The saddest day of Heath Barklely's life was the day when he saw three of his sons off at the train station to go fight in the war to end all wars that had been taking place in Europe for three years and which the United States under President Wilson had entered a few months before.
It was a war that had been expected to be over by Christmas 1914 and which was still raging some three years later. It had claimed over two million young lives from all walks of life, brothers-in-arms, rich and poor and was now set to claim its share of American youth. Heath prayed with the selfishness of any parent that it would not claim his beloved boys.
Meg had not been strong enough to accompany him to the staion. Her heart had broken at the news that Matty, Nicholas and James were leaving to go fight in a war that seemed a world away. She had nurtured and loved all her children to live life to the full, not die in some foreign field. No matter how her sons pleaded with her to understand their need and reasons to enlist, she could not. She could not see the nobility of war, she could only see images of her sons faces dead on a foreign battlefield. The image continued to haunt her and unable to attack her sons with her anger, she attacked the only man she had loved, her true soulmate; she attacked Heath.
Heath had been just as distraught at his sons' decision to enlist, but he knew he could not stop it. His sons needed his support, they needed to know their parents still loved them despite their decision. And Heath was proud. Proud of their decision but afraid for them, afraid they might not come home. He knew there would never be a moments peace for him and Meg until their boys were home and safe, and for the first time in his life he experienced what it must have been like for his mother when as a boy of thirteen he had run away to fight in the war between the North and the South.
He did not want his sons to experience what he had gone through and yet he knew he was powerless to stop them. They were full grown, Matty, now 26, Nicholas a year younger and James 24. However, when his son George who was only nineteen, expressed a wish to join his brothers, Heath had put his foot down, delaying his consent for a further year, hoping that the war would be over by then. George, though bitterly disappointed, would not go against his father's wishes and complied. Heath had watched him ride off, angry and confused. George had not returned until dusk had fallen and then had gone straight to his room where Heath found him and the two talked until they reached an understanding.
Heath's anguish was expressed differently to that of Meg's. He buried himself in work and his thoughts and pain in silence. He had listened to the news and read the papers with growing concern since America had entered the war, knowing that with three sons eligible to fight the war would not leave them untouched. He knew the day would come when they told him they wanted to enlist and a part of him died when they did. Still he could not forbid them to go. He listened and counselled and obtained a promise that they would value and protect their lives as much as their mother and father had done all these years. He assured them both parents, despite their motherís stance about them going, loved them. She loved and feared for them and was unable to cope with their decision. To their credit, each of them understood and did everything they could to allay their mother's fears. That they could not, was not their fault. Meg was in pain. It was up to Heath to try and bridge the divide, and he could only do that with the love and patience he had borne her all their married life.
Now the day had come and Heath watched in silence as Matty, Nicholas and James said their goodbyes to their bothers and sisters, all married now except for George, Anna and Meggy. None of the three smartly dressed soldiers were married yet, but sweethearts were there to say their tearful goodbyes. Emotions ran high, husbands comforted wives, all waited for the moment Matty, Nicholas and James said goodbye to their father, for all loved him and could see the strain showing on his face as he tried bravely to not let his emotions show.
Somewhat awkwardly, all three sons approached their father, the pressure of the day showing on their faces for the first time. The train was ready to depart and passengers had already embarked, leaving just the Barkleys gathered.
Heath embraced his three sons individually, giving each a letter to read once they had reached England where they would train before being sent to Europe. Each son promised not to open it before then. Heath kissed each of their cheeks and clung on to them that moment longer, savouring the closeness, the feel of his sons which would have to last until they returned home, maybe even a lifetime if they did not. His heart wept silently but his face and words remained strong and supportive. They promised to write and they asked their father to give their mother their love. "That I will," their father responded. "She loves you, you know that."
Each son nodded with understanding. At that moment they felt no bravado in going. Their thoughts were filled with their mother, sitting at home in her room, weeping. Heath, understanding their thoughts squeezed their arms in support. "Look after yourselves and each other, I will look after your mother. We will be here when you get home."
