He poured himself another tumbler full of whisky and returned to assume his spot by the fireplace. With one arm resting against the mantle he swirled the brown liquid in his glass with the other; its whirls creating a powerful hypnotic magnet that seemed to absorb the man’s torment. He stared dazedly at the circling motion, wishing it to drown his sorrows that have been plaguing his heart and soul for what appeared an eternity. He closed his eyes and put the rim to his lips. He allowed the taste of the liquor to linger in his mouth, to numb his tongue, before swallowing it.
As he ambled back to the liquor cabinet he caught a glimpse of Doctor Merar clumping down the stairs. He put his glass down and hurried to meet the man halfway to the foyer.
“How is she?” Tom queried of his despondent wife.
The parched lips dangled a faint smile at the careworn husband. “She’s about the same, Tom. There’s no significant improvement.”
“God, it’s been nearly a year, Howard. I’m aware the three months I’ve been away haven’t help matters any; I honestly thought they would but I see that her condition has worsened. In the last two months she withdrew within herself. She won’t acknowledge any of us, even the children.”
“I know. Have you given any thought to my suggestion?”
“About placing Torie in a sanatorium? Yeah I churned it over.”
“I can’t bring myself to put her away. Even if you say it’s for her own good. The children need her.”
“Since losing the baby she has withdrawn in a world of her own. You said it yourself that she doesn’t respond to any of you. The boys might eventually construe her catatonia as a rejection and as a result might be emotionally scared for life.” He took one step towards Tom and placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “You must make a decision now before it’s too late to mend your crumbling family.”
Tom squished his eyes together to squeeze out the excess of tears. Two snivels later he murmured a wavering ‘okay’.
“I’ll wire San Francisco General to make arrangements. Tom, you’re making the right choice. Victoria needs professional help. Otherwise you might lose her for good.”
Tom ran hand across his face to wipe his bedewed cheeks and nodded. “I’ll tell the boys tonight. Thanks for coming, Howard.” With a hand on the doctor’s back he walked him to the door.
“Don’t mention it, Tom. I’ll be back once I have the answer from the hospital.”
“Thanks.” After ushering Howard out the door, Tom retraced his steps to the living room to empty the carafe in his glass. He quaffed down the liquid in one single gulp and stood prostrate, staring blankly in front of him. In one long drawn-out sigh, he implored God’s grace to provide him with the courage to plough through the emotionally oppressive journey.
He was yanked out of his daze by the thumping sound of feet thundering down the grand staircase. Quickly Tom regained his composure and slapped a smile on his face before turning to his little eight-year-old urchin Nicholas
“Father, is Mother still sick this morning?”
Tom bent down to lift his unkempt little boy in his arm. “I’m afraid she is. You didn’t disturb her I hope?”
“Nop! I was very quiet passing down her room.”
“Good boy.” He put the tiny cowboy down and took one step back to eye him from head to toe. “Dressed up rather in a hurry, did you Cowboy?” he bantered, alluding to the boy’s dishevelled appearance.
“I can’t wait to ride my pony,” he gushed with eyes sparkling with excitement.
“I see. I think we ought to wait until you’ve put some of Silas’s good wholesome food into you.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“A cowboy needs plenty of nourishment to sustain him for the day. Besides Jarrod won’t like it if we don’t show up at the table.”
“He won’t mind. He’s never much around. He’s always in his room studying,” Little Nicki whined while kicking up his boots against the carpet.
Tom’s heart melted at the sight of the cute pout hanging on the little munchkin’s lips. “Okay. We’ll go saddle Sandwind first and then we’ll come back for breakfast. How’s that?”
Nicholas whooped with joy and bounced out of the living room.
“Nicki, not so loud!”
“Sorry Father.” With a lighter step the young boy walked up to the door and fumbled with the latch with his tiny chubby hands.
Tom reached for his hat on the coat rack and followed his son out the door.
“Father…look,” Nick observed, pointing to the hosier basket set on the porch swing. “What is it?”
