Nestled under the sun amongst the beautiful countryside of California, Stockton, was a town growing and thriving. The main street in it’s beginnings contained only a simple general mercantile, a shabby hotel and a run down saloon. Now, the main street was littered with shops and businesses. The affluent abundant times prospered the town, caressing the glowing flicker to a flame.
Families moved to the thriving community. Churches, schools and a library were erected to satisfy the needs of religion, education and an enjoyable past time for many in the surrounding area.
Stockton lay only 45 miles south of Sacramento, the distance at one time seemed overwhelming and the trail treacherous to travel. Banditos and other rogue men who lived on the edges of the law preyed on the innocent travelers.
With the increase of families in the area came a loud demand for civilized rules and regulations. The hard working citizens would not allow the scurvy elements of society to rob them of their rewards, their very livelihoods. So with the demands from the society as a whole, the town hired their first lawman with many more to follow. The safety of the citizens for the most part was secure because of the long arm of the law.
The trails leading across the state and traveled by horse, buggy or stage coach were still filled with peril and the dangers in the outlying area were slowly being taken care of. With the advancement of the rail system throughout the country, the city of Sacramento could be reached in a day without worry or concern from those few who attacked from hiding on the trails. The railroad was doing its part in the young country to further society’s need for safety and security.
The lawmen in the various towns were joining up to fight against the criminal elements together. No longer could a rogue member of society ride into a town blatantly and know the law would not bother him as long as he did not cause a problem during his stay there. No longer was that true. The society as a whole demanded the people who lived on the wrong side of the law were found, tried and sentenced. As the towns grew and prospered, the citizens demanded the wilder ones be tamed.
The land area of the town of Stockton is approximately 56 square miles. The warm days and cool nights filled the summer months while the winter contained mild temperatures and rarely below freezing. Light rains fell during the winter months and was an essential element to help stave off the effects of drought in the summer’s heat.
At one time, the town was known as the ‘city of the thousand tents’ since it originally began as a gold town. The town was founded by a German immigrant who acquired the acreage of land through a Spanish land grant. The place was previously referred to as Tuleberg until Charles Weber changed the name to Stockton.
Tom and his beautiful wife, Victoria Marie fell in love with the valley from the moment they saw it. Standing as one on the ridge, each saw the potential in the fertile ground and the abundant water sources. They saw a place where they would raise their family and many future generations. It was from Charles Weber, Thomas Jonathan Barkley, purchased the land for his home.
That was how it began over twenty seven years ago. It started with the sale of land and the handing over of a deed the young couple thought was valid.
However, unbeknownst to them, it would end today.
Today, the world would come crashing down on the family who helped to draw other families to their small corner of the world. Today, his past indiscretion was to be brought to the forefront, quick as a rock from a slingshot, it would be brought into the spotlight for the community and his family to witness.
Checking the paperwork once more and putting it in his pocket, Heath Morgan Thomson glanced at his reflection in the mirror of his hotel room. His eyes filled with guilt for a moment before his mind flashed a picture of his mother.
Her tiny fingers bleeding and torn from scrubbing clothes against a washboard for mere pennies. Her tears crying when she couldn’t feed him at night. Her face bruised from her brother’s hand when the shame of being related to the town’s whore angered him in a drunken stupor. Her smiles were few and far between.
His mother, beautiful at one time, had slowly been driven to her death by hard work, hard words and hard times. All because she loved her son. A child whose father was Thomas Jonathan Barkley. A man who left his mark and then left her behind with a child growing in her small body.
Clenching his jaw and allowing the picture of his mother gasping for her last breath on her deathbed to fill him with a rage he usually kept reined in, the blond buckled on his gunbelt and picked up his tan hat.
Nodding to the desk clerk, he bypassed the wiry man and headed out into the early morning light. Walking to the livery, he saddled his modoc and turned towards the west as the sun was rising behind him. The fiery reds painting the landscape matched the fury in his pale blue eyes.