Blue eyes stared at blue eyes, the whistle sounded and the boys and the train were gone, leaving for a few moments the solitary figure of Heath Barkley staring out until the train disappeared from view.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
By John McCrae 1915
The months passed and on the surface the Barkleys returned to normal life. The army's need for beef placed the Barkley ranch well and truly in the war effort and Nick, Heath and their sons worked hard to ensure the contracts were fulfilled, knowing that a part of them was over there fighting. Everyone in the valley was doing their part for the war effort following the advice of the government.
Each day Heath read the war reports in the papers and listened to the wireless, anxious for news. Meg refused to listen, accepting the information Heath filtered for her, keeping her from the worst. The letters they received from their sons were heavily censored, giving only glimpses of the life they were enduring. Between what the censors left out and the boys themselves did, the worst of trench life was kept from their mother, although with their father they were more frank.
After she had read the letters in the privacy of hers' and Heath's bedroom Meg's fingers would trace over the lines her sons had written time and time again before placing them a box in which she kept her most precious things. After a while, her hand would seek the strong supportive one of her husband's and they would hold on to each other, quietly sharing their anxiety, needing time alone to gather their strength before facing the rest of the family.
When he was alone, Heath would read his own letters. Each one sent from a different place on the front line , the location censored naturally, or from a place where they were on leave. Each had their own style, each was honest in their telling, for honesty had always been something their father had valued from each of his children. Heath could detect the fatigue in their words, there was no bravado now, no jingoism, only the revelation of another world he hoped his sons would never see, a world though separated by fifty years from his own boyhood experience was a world Heath could recognise all the same. The world of his war and Carterson.
He imagined the words written by poor light, between battles, perhaps even as they tried to grab some sleep. They would have kept their spirits and strength alive for their letters to their mother and the family, now when talking to their father, the mask fell. They told their father the truth. Heath had insisted that each boy enlist in a separate unit, having heard of brothers in England that had joined up and died together, decimating families in the process. He did not want that for his sons. He did not want that for Meg.
For Heath who had never travelled further than Mexico, it was hard to imagine his sons an ocean, a continent away. All he knew was that he wanted them home and away from the danger and horror of what they were in. War was only a temporary reality but it was a reality that could leave a scar for a lifetime. Heath carried the mental and physical scars of his own wartime experience despite the happiness and joy of family since. Some things just never left you.
He was grateful for the fact that Meg and his daughters had become involved in organisations set up for the war effort, Meg needed something constructive to do and she had always been an organiser. No one worked harder and often she would come home too tired to think or to talk. Heath missed her, missed their nightly closeness but knew that the work helped ease the anguish she felt for her boys.
As to Heath, well neither he nor his older brother knew the meaning of retirement. They were, despite being in their sixties, Nick nearer seventy now, able men and able to shame a man forty, fifty years their junior in the work and hours they put in. As often as not, they liked to work together enjoying the companionship of brotherhood and best friends.
Nick had two sons and five daughters. His eldest boys, Little Heath was just shy of his twenty-first birthday and Jarrod was nearly eighteen. Little Heath had earnestly wanted to join up with his best friend Nicholas but as Heath had decided with George, Nick had put his foot down, putting a further year between making his decision. Little Heath had not been as accepting as George and the estrangement between father and son, weighed heavily on Nick's mind.
"I just can't let him go, Heath.' Nick sighed. "He's just a kid. They all are."
Heath who had made the same decision about George understood only too well was philosophical, realizing that a parent could not always be liked by their children.
"He may hate you for a while, Nick, but in time he will come round. You have given him a year like I have given George. You have treated him no differently and he will see that. Let's just pray to God that the war will be over by then and we are not called on to give our consent."
"But will it? Will it be over?"
Heath was silent for a minute. The silence was interrupted by the arrival of some of Heath's grandchildren who gravitated toward him, a couple of the smaller ones finding their way to his knee.
