Meg had insisted carry Heath's name, despite his objections. Privately, she thought he was pleased.
She went downstairs with him and watched him mount up. As he stood by Charger, he felt Meg's eyes upon him, and realizing what she was looking at, shook his butt from side to side to give her a show. She blushed deeply, knowing her interest had been discovered and wondering if anybody had seen. Heath laughed as he saw her embarrassment, "It's all yours''" he teased.
Emboldened after realizing nobody was around she teased, "Yes I know."
Heath whistled. "Boy Howdy! Not sure I want to go now."
She laughed, no longer embarrassed for his antics were funny and there was nothing more a wife loved than knowing she had her husband's attention even when the lure of a hunting trip beckoned. "You do and you know it. Have fun. I'll see you this evening."
She watched him leave, enjoying seeing him ride out, his riding style relaxed and at one with Charger, his favorite horse. Only when she turned, did she see Victoria standing in the doorway with a smile on her face and her arms holding two year old Samuel.
Emboldened a minute ago, Meg was entirely flustered now. "Oh Mother! Heath and I were......"
Victoria smiled warmly, putting her daughter-in-law at ease. "Yes, I know. Just saying goodbye. I haven't forgotten my goodbyes to Tom." Samuel squirmed in her arms, obviously wanting his mama. Victoria let him go and the child settled in Meg's arms. Victoria continued. "I was thinking of going for a ride. Would you like to join me? If we saddle up Misty Gal and Laurel we can take this young fella with us, they'll go gentle enough for him. Audra is more than happy enough to look after Leah and Junior, in fact she is itching to get rid of us I think."
Meg laughed and said she would like that. They would not be gone long and she would enjoy some time with Victoria. Before long they were saddled up and Samuel was enjoying sitting in front of his mother astride the gentlest of mares, Laurel.
Heath slowly took aim a deer in his sights. He wanted to be sure he only took one shot. The shot fired, the deer pole axed, dead to the earth, a clean shot despatching it instantly. He received a congratulatory pat on his back for it was indeed a fine shot. "Good shot, Heath." Nick praised. Heath appreciated his praise. Then both brothers strode out to claim the deer so as to take it home.
The morning continued in good company, easy banter back and forth, both brothers happy to spend some quality time together. Yes they worked together, lived in the same house even and were the best of friends, but marriage and children had the greater claim on Heath now, and time for the brothers was less available these days.
The stopped for lunch. Heath's cooking, often the subject of derision from his older brother because of his penchant for cooking beans, was really much better than Nick let on, and they enjoyed a good repast of well cooked food and hot steaming coffee, the aroma of which filled the air.
Heath yawned and tried to hide it. Nick smiled knowingly. Heath's yawn was the kind of yawn that came from a man having a wife to share his bed and Nick was not, unsurprisingly, a little jealous, his bed and life still distinctly empty of wife, his heart still not prepared to be given.
Already, Heath had himself a passel of kids, and darn if that wife of his and those nephews and nieces weren't a walking advertisement for the benefits of marriage. Nick could just see himself with a couple of kids on each knee, but then Nick's eye was still-a-roving and Mrs. Nick Barkley was not yet on the scene.
His only serious venture towards marriage had been his sudden engagement to Hester Converse and the less said about that subject the better, for his lack of judgement concerning her had almost cost him and his family dear. Nope you better face it Nick Barkley, you're not ready for settling down yet. Heath might not yet be thirty and father to six already but he was always the settling down type and Nick Barkley you just ain't. Not yet, anyhow.
Heath observed his silent but thoughtful brother closely. "You having a good conversation with yourself there, Nick?"
"Yeah. Don't spoil it." Nick retorted back.
Heath laughed and lay down, resting his head on his saddle, taking a few attempts to get comfortable. "Don't worry I won't interrupt. I'm just going to close my eyes for a minute."
Nick looked put out. "Well, who will I talk to then?"
"Thought you didn't want interrupting. I'm happy to remain quiet."
"But I'm not. You know that!"
"Well, what do you want to talk about, Nick?" Heath asked, smiling at his brother's bellowing.
Nick began a one-sided conversation requiring Heath only to offer the odd acknowledgement and opinion to show he was still listening. Heath didn't mind. Nick's voice, company and the hunting to come made for a pleasant afternoon
When they had rested and cleared everything away, putting the fire out with extra care, they set off on their way, Nick determined to find the success that had eluded him that morning. They rode up into the hills, horses and riders at ease with the backdrop of mountains and lush green land.
Nick's success came a couple of hours later. This time it was Heath's turn to congratulate him. Nick had bagged himself a bear and Nick was ecstatic, so much so, he didn't realize his exuberance had caused Heath who had come up behind him to topple backwards as Nick's arm swung outwards and hit Heath straight in the face. When he turned, Nick saw his brother roll down the hill and grab the front of his face from where blood oozed through his fingers.
"Bad?" Nick asked as he made his way down the hill, the commotion scattering the horses for a moment.
"I think you broke my nose! Geez Nick, I almost feel like the bear!"
"Let me see." Nick asked concerned and not a little half guilty.
Reluctantly, Heath lifted his hands from his face.
Nick whistled. "Oh, that's not pretty. Not pretty indeed. Your Meg's sure going to kill me. Tell me, Heath. How many times have I broken your nose now?"
"Twice, huh. Oh yeah, that other time, you fell off your horse, didn't you? Trouble is that nose of yours is just too pretty and dainty. It kinda snaps easily. Really, when you think about it, the blame's not entirely mine."
"Nick? You going to help me or stand their discussing the matter? Here give me a hand up."
"What! Oh, sure. Say, Heath. Any way you can tell Meg without her giving me daggers look for the next month?"
One look from a battered Heath told him the answer.
Meg loudly sounded the plate in front of her brother-in-law. Nick winced. With equal bad temper Meg served the dinner, this being Silas' night off and the Barkleys fending for themselves. Vegetables, prime venison steak and potatoes found their way to his plate with a heavy hand, the force of which sent a smattering of peas rolling into his lap followed by a solitary carrot. Victoria and Jarrod couldn't resist smiling when Nick was left to pick them one by one out of his lap, smiling at an unsmiling Meg as he did so. "Thank you," he said as she finished serving.
When Meg finally sat down her temper had not left her and quickly Victoria, Jarrod and Nick began eating to avoid further censure for the aim of her temper when roused had been known to go astray and take in more than one victim.
Nick attempted to apologize.
"I don't want to hear it!" Meg exclaimed as the family began to eat their meal in silence.
Opposite, Heath sat, his beautiful nose broken and covered in white plaster.
From experience he reckoned both he and Nick would be in the dog house for the next couple of days. It had been a good hunting trip whilst it lasted. At least the venison tasted good.