The pale blue eyes in the tanned face slowly calmed as his body instinctively moved with his cantoring horse and his eyes roamed appreciatively across the landscape provided by nature. The picturesque scene could have been part of a painting, it was perfect and beautiful in the tranquil serenity of the early morning.
A frown moved across his face. Heath realized he’d traveled all over this state in the past years since he’d left Strawberry but somehow had never come to this section. He’d been north past Sacramento and up to Klamath, south past Los Angeles and almost all the way to Del Mar. He’d even been west of Stockton spending a short time working the docks in San Francisco and east working past Strawberry into Nevada.
It was ironic. He’d been darn near everywhere around the town where the man he now knew as his father resided and built his empire. But he’d never been to Stockton until his arrival late last night.
The name of the man who sired him was well known throughout the state. He’d heard the name Barkley long before he found out the significance it would hold for him. After his mother confessed on her death bed the name he’d asked her to reveal all his young life, he’d been stunned into immobility until she gasped for her last taste of air.
After her death and with the name of the man he’d despised all his life for leaving he and his mother in the rat infested dying town, he’d placed a last kiss on her forehead, the paper thin skin cold and unfeeling. He was numbed by her passing and the whispered name.
The name of one of the wealthiest men in California resonated through his head, echoing continually, fueling his anger, working it into a full boil and he stormed out from the small home of his mother, not hearing the calls of his name.
Focused on the driving idea in his head, he found himself in the livery beside his modoc and holding his saddle. He would ride straight to Stockton and not stop til he reached the Barkley ranch. His rage had him trying to saddle his horse with fumbling fingers until the work scarred hands of Thaddeus stopped him.
Thaddeus Benton, his father-in-law and a man he respected above all others, demanded to know where he was going. Thad would not be swayed from his questioning by the scowls and anger exuding from him. The older man continued demanding until the deathbed confession stammered out of his mouth, his words twisting up with grief.
The grief of a boy who’d lost the only parent he’d ever known. The grief for all she’d suffered through, the hell she’d endured from those in the miserable mining town who felt she was the lowest form of humanity. She suffered simply to keep his name to herself. The name of his father who was a married man when he took her to bed. The name of the man who never bothered to check on the possible ramifications to his actions of that one night. Even now, he wasn’t sure how he made his way back to the house that day for once the floodgates opened, he couldn’t stop the outpouring of anguish and grief.
Stopping Gal on the road, Heath Thomson took his canteen and untwisted the cap, his eyes studying the brand over the prominent gate while he drank from the metal container.
Surprisingly, he was calm inside, much like the calm which was in the eye of a hurricane. The turbulent winds, the driving rains of emotions passed through him and he was serene inside.
The gate signified the start of the Barkley range. The range Charles Weber mistakenly thought was included in his Spanish land grant. The very same range he’d sold to a young Tom Barkley and his wife.
With the help of his father-in-law, a retired banker turned small rancher and some contacts he’d made over the years within the Texas Rangers, a discreet gathering of information started. He knew more about the Barkley family than they more than likely did themselves. It was through the investigation of the ranch and the various holdings of the empire that he’d stumbled upon the discrepancy.
The old land grant’s boundaries were muddled in some places but one section clearly stated Charles Weber owned one hundred sixty square acres. Stockton as it stood now covered approximately fifty-six square acres which left one hundred four acres left.
It appeared Charles Weber miscalculated the boundaries of land he had left and sold off a part he did not own. In fact, the land on which the Barkley ranch stood was actually owned by the Luis Alvarez land grant. When approached, the Spaniard who was nearing seventy years old took the offered amount for he did not wish to go up against the wealthy Barkley family and the substantial lump sum would be left for his grandchildren. A last gift from a grandfather to ensure the little ones he left behind did not want or have to suffer as he had all his life.
Replacing the cap on the canteen and wrapping the strap around the saddle horn, he stepped down and opened the gate, leading his modoc through before closing it. Opening his pocket watch, he avoided looking at the picture of his wife not wanting to see the look in her eyes which he knew would be there.