Having them sit on his knees reminded him all too poignantly of his absent sons when they were children. Somehow Meg and Heath had held on to their youngest children's childhood longer than their older children, perhaps because they knew that after Meggy there would be no more.
"It's in God's hands, Nick. It's in God's hands."
The war overseas hung heavy over the Barkley household, particularly on Heath and Meg, but on Heath most of all for he carried a good deal of Meg's burden too. In the months since Matty, Nicholas and James had gone away, with Christmas 1917 come and gone, he had proved the cement that had kept the family together during the darkest times but the responsibility had taken its toll.
Meg had been so busy, joining this organization and that, leaving early and not coming back till late that it was by chance that she came across her husband sitting alone in the kitchen during the early hours of the morning. An unfinished breakfast fashioned from what he could find, lay abandoned on the table and he sat with his head in his hands, crying.
She was ashamed to think that she had not even noticed her husband leave their bed. Now seeing him in isolation, no children, grandchildren or work to hide behind, she saw what she had not seen for months and should have done long ago. She saw a man in pain. A man trying to keep things going for all of them, worn down and aged by the weight of it all.
"Oh Heath," she inwardly cried, remembering the deep love she had for this man and realizing that she had been found wanting as a wife, lover and best friend.
She had been selfish;content to let Heath carry her pain as well as his own. She had buried herself in good works, anything to stop her thinking, to stop thinking of her sons and the fact that they could be killed any day. She could not even remember the last time she and Heath had been intimate - the intimacy of being one, of having shared their lives for nearly forty years, the good times as well the bad, the happiness as well as the sorrow, the children shared - both those near and those far away.
She walked over to him and stood over him protectively and filled with love, gently coaxing him around so that the comfort he sought was no longer in his empty hands, but in her, where it always should have been.
She cradled his head, kissed his forehead and then his lips and let his arms tentatively find their way around her where not rejected they clung on until the tears and emotions were eventually spent.
In due course, she led him back to their room where they talked openly and honestly, reconciling with each step and he slept the first proper sleep in weeks. Whatever, they had planned for the day - the week even - could wait - this was their time now and they both needed time to heal and heal each other. Never again would they occupy those self-imposed exiles. Their troubles and joys would be shared as would their prayers.
A few weeks later, Heath was finishing one of his letters to Matty, when Meg came into the study. Just the sight of her filled him with love. He was reminded of how acutely lonely he had been without her and did not want to feel that again.
All his life, Heath had needed a woman in his life. First his mother, then his step-mother, Victoria, then Cate his young wife, and now Meg for the last forty years. All of them had helped shape him emotionally and in character. He had been a lucky man. Now he felt revitalised, younger than his sixty-five years. Whatever they had to face, they would face together and it have him strength.
He felt Meg encircle him and drop a kiss to his head, then felt her watch as he finished his letter with love for his son. "And mine too," she added, dropping a kissed finger to the paper to send her love. The letter done, Heath's attention turned to Meg and he could see she was dressed to go out.
"That was Charles on the phone." Charles was their daughter Clara's husband. "The baby is coming. Do you feel like driving me over there and helping to calm him down?"
"She's early, isn't she?" Heath asked concerned. Clara was a mother of five but she was still his little girl and he worried.
"Not unduly. Now stop your worrying Grandpa. You know how babies decide upon their own time."
His fears put to rest, Heath got up, pocketed the letter, one of three he had written that morning to his boys and kissed his wife. "All right, darlin'. I'm all yours." His smile alone made her feel young again.
Together they collected their coats to protect themselves against the still sharp winter chill and made their way to the door. They had not quite reached it when the bell sounded and with a youthful spring in his step Heath rushed to greet it.
As soon as he saw the telegram in the caller's hand, his face fell and with it his hopes.
Nick and his sons who had seen the telegraph boy arrive rushed into the house to find Heath and Meg sitting on the bottom stair holding each other and reading the news. None of the Nick Barkleys dare open their mouths. Nor did they know how much time passed before their presence was realized by Heath.