With a wary hand on his son’s shoulder Tom cautiously approached the object and peeked inside. His eyes bulged out in surprise at the sleeping bundle cocooned in a white blanket. “It’s a baby.”
“My baby brother?” Nick surmised happily, hoping the baby was his dead sibling returning to heal his mother’s troubled soul.
“Not quite.” Tom glanced up and began scanning the field before him to spot any prying eyes.
Nick edged up to the basket to peer at the baby. “He’s so tiny. Can I hold him?”
“Let’s get him into the house first.” Tom gingerly picked up the basket, heedful not to jostle it for fear of rousing the slumbering angel.
“Father, what have you got there?” twelve-year-old Jarrod asked on his way down the stairs.
“It’s a baby!” Nick spoke up to beat his father to the news.
“A baby? Whose?”
“That I don’t know. We found this basket on the front porch swing just then,” Tom explained as he took the lead to the living room with his two sons in tow. He set the basket down on the sofa and carefully unwrapped the tiny infant to examine him. “It’s a little boy. He appears to be okay.” However gentle his touch was, Tom’s prodding and poking caused the infant boy to stir awake. Barely had he prised open his baby blue eyes that he started crying.
“Let me hold him,” Nick begged with his arms outstretched.
“You sit on the couch and I’ll place him in your arms.”
“Want some help, Squirt?” Jarrod offered with a hand on Nicki’s buttocks to hoist the boy up.
“I can do it myself,” the boy gnarled, shooting a dark scowl at his brother.
“Okay, don’t bit my head off.” Jarrod abstained from further assistance. Instead he sat by Nick and watched as his father lowered the squalling bundle into Nick’s arms. His touch had an immediate soothing effect on the baby who stopped crying. Tiny sobs lingered as he tried to focus on the smiling face before him. The two hazel orbs staring at him and the curl of the lips that he tried to imitate fascinated him.
“Hey, he’s smiling at me, Father.”
“Indeed he is, son. You have the magic touch.”
“My baby. My baby’s crying,” Victoria whimpered, appearing like a zombie under the archway. She hurried over to Nick holding the baby without acknowledging her husband or her sons. She grabbed the bundle and cradled him in her arms.
“Mother, are you all right?” Jarrod hazarded to ask, but his question remained unanswered as the distraught mother continued to coo the baby, oblivious of her surroundings. He turned to his father with a bemused expression. “Does she think he’s Little Tommy?”
“I’m afraid she does, Jarrod.”
Nick slid down the couch and pattered up to Victoria. “Mother, he’s not…”
“Shuuuuuu Nicholas,” admonished Tom, gripping the boy’s shoulder to pull him away from his distraught mother. Nicholas looked up at his father with a puzzled frown. “Let her take care of him. He needs a mother’s touch.”
“Are we going to keep him?” Jarrod asked expectantly.
“I’d like that,” Little Nicki bubbled over.
“A baby just doesn’t appear out of thin air. He must have a mother and we’ll need to find out who she is and where she is.”
“She’s probably the one who left him here in the first place. She could still be here somewhere on the ranch to ensure her baby’s safety” the young teen alleged, his reasoning clearly exhibiting a proclivity toward law, to which Tom felt a bit ill at ease.
“Very good reasoning, son. You both wait for me here,” he instructed his two boys before stepping up to Victoria. “Come on Torie, let’s go upstairs where you and the baby can be more comfortable.”
Without uttering a single syllable, she smiled responsively and followed her husband up the stairs and to their bedroom where he assisted her into bed with the infant boy still cradled in her arms. “You sing him to sleep. I’ll be right back.”
“Tom, don’t go. Stay with me and the baby,” she wailed, as would a ten-year-old girl terrified of losing her doll to the bogeyman.
The caring husband sat on the edge of the bed and placed a feathery kiss on her forehead. “I won’t go far. Just to the bunkhouse to give the chore assignments for the day,” he fibbed to set her mind at ease. “I’ll send Silas up to stay with you if you want.”
“No, it’s okay. But don’t be out long.” She shifted her gaze to peek at the baby yawning his tiny head off. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to our son while you’re away.”