The look not of disappointment but of worry. Worry for the anger he’d felt ever since his mama spoke the name. Worry he would be hurt, not physically but inside where he tended to keep things bottled up.
He had promised Thad and his wife, Evangeline he would ride to the ranch and give the man a chance to own up to who he was. His saddlebags contained the documentation to prove his identity and the items found in his mama’s small house were evidence Tom Barkley knew her.
Neither his father-in-law nor his wife knew he held the rightful deed to the Barkley range. If they’d have known, he was positive both of their voices would have sounded with disbelief then disapproval and they would have stopped him or followed.
For never had he ever deliberately set out to hurt anyone. Never in his miserable experience as a boy in the hell hole mining town. Not even after he survived in a place where grown men had perished under the strain of the unspeakable horrors and conditions.
He’d never maliciously harmed anyone but today he was prepared to inflect cruelty with a simple piece of paper if he was met with denial or denouncement.
Topping a small hill on the trail crossing the Barkley land, he gasped and reined in Gal, his eyes widening at the sight below him. Closing his mouth which had fallen open at the ranch nestled in the valley, he couldn’t stop his eyes from staring at the well planned site.
Nudging his modoc down the hill, he could see in each detail the care and planning taken when the buildings were erected. The barns and corrals situated to complement each other, close enough to facilitate moving stock from one to the other without difficulty. The corrals were large, a necessary use of space for a thriving ranch.
The fences surrounding the base site were white, the barns painted to match as well as the building he assumed was the bunkhouse. A large rectangular shaped building which he guessed could house at least forty to fifty hands.
The grounds were meticulously cared for, the gardens full of flowers and hedges were trimmed to accent the beds. The trees in the orchards could be seen from a distance. The orchards were a steadily growing side business for the Barkley family. They had within the space of ten years made an impact on the markets with their wines and fruit produce.
Finally, his eyes fell upon the mansion. The three story house built as their ventures took off and their wealth grew. The building spoke of beauty, riches and more than anything else, warmth. The outer sides of the structure were softened with strategically placed pine bushes, hanging flower pots graced the entryway and his eyes fell upon the furniture placed on the grand stoop.
It was easy to imagine a man and woman sitting there at night, under the brilliant lights in the sky and talking about their dreams. Making plans for their futures and how to raise their children while building an empire.
Pulling up in front of the hitch rail suddenly aware of a feeling of eyes upon him, Heath dismounted and wrapped the reins over the wooden rail, taking a few moments to rub Gal’s velvety nose and whisper to her. He scanned the buildings from under the brim of his hat and was not disappointed at what he’d seen from afar. The ranch was well taken care of and only diligence could keep it in such a fine state.
It seemed everything the Barkley family touched thrived and grew, expanded and profited or glistened with the pride. Everything except him, the one who was here but didn’t belong.
Taking a deep breath, Heath patted Gal’s neck and walked to the front door, his knuckles rapping on the rich oak wood. Dressed in a blue shirt, tan vest and tan pants the blond felt an urge to turn around and ride off. It was a fleeting fear he shook off, squaring his shoulders instead and looking up when the wood door opened.
“Can I’s help ya’, sir?” asked the older black gentleman, cautious of the young man he didn’t recognize and protective of the family he worked with.
“I’d like to see Mr. Barkley, sir. Thomas J. Barkley.” stated Heath offering a small grin to alleviate the tension he was experiencing.
“Is Mr. Barkley ‘pectin’ ya?” questioned Silas, knowing the patriarch preferred Sundays as a day of rest and family unless it was roundup or trail drive time.
“No, he’s not.” admitted Heath. “I just reckoned he’d be home today. Being it’s Sunday.”
“SILAS, WHOSE AT THE DOOR?” came the loud shout from inside causing the ebony man to jump slightly.
Stepping aside and holding the door open, Silas answered the shouted question as the young man entered, “This gentleman is here ta see Mr. Barkley, Mr. Nick.”
Taking off his hat, Heath held it in his hands and nodded when the older man instructed him to stay in the foyer while he went for the head of the family. Nick studied the blond and frowned, feeling a moment of familiarity before crossing over and holding out his hand.