"It's okay Nick." His brother's soft, emotionally filled voice said, "They're alive, but James has been wounded and is being shipped home."
"How bad?" Were Nick's immediate words.
"His leg. He took a bullet in the leg. The doctors think he will be left with a pronounced limp but otherwise he will mend. Thank God!" Heath breathed out.
On those words Meg cried into his arms and Heath comforted her. Nick approached and took the telegram from his brother's hand, read the words and sighed deeply with the relief that James would no longer see the war. Wounded but alive. He held on to that news. His spare hand ruffled the hair of his brother and passed to squeeze Meg's shoulder, the gesture telling them he was with them in their news. Then he shuffled his sons out of the foyer and left the two alone to tell the news to the family. James would soon be home but what of Matty and Nicholas, the worry remained.
Nick could see Little Heath's preoccupation. His boy was worried for all his cousins but there had always been a special bond between Little Heath and his older cousin Nicholas and that bond was feeling itself now especially. Nicholas had adopted Little Heath from birth, roping him into his escapades and zest for life from the moment his cousin could walk. Little Heath who worshiped his older cousin had loved him ever since and the friendship, honary brotherhood as it had become, had reached into adulthood. Little Heath felt the arm of his brother around him. "He'll be alright." Jarrod reassured his brother. "Let's hope." Little Heath answered. "I tell you what. When they get home, we'll have the biggest party ever. Stockton won't ever have seen a party like it."
Nick smiled, hearing the two talk, bolstering each other up. He desperately wanted to be inside with Heath doing the same, but this was a time for Heath and Meg to unite their own strength for their family. James was coming home. So many other sons wouldn't be returning and yet James was. Injured yes, but he was coming home.
James slept for the first two weeks he returned home from the army hospital. To him it seemed like the last good sleep he'd had was in this same bed, the night before he and his brothers had left excitedly for the war. On arrival in France, the excitement soon waned, the reality of the war quickly replacing it as now a foot soldier in the army he lived and fought in the squalor of the killing fields of Europe. What kept him going? James had no doubt about what it was. It was the letters from his father. They were not only letters from a loving father but letters from one soldier to another. Between the censored lines, the words still reached through. With his father he did not have to lie. He knew the hell James and his brothers were living in.
James remembered the heart-felt lingering embrace of his father at the train station before they left. He felt it again when his father came to meet him at the army hospital. In his father's arms again, he was safe, he was home and he was loved. He was not ashamed to admit that he cried like a child.
The sun blazed through the window on a clear September morn and James felt good to be alive. He turned his head to feel the sun, stretched, smelt the fresh linen in which he slept and the sweet smelling honeysuckle that climbed the trellis outside. It was in such contrast to the misery of trench life, which had been his home for so many months. He turned at a knock at the door and smiled to see his father come into the room carrying a baby.
"Your latest nephew here wanted to be introduced." Heath smiled, carrying his youngest grandchild proudly.
"Clara's?" James asked, shifting himself up against his pillows, pulling a face only slightly when his injured leg protested.
Heath threw him a concerned look, but James shook it off, knowing he was lucky to be alive and still have his leg.
"Heath sat down in the chair by the bed and introduced, Mathew Nicholas James to his uncle. Born on the same day the family had received the telegram about James, Clara had no hesitation in naming her newest son after his absent uncles. James was touched and was unable to stop a tear falling from the corner of his eye when told the news.
"May I?" he asked, indicating that he wanted to hold his nephew.
Heath passed the curious and happy infant over to his son. Uncle and nephew exchanged curious stares for a few minutes before James observed dryly and with some truth. "You've got so many grandkids now Papa, I don't know how you remember all their names. Not sure I do, though I'll remember this one, that's for sure."
"Well, I never had any problem remembering yours." Heath observed and it was true he never did.
"You and Mama gave us such a precious childhood, Papa. I've seen children over there who are not as lucky. Kids begging in the streets, their houses and families gone. I don't reckon I'll ever forget it."