“He’s safe here, Torie. Don’t worry,” he assured with a hand on her shoulder. He leaned in to give her one last kiss on the cheek and stood to cross to the door. He cast one last glance at the happy, albeit distressing sight before stepping out of the room.
Downstairs he grabbed his hat from the coat rack standing by the door and beckoned Nick and Jarrod to join him outside. Father and sons marched over to the bunkhouse to speak with the few hands who had chosen to remain on the property during the weekend.
All shrugged and shook their heads in negation at Tom’s query of suspicious characters around the ranch, but promised to keep their eyes peeled for any roamers.
“Whoever left this baby on our front porch must have been watching from a distance. Therefore it’s safe to assume she or he could not be far away. I would appreciate if some of you could ride out and try to pick up a trail.”
“Will do, boss,” three men chorused.
“What d’we do if we find that person?” queried one of the volunteers.
“Bring him or her back to the ranch, but beware that I won’t tolerate any manhandling. If there’s resistance, don’t insist. Just report back to me and I’ll do the rest.” The men nodded their understanding, grabbed their gear and headed out to the stables to saddle their respective mounts.
Tom ushered his two sons out of the bunkhouse and made their way to the paddock.
“What now, father?” Jarrod asked.
“I’ll have to report this to the sheriff. Perhaps he can help me find the parents. While I’m in town I’ll go by the doctor’s office to ask that he come check on your mother.”
“Is Mother still sick?” wondered the young Nicholas.
Tom hunched down before the disquiet lad and clasped his hands. “Your mother is up and talking, that’s a good sign, Nicholas. But she still needs some tending to. Can you help Silas do just that? Make sure she and the little baby have everything the need?” the boy gave an enthusiastic nod of the head, proud of the fact that his father would entrust him with such a responsibility. “Good boy!” Tom tousled Nick’s hair and stood with hand still holding his son’s as he ambled back to the house.
“Jarrod, do you have any plans for today?”
“No. I intended to do some studying in my room. Why?”
“I need you to watch over your brother and mother while I’m gone. I shouldn’t be long. Besides I expect Dr. Merar will get to the ranch before I return.”
“You can count on me, Father.”
After leaving instructions with Silas, Tom straddled his mount and spurred it at a gallop towards town. He stopped at Dr. Merar’s office to gen him up on Victoria’s progress, courtesy of an orphan boy abandoned on their doorstep. Thereafter he headed on down to the Sheriff’s office, hoping to get answers to his questions.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you, Tom,” came the dejection to Tom’s query. “Not yet anyway. Townsfolk come and go I wouldn’t know how to spot a newcomer, much less anyone who was just passing through. But chances are this character never rode through town. He may have taken the back road.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured.”
“Listen I’ll ask around town, see if anyone saw or heard anything and I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks Fred. I appreciate.” Tom flashed a half-hearted smile before turning on his heels toward the door. Outside he paused to scan the street before moseying on down to the saloon for a stiffener.
It was late in the day when a petite lady rode in the tumbleweed town of Strawberry, Rachel Caulfield dismounted her horse and tethered the animal to the hitching post in front of the decrepit cabin she called her home. Her frantic friend Leah Thomson dashed out of the house to meet her halfway.
“Rachel, what happened? You’re two hours late.”
“Leah, you shouldn’t be out of bed,” she chided.
“I’m okay,” she croaked in a hoarse voice that elicited a cough. “Why are you late? Did you have any trouble?”
“No, but Tom Barkley had his men watching the ranch after I dropped off Heath. I had to stay low to elude them,” she explained in strangled tones.
Leah ushered her saddle-worn friend inside where she assisted her to the sofa. “Sit down for a minute. And tell me what happened. “Leah hung on Rachel’s every word as she related her account of the event. Once finished she turned to Leah whose face was white as a sheet.
“My God Leah, you’re shivering.”
“I’m okay. It’s just the shock of realizing what I’ve done,” she cried, wringing her sweaty hands. “Lord’s sake Rachel. I’ve abandoned my baby.”