Hesitating for only a flicker of an eyelash, Heath reached out and took hold of the strong tanned hand, looking up into the hazel eyes. “Heath Thomson.”
Releasing his hold, Nick crossed his arms over his chest and smiled, “I don’t believe we’ve met. You new around here?”
Nodding, the blond replied, “Yep. I’ve never been here before, Mr. Barkley.”
“Oh.” said Nick. “You planning on settling around here?”
“Might. Things are kinda up in the air right now.” answered Heath vaguely, his eyes moving past the dark haired man to the older man descending the large staircase.
“Good morning, I understand you’re here to see me.” greeted Tom, his face as tanned as his dark haired son’s, his dark hair peppered with silver. Brown eyes briefly studied the young stranger in puzzlement.
Nick watched the light blue eyes narrow slightly as he heard his father approach from behind him, his curiosity raising tenfold at the jaw muscles which quivered in the younger man’s face.
Here he was, Thomas Jonathan Barkley, his father. The man who had eluded him for the past twenty three years and now he was finally able to look into his eyes.
“Mr. Barkley, my name is Heath Thomson.” said Heath, focusing on the brown eyes in the tanned face. “Originally from Strawberry and I’d like a word with you.”
Strawberry rang through the mind of the Barkley patriarch and a youthful beautiful face flashed in his mind, the memory of a love lost, a love which had been forbidden.
Tilting his head slightly, Tom paused before suggesting. “Have we met before, Mr. Thomson?”
“Not at all.” informed the blond with a low voice. “It won’t take but a few minutes, Mr. Barkley. It is a private matter, sir.”
Nick looked between his father and the young stranger, the two of them seemed to have forgotten he was with them. He felt an almost electric charge in the air between them and he moved to follow when his father lead the blond to the study.
“Nick, we need a few minutes.” said Tom after opening the study door and allowing the young man to pass by.
“Father?” whispered Nick, not sure if the blond was up to good or bad and reluctant to leave his father alone with him.
“I’ll be fine, son.” whispered Tom. “Please let your mother know we’ll have to attend the late service.”
“Yes, Father.” sighed Nick, scowling at the closed door before turning and heading up the staircase, unable to get the face of the stranger out of his mind.
When he was a child he imagined his absentee father in a variety of ways, his mind held a fertile imagination, a necessary tool he utilized in his solitary play. As a child he’d make up excuses in his head, reasons to explain why the man whose love, guidance and even discipline he craved never appeared.
Perhaps he was an adventurer like Columbus sailing across the oceans to new lands. Perhaps he were like Myles Standish helping some pilgrims settle a new land. Perhaps he was away because he was mapping the world like Lewis and Clark.
He imagined alone and played alone in the small mining town. The supposed god fearing citizens of the town refused to allow their children to associate with the son of the town whore, the bastard. The labels many and the praises few in his life from those in the town.
The righteous, nose raising townspeople didn’t care that Leah Thomson had lain with two men in her life, her dead husband Charles Sawyer and the man she couldn’t resist after her first glimpse of him. Those people condemned her for falling and enjoying in one night of blissful decadence. They held the ladies working the upper rooms in the saloon who used their bodies in exchange for money in a higher regard than his mama.
Heath took in a breath of air to steady himself further and glanced around the room while the older man spoke quietly to his son, Nick before entering and closing the door. The furnishings in the room were of the highest quality, the wood rich and masculine, polished to a shine. The large desk and black leather chair in the corner encompassed a work space but somehow seemed to meld with the flow of the area and it belonged like everything else in the room.
The clicking of the latch sounded in the quiet room, signaling the privacy requested and Heath turned.
“So, you said you’re from Strawberry, Mr. Thomson?” asked Tom pointing to a chair and receiving a negative shake of the young man’s head.
Holding his hat in his hands, Heath stood before the large fireplace and declined the invitation to sit, waiting til the older man took a seat in a high backed chair.