Heath pondered his sons words and memories. "Want to know how I came to terms with it."
James sent tear filled doe eyes to his father and nodded, wanting to know, wanting some peace.
"I learned that it is left to those who come back to live their lives fully out of respect for those who died and tell their story. That way their sacrifice is never forgotten."
The two soldiers paused to remember fallen comrades, their silence broken only by the happy gurgling of Mathew Nicholas James.
James was resting on the veranda, his leg exercises finished for the morning and his cane put to one side. He decided to close his eyes just for a minute before joining his father in the barn where he was working. He and his father were working on carving a nativity set for Christmas, enjoying the time it afforded them together, father and son having missed each other for too long.
It was a special time. Time that allowed James to converse with his father about things he would not do with the rest of the family in an effort to spare them. Tears would be shed, father would comfort son and wait, patiently wait until his son was ready to continue. And James would continue, wanting to exorcise the anger he felt at the loss of comrades and the guilt he felt in coming home alive whilst his brothers were still over there fighting.
The daily talks with his father combined with working with his hands, crafting like his father the symbols of the nativity and peace on earth were cathartic and healing. Heath knew it would be. His own war experiences only beginning to heal when he found his family and the two brothers, former soldiers in arms, who guided him and themselves to finding peace and a way to live and face the future without guilt. It was in his gift to now give that to his son and he did.
James could swear he had only closed his eyes for a moment. He was certain it was no longer and yet a half hour had passed. He was wrapped up snugly against the cold - his mother's insistence, but the gift of a beautiful November day quickly negated the need for a warm winter coat and James was soon roasting under his extra layers. His leg protested against its earlier exercise. James chose to ignore it. He was content to nap, content to doze in the inviting sun. Sun which seemed to have disappeared from James' life for the past year but which was now making a welcome return.
Everything about being home felt good. Smelt good, looked good and to James it was intoxicating. The house was just as he remembered it. His room too. As a child he had shared with his brothers and they had liked sharing. Now he had a room of his own. All the brothers did, the house having emptied of brothers and siblings over the years. He thought fondly of his childhood days.
He and his brothers had got up to all kinds of innocent mischief. Life to them was an adventure and they had grown up in the best of worlds. A loving Mama and Papa who enveloped them with love, a house fit to burstin' with brothers and sisters, Grandma Victoria, Uncle Jarrod and Uncle Nick and their families, the ranch and all the animals. All those memories fuelled his thoughts now as he breathed in the sweet smell of home, family and love. It was the cure he needed for his wounded mind and soul.
"Uncle James?" The unmistakable voice and its curious tone belonged to his little nephew Will, who was the son of his older brother Heath Jr. James had no doubt if Will was at his side, his little brother Adam and their cousins Greta and Suzy would be too. Slowly he opened his eyes and saw all four faces staring at him.
"Yes," James answered, sensing something was wanted.
Will, who was six years old, pressed his face close up to his uncle's ear and whispered in that loud way that children did, "What do you and Grandpa do in the barn?"
James thought of the nativity scene with all its Christmas wonder that he and his father were carving and speculated on how excited the children would be when they finally got to saw it. But it was November and far too early for them to see it yet, let alone know of its existence. Obviously, he and his father would have to be more careful in future. Their secrecy had not been unobserved.
He wondered how he could still keep it a secret from his curious nephews and nieces. They were clearly itching to get into the barn and see what was behind the closed doors. He had to distract them somehow.
"Well your Grandpa and I go in there to work and talk." He was pleased he did not have to lie.
"What do you talk about, Uncle James?" Will asked, settling himself for a long conversation by dragging over a chair on which to climb up and sit.
"Oh all sorts of things. You know I have missed your Grandpa whilst I was away."
"But why can't you talk to him in the house?" Will was using his child's logic, unaware of how pertinent all his questions truly were.
"Well I can, and I do, but you know there are times when working and talking with your Grandpa are the sweetest moments on earth. I go to him for advice and he never lets me down."