“Listen to me Leah.” She gripped the frenzied woman’s shoulders and stared her square in the eyes. “You did the right thing. Martha and Matt threatened to take the baby to an orphanage if you didn’t. Heath is with his father. Tom Barkley will take care of him.”
“But what if…what if decides he can’t take on another child? He’ll send him to an orphanage. “Oh Rachel.” Leah leaned into her friend’s shoulder and dissolved into tears. “My baby. My Heath.”
Tom returned home just as Dr. Merar concluded his medical assessment of Victoria. “How is she Howard?” he asked in nervous expectation.
“Go see or yourself,” the doctor answered with a heartening smile. “She’s in the nursery.”
Tom studied the doctor’s facial features with a bemused frown before striding up the stairs to the nursery where he found his wife leaning over the crib. He edged up to her, unsure of how to broach the subject of her health.
Without unfastening her gaze from the sleeping cherub bundled up in a warm blanket, she spoke solemnly. “My baby’s dead.” Tom gently placed his hands on her shoulders. “My Tommy’s dead.”
“Yes, he is,” he answered with some trepidation as to her reaction to his confirmation.
“Tom, who does that child belong to?”
“We don’t know. Nick and I found him in a basket outside on the front porch. I rode into town to ask Fred if he had any idea who his mother could be.”
“He doesn’t have a clue but he promised to look into it. I also asked the hands to be on the look out for any stranger roaming on our land.”
Out of the blue Victoria turned to Tom and clenched him in a soul-stirring embrace. “I’m sorry,” she ululated, choking back the tears threatening to gush out. “I just realized what I’ve done. How can I ever make it up to you?”
He pulled her back and with his thumbs, he gently dabbed at her bedewed cheeks. “Being here with us is bliss enough, Torie. The children especially will be happy to have their mother back. They missed you terribly.”
Her eyes welled up with tears as she once again fell in her husband embrace. “I hurt so much, Tom. I somehow shut myself out from the world; from my family and friends. I didn’t want to live anymore.”
“To what or who do we owe this major turn about?”
“Howard. He was here for nearly an hour just to talk. For the first time since our baby died I was able to let go. It all came rushing out. It hurt but I feel better now.”
“I should have realized how painful it was for you. I’m sorry for leaving you when you needed me the most.”
“You had no choice. I threw you out, remember?” she said with a light chuckle.
“But I shouldn’t have stayed away this long. Granted I was angry with you, with me, God, heck! I hated the entire world for stealing our Tommy but that was no reason for forsaking my family.”
“It’s over now,” she sighed mournfully, sniffling back her tears. “No sense dwelling on the past. We have to look forward and take care of this infant boy that fate put on our doorstep.”
“Torie, please, don’t get too attached. Once we find his mother…”
“I know Tom,” she interrupted her husband’s thought that needed no further explanation. “I know that his mother must be lurking somewhere, watching us with her son. I cannot fathom why she abandoned him in the first place.”
“Hopefully we’ll find out.”
“And what…what if we don’t find her? What will happen to this child?”
“I think we both know the answer to that question, don’t we?” he smiled knowingly at her before both turned their loving gazes to the slumbering baby.
Returning home from school one late afternoon Nick announced his arrival with a loud bellowing “Mother!” that resonated through the house. When his greeting didn’t elicit a response, the young man bounced up the stairs and after tossing his bag on his bedroom floor, he headed down to the nursery to visit with the new temporary addition to the family. Nick padded up to the crib hoping to see two bright blue eyes staring at him. His face fell at the sight of the napping bundle with a thumb in his mouth. Nick cast an eye behind him to ensure his mother wasn’t spying before he proceeded to delicately remove the thumb from the baby’s mouth in hopes it would wake him, as he was raring to relate to his little ‘brother’ the highlights of his fistfight against a browbeating bully at school.
“Come on, baby boy, wake up. You’re no fun when you’re sleeping. Come on.” He nudged him in the arm to speed up the process before his mother caught him red-handed. He was rewarded by a tiny gurgle that slowly turned to an annoying groan, followed by two blinking blue eyes that frowned at the face staring down at him.