“Originally yes. Now, I live outside Carson City.” stated Heath quietly, his fingers turning his hat in an unconscious gesture.
“Carson City?” repeated Tom watching the blond intently, puzzling at the contours of his face. “I have never been there myself.”
Smiling wryly, Heath shrugged, “It’s much better than Strawberry, sir.”
The grin which lifted the corner of the young man’s lips left the mouth of Tom Barkley dry as a desert. The moisture seemed drained away at the small gesture and his heart thundered in his chest. His mind flashed a vision, a female version of the face before him. Yes, he could see her in the young man before him.
“I owned part of a mine in Strawberry at one time.” offered Tom, taking in a shallow breath, unable to tear his eyes away from the pale blue orbs.
“Yes, I know Mr. Barkley.” admitted Heath keeping locked onto the brown eyes across the room. “My mother was Leah Thomson.”
“I thought so.” stated Tom with a smile. “I can see her in you. You have the same eyes and facial features. How is your mother?”
“She passed away six months ago.” replied Heath softly, looking away for a moment.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Your mother was a good person.” stammered Tom, feeling genuine sorrow and also uncomfortable with the immense sadness gracing the blue eyes before they turned.
“Yes, she was.” sighed Heath, taking a moment before looking back towards the older man. “You left Strawberry late August and I was born in the beginning of May the following year, Mr. Barkley.”
Brown eyes widened and the tanned hands trembled slightly before the older man sprang up from the chair, his years not showing in the quick movement. Staring at the young man, the leader of the Barkley family’s mind was calculating the timeframe rapidly, his face draining of all color.
“What are you implying exactly?” demanded Tom, suddenly feeling as if the room were closing in and pushing down on him, the air thickening as he stood there was preventing his lungs from being taken in.
“I’m not implying anything, Mr. Barkley. I’m telling you another thing you don’t know. You are the man responsible for my birth. When you left Strawberry, you left something behind.” informed the blond, his calm manner a decoy to the real emotion inside of him.
Shaking his head in denial, Tom ran a hand through his hair and snarled, “No, that’s not possible. You’re lying!”
The previous sadness in his eyes at the mention of his mother’s death was gone in a flash, replaced with anger at the denial flung out into the room.
“I can prove it.” hissed Heath, the red hot lava inside him rising. “I have documentation, Mr. Barkley.”
“It’s not possible! She said she was barren!” snapped Tom pacing the floor, unable to get a handle on his rampaging thoughts and out of control emotions over the incident of the past coming back to haunt him now.
“She was married for two years and couldn’t conceive then her husband was killed in a flood. Besides she would have contacted me if that’d happened.”
“I can’t tell you anything about what you and her thought. All’s I know is I’m here and my birth…”
“I don’t care what documentation you have.” roared Tom suddenly, turning and facing the blond whose eyes were darker with his rage. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do by coming here but whatever it is, you can forget it!”
Striding across the room, Heath clenched his hands into fists and stopped two feet from the older man, blue eyes boring into brown and his teeth ground together in fury.
“Such a nice fatherly gesture, sir.” growled Heath, his voice loaded with sarcasm. “What did I think I was going to get? It could have been simply the chance to know you, to see you and talk to you. I have hated you all my life, hated someone I don’t even know cause of what my mama went through. Now, I want it all and I’ll have it! Read this and sleep well, Father!”
Grabbing at the paper pushed up against his chest, Tom watched the blond yank open the door and leave the room, his boots ringing out across the foyer from his angry strides. The slamming of the front door shook the grand house and he stared at the paper in his hand, slowly opening it and grabbing onto the nearest chair for support.
Nick entered the study, running over when his father wavered and grabbed onto the chair, taking hold of the ghastly paled man and stammering, “Father, what’s wrong? Father?”
The force of the slamming of the impressive oak door rattled the windows in the three story house, shaking the glass panes in their casings. Stepping into the hallway, Victoria rolled her eyes and let out a sigh of exasperation, making a mental note to speak to her youngest son about his departure which matched the loudness of his entrances into their home. She wasn’t sure if the structure could stand up to his exuberance and passion.
Jarrod stepped out of his bedroom smiling and bent to place a kiss on his mother’s cheek, “Morning, mother.”
“Morning, dear.” greeted Victoria, gray eyes smiling up at her first born and taking the gallantly offered arm.
Jarrod winked at his mother before knocking on his sister’s door and calling out, “Hurry Audra! Father said if you make us late for church again, he’ll take away your dress allowance for the month!”
Snickering, Victoria shook her head of silver hair and swatted her son’s arm playfully, the amused blue eyes twinkling down at his mother.
“Good morning to you too, big brother!” shouted the female voice from behind the door, the sound of rushing feet in the room could be heard in the hallway before they continued on.
“Why is it your sister can rise with the sun every day to go for a ride but not get ready on time for church on Sunday?” asked Victoria with a sigh while walking beside her attorney son down the grand staircase.
“If you let her ride to church on Dusty wearing her riding outfit, I’m sure that would be an incentive, Mother. Can you hear the gossip around the ladies circle now?” teased Jarrod with a chuckle.
“Good heavens, Jarrod, don’t give your sister any ideas!” scolded Victoria, well aware of how head strong her daughter could be, matching her brothers and father in stubbornness.
The loud anguished cry from the study stopped them in their tracks for a split second before they rushed into the room. Victoria gasped at her husband who was trembling and being helped to a seat on the settee by her youngest son.
“TOM!” cried Victoria, rushing over and dropping beside the pale man struggling for air, her shaking fingers reaching and undoing his tie before opening the top buttons on his starched shirt. “NICK, WHAT HAPPENED!”
Nick stood beside the settee, his hands clenched on the edge with a white knuckled grip, hazel eyes locked on the older man were wide with fear.
“I..don’t know, Mother! He was fine til he…” stammered Nick stopping suddenly and glancing at his father whose eyes were closed. “He was okay til that stranger left. I came in and found him like this.”
“What stranger?” asked Jarrod.
“Timson…no..Thomson. Heath Thomson was his name, from Strawberry.” replied Nick. “He…he wanted to speak with Father alone.”
Victoria froze, her mouth opening at the name and her eyes finding her husband’s opened lids, her gray eyes finding the dazed blue eyes in his stricken face.
Jarrod and Nick barely heard their mother whisper the name of the stranger before her hands dropped from her husband’s shirt and she moved slightly away. Both sons looked at each other puzzled by the look of devastation on their mother’s face and her shaken appearance.
“Tom?” quivered Victoria suddenly feeling the air in her chest constricting with anxiety and nervousness, her mind going back twenty three years before, her stomach tossing with sickness at the scene she was reliving. “Tom?”
The vulnerable look in the gray eyes and the tremor in her voice shook the patriarch to his very soul. The surname and the town enough to send the couple back to a time of great strife, great pain between them. A time when their lives and marriage had been in a downward spiral, the trust shattered between them with a slip of his marriage vows.
“Mother, should we get the doc?” questioned Jarrod, unsure of what exactly was transpiring and not liking the pale looks of either parent.
“NO!” choked out Tom, suddenly able to take in enough air to regain a semblance of control, shaking his head negatively. Reaching out with his left hand, he grabbed onto the small hand closest to him and swallowed to push the lump down in his throat.
“Is he her son?” whispered Victoria focusing only on the face of her husband, forgetting her boys were in the room, only trying to get past her own state of shock and sense of foreboding.
Nodding slightly, Tom opened his mouth and closed it several times, unable to find the words to soften the blow he was about to deliver to her and his family. Taking a deep breath, he unclenched his right hand and the clutched papers opened, the wrinkled parchments sitting in his large palm.
“What is it, Tom?” demanded the silver haired woman forcefully, squeezing his hand with both of hers. “Just say it.”
Glancing at his sons, he looked back into the loving gray eyes of his wife and shook his head in disbelief, his eyes filling with tears.
“Forgive me, Victoria, I had no idea. I swear I didn’t.” pleaded Tom, before staring at the papers in his hand. “This says I’m his father and he somehow has a legal deed to our ranch.”
‘This says I’m his father and he somehow has a legal deed to our ranch’ rang through the room long after the words had left the patriarch’s mouth. They hung in the atmosphere, the air suddenly oppressive to the family members.
Holding out a hand to stop any further words from the man she’d married over thirty years ago, Victoria closed her eyes and shook her head negatively, not wanting to speak knowing she would burst into tears.
Sitting forward on the settee, Tom leaned his elbows on his knees and reread the papers again, shuffling the pages forward and then back in a constant cycle. Rereading each even though his quick mind had already memorized the words. The print would be forever burned into his eyes, forever remembered.
The sons stared at their father stunned for the moment beyond words, watching as he aged before their very eyes.
Their father, the leader of their family was a man who spared neither praise or punishment as they were raised. He could fill them with pride for a job well done or send a quiver of fear through them with a simple look when either of his sons didn’t toe the line. He was a man who raised his children to live by the example of his own life, his own values and his own morals.
Jarrod regained his center after mentally deciding to act as an attorney for the moment and not a son to this man, unsure if he could take on both roles at the time. The attorney in him needed factual information, something tangible to convey why they were receiving this shock.
The son in him was repulsed at what one parent had done to another. Even though from his mother’s whispered question ‘Is he her son?’ it appeared she knew about the past indiscretion and had worked through it with their father, the first son couldn’t get the sick feeling out of the pit of his stomach. A betrayal of one’s trust was one of the worst kind of sin and now, their future and very livelihood was threatened by a child from the past indiscretion.
“Father, may I see the papers?” asked Jarrod quietly, watching his father’s down turned head for a minute before raising his voice a notch. “Father!”
Jolted from his silent examination of the white pieces of wood pulp, Tom’s head snapped up at the tone in the raised voice and met his oldest’s son’s eyes. The blue orbs almost seemed to be daring his father to challenge the tone of his voice as his son’s hand was held out, waiting for the information he was holding.
Standing, the older man placed the documents in the hand of his legally minded son and walked across the room to the fireplace, leaning with one hand on the mantle and gazing at the oil painting of his family on the wall above.
“They are certified copies of a birth certificate and a deed to the ranch.” exclaimed Jarrod, feeling the turbulence of acid in his gut increasing as his faculties whirled through his legal knowledge.
“Certifieds are almost as good as originals. Father, where’s the deed and title to the ranch you have? I’ll have to dig into this and see if someone sold him the land as part of a swindle or…”
“It’s in the safe, son.” answered Tom quietly, his eyes not leaving the portrait, trying to imagine how a third son would look in the picture of the family.
Nick shook his head as if clearing his mind of the fog of shock he’d been in since his father dropped the bombshell. Taking in the form of his pale mother sitting on the settee, hazel eyes sparked with anger at the man he revered all his life and his hands clenched into fists.
“Mother, are you…okay?” asked Nick moving to her side and placing a hand on her shoulder, hesitating over the word okay, knowing nothing seemed like it would ever be okay again.
Opening her eyes, Victoria let out a shaky breath and reached up to pat the strong hand of her son, his power was lessened in difference to her petite body and his hand gently rested on her shoulder.
“I’m…stunned.” admitted Victoria softly, turning her head to look at the back of her husband, his broad shoulders slumped with the load unexpectedly placed there.
“Tom, we owe our children an explanation of…what happened twenty three years ago….in Strawberry. Afterwards, we’ll need some legal advice Jarrod on what those papers signify as to the future of this ranch…“
“There’s no way someone’s kicking us off our ranch!” declared Nick vehemently, smacking his hand against the wood piece running over the back of the settee. “This is our home, we worked ourselves ragged to build it up into one of the best ranches in California. I don’t care who that…boy is or whose son he’s trying to pass himself off as! It’s not gonna happen!”
“That boy may very well be your brother. No matter how much we may want to deny it, there could be a strong possibility of it. If it is confirmed he is my son and your brother, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.” stated Tom firmly, turning to look at both his sons who stood tall and returned his stare, the two different colored sets of eyes glowing with questions and upset. Shifting his eyes to gaze at his wife, the older man sighed and nodded slightly.
“Your mother is correct, we owe you an explanation of the past before we can go forward. It’s going to be hard enough to tell it once without having to repeat it. Nick, get your sister so we can start.”
“No.” growled Nick with a firm shake of his head, causing the others in the room to stare in disbelief at the dark haired man.
“Nicholas.” warned Tom with eyes demanding to be obeyed. “It was not a request.”
Nick glared back at his father and held onto the back of the settee, his voice low and forceful, “Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse, Father?”
Stopped for a moment at the unexpected question, Tom frowned and met the flashing hazel eyes of his youngest boy, “Spit it out, son. What are you saying?”
“We don’t even know for sure he’s your…son.” hissed Nick, stumbling over the word, the idea sticking in his craw as much as the word stuck in his throat. “Why get Audra all upset when this may just be some conman’s idea of getting money outta you? We don’t even know if its true or not!”
Holding up the copy of the birth certificate, Jarrod responded, “Nick, this birth certificate is certified by a judge. It clearly lists Thomas Jonathan Barkley as the father and Leah Heather Thomson as the mother.”
Dismissing the information from across the room with a wave of his hand, Nick leaned over the settee, capturing his father’s brown eyes, “It wouldn’t be the first time a judge was in someone’s pocket, Father! I say let Jarrod prove that fortune you spent on his education ain’t going to waste. Let him dig around and find out if this boy’s claim is true, first…before we do anything else.”
Jarrod arched an eyebrow at the suggestion by his little brother, surprised and pleased at the workings of his brother’s mind. Gone was the child who would plunge headlong into any crazy scheme and consequences be damned. The years of growing and being responsible for the undertakings of the ranch had matured his brother when nothing else would.
For while his father still worked the ranch occasionally, it was Nick who shouldered the burdens of turning a profit, taking the initiative and drive to expand their operation into different areas. The youngest son took to ranch work like a duck to water, much as he took to the legal profession in a similar way.
Nodding, Jarrod smiled his support over to his brother before looking at his parents, “I think Nick has a valid point, Father. I can get the Pinkertons started on an investigation tomorrow. With a little extra incentive, we could have something back within the week. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can find out about the land grant the ranch was supposedly part of when you purchased it.”
Moving to sit on the table in front of his wife, Tom took her hand in his and asked, “What do you think, my dear?”
Tilting her head slightly, Victoria squeezed his hand and agreed, “I don’t want Audra upset needlessly either, Tom. Perhaps it would be best to see what we are dealing with first.”
Tom looked up at his sons, proud of the men they’d grown into, leaders in the community and respected for each of their talents. Meeting each of their eyes, he saw the disapproval lingering in their orbs and silently acknowledged he deserved every bit of recrimination they felt. He had let them down, shaken their worlds and their view of him when the sins of his past came to threaten their futures.
Tom took out his pocket watch, noting the time before putting it back in his vest pocket. Nodding to his sons as he helped his wife to her feet, the patriarch stated, “Alright, Nick, your suggestion is a good one. Jarrod can start tomorrow. In the meantime, we’d best get started to town for church. We can still make the late service if your beautiful sister is finally done trying on every one of her dresses.”
Nick and Jarrod chuckled softly, walking together out of the study to hurry their baby sister along, leaving their parents alone.
“Vic, I’m sorry for…”
Placing a finger on his lips, Victoria shook her head and sighed, “If Heath Thomson is truly your son, Tom, we’ll meet with him together. His arrival doesn’t change my love for you. We dealt with the anger and pain twenty three years ago, let’s not relive it today.”
Drawing her into his arms, Tom placed a lingering kiss on his wife’s lips, his amazement of this woman never ceased and his arms wrapped around her tiny body as he bent to whisper in her ear. “I love you, darling.”