"What do you need advice on?" Will asked, doing all the talking for his less comprehending younger brother and cousins.
"Oh lots of things."
"But you're all growed up, Uncle James. Don't you know everything by now?"
James allowed himself an inward smile at his nephew's remark and eased himself up from his chair to look over to the barn where his father was working. "Not by a long shot, Will." He eventually breathed out. "In fact it's only when you grow up you realize how little you do know about life, but having a father as good as your Grandpa to guide you through life helps you learn and not feel alone."
"But you're not alone Uncle James. There's lots of us. And we're here!"
James smiled at his non comprehending nephew. "That you are, young Will. And you know what?"
Young Will shook his head and the others did the same. They were all buttoned up against the expected winter cold. "Why don't we go find what the others are doing? You run ahead inside and I will fetch your Grandpa. I reckon we should make today a family day when we should just have fun."
The children were in full agreement and quickly ran ahead, running into their young aunt, Meggy, who was heading to the Parlor to put some records on the gramophone. She was looking for a partner to help her learn the latest dance.
Outside James picked up his cane and limped over to the barn to fetch his father.
The day was the eleventh day of the eleventh month and to none of the Barkleys' knowledge yet, the guns had grown silent across the battlefields of Europe and the war had come to a poignant and reflective close.
"It's beautiful Heath," Meg said, as she inspected the lovingly carved figures of the nativity, which her husband and son had carved over the longer winter weeks. She admired the fine craftsmanship and knew that many long hours and talks had gone into the work. She credited her husband alone with James' re-adjustment to home. The whole family had helped, but it took Heath to know what James needed and she was filled for love for her darling husband.
"The children will love it. Some of the figures are almost as tall as they are." She enthused.
"I thought we could put it in the yard," Heath replied. "And light it with candles, so everyone can enjoy it. It's Christmas Eve tomorrow. We can come and sing carols around it. I thought the children would like that. And we could invite the men to join us too."
Meg squeezed her husband's hand. "I think you are right. Oh Heath, it truly is beautiful and it will be at the heart of our celebrations. I just wish..."
Heath already knew what she was going to say. "You wish Matty and Nicholas were home too."
Meg nodded. "I know they are safe and I thank God for it, everyday. But I wish we could all be a family tomorrow. A complete family."
"It takes time to get the troops home, Meg. You know that. They will be here as quickly as they can."
"I know. I know. Still I am anxious for them to be home. I don't think I will rest until they are. And then I never want them to go away again."
"Meg dear, we cannot control their lives." Heath reasoned.
Meg bit her lip. They were words she did not want to hear. Not now. If she could she would keep them all home. She felt Heath pull her back into his arms and rest his chin on her shoulder. He whispered into her ear. Words just for her. Words that spoke from one concerned parent to another. Words that soothed. Words that spoke only of love and understanding.
Eventually Meg nodded and turned into her husband. They embraced and kissed and left the barn together determined that they would make the best of this Christmas with Matty and Nicholas center of their hearts.
Later that day the house filled with grandchildren as one by one each of Heath's children who lived locally came to stay. Sadly, there were some like Matty and Nicholas who could not make it home as well as the families of Sean, Josh, Cate and Victoria who all lived away, but the families of Thomas, Samuel, Leah, Heath Jr, Clara and Rosie would be there along with the children still at home, George, Anna, Meggy and now thankfully James.
Even if Matty and Nicholas could not make it home, this Christmas would be different to last. The family knew the boys were safe. So many families had not been so lucky. Only yesterday, Heath on a visit to town had run into George Myers who had lost his eldest boy some four months before. Other families had been affected in the same way. Heath realizing how lucky he was to have all his boys safe, called into church that afternoon, knelt down and sent thanks to God for their deliverance, lighting a candle for those who were not as blessed as he. It had been with that knowledge that he had been able to calm Meg's anxiety about not having her boys home. She would one day whereas George Myers and others would not.
Surrounded by excitable grandchildren brought genuine delight to their grandparent's faces. When