“Hey there, little one. Want me to hold you?”
Instead of bursting into a squall the baby cracked a lopsided smile at Nick and kicked up his legs in anticipation of being lifted into the boy’s arms.
“Nicholas!” Victoria scowled severely upon entering the room. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing, Mother. I swear,” he stuttered nervously, flashing an embarrassed grin. “I heard a noise and came to see if the baby was okay. Then I saw that he was awake and…well…I just wanted to pick him up and lay him on the bed.”
“Uh huh. I checked on him less than five minutes ago and he was sleeping soundly. Now look at him.” Victoria dared Nick to spill the truth but couldn’t uphold her authority before her repentant son whose head hung in shame. She cupped his chin with her hand and tilted his head upwards to gaze into his eyes. “It was time for him to wake up anyway.” Nick’s face lit up with glee at the news.
“Can I hold him?”
“How about I bring him downstairs and you can play with him there?” Nick nodded enthusiastically and threaded very closely on his mother’s heels as she glid the stairs with the little papoose cradled in her arms.
As she passed the foyer on her way to the living room, a knock on the door made her retrace her steps. Having her arms full she waited for Silas to open the front door to the young visitor.
“Howdy ma’am,” the sheepish man greeted, removing his hat. “I’m here about a job.”
“You’ll have to speak to my husband in that regard. He should be here shortly. Please, come in.”
“I don’t want to intrude, ma’am. I can wait for him out here.”
“No please, come in.” She nodded to Silas to open door wider for the young man to cross the threshold. “Silas, would you bring us some cool lemonade?”
“Yes Miz Barkley.”
The baby uttered a few piercing shrieks to draw the attention back to him. His tactic works as he now had three faces smiling down upon him.
“What a beautiful baby. I think he hates being left out and he’s letting us know,” observed the young man.
“My thoughts exactly. I didn’t catch your name,” Victoria asked as she gently placed the baby boy down on a blanket in the center of the living room.
“It’s Josh, ma’am. Josh Simms.”
“Nick, you watch him,” Victoria instructed her son who gave an affirmative nod of the head before kneeling down beside the restless baby whose arms and legs were flailing about wildly. Nick began tweaking the tiny nose in an attempt to calm the agitated infant, which proved to be successful. With that feat accomplished Victoria could safely turn her attention back to Josh.
“Sit down, please,” she beckoned with a hand motioning to an armchair. “Tell me about yourself Mister Simms.”
“Aint’ much to tell ma’am. I keep pretty close to myself. I ain’t what you call a party animal or nuthin’. I’m a hard worker and pull my share of the load. Everywhere I worked I got praises for the amount of chores I could plough through. Never heard any complaining about my work.”
“I see,” Victoria reflected aloud as she adjusted her antennas to sense any bad vibrations emitting from the young man. “And where have you worked?”
“Well I worked mostly in Sonora on a huge spread…” his account was abruptly interrupted by the sound of the front door banging close. He stood from his chair and watched his hostess move towards her husband.
“Torie, how’s everything?” he asked somewhat worriedly as he bend down to kiss her on the cheek.
“Everything is fine, Tom. We have a visitor.”
“A young man who’s looking for work.” With one arm draped over Tom’s she led him to meet with the bashful boy who was caught fiddling nervously with the rim of his hat. “This is Josh Simms. Josh, my husband Tom Barkley.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” he said timidly as he extended his arm to shake Tom’s hand.
“Josh. Are you any good at picking peaches and oranges?”
“I’ve done my share.”
“Good, you’re hired! We are in desperate needs of crop pickers. Come with me and I’ll show you where you can sign up and get a list of your chores.”
“Thanks Mister,” Josh exulted, putting his hat to thread in the patriarch’s footsteps as they both headed out the door.
At the bunkhouse, Duke signed the boy up and outlined the tasks that needed to be done. Josh agreed to the terms of employment and promised to pull his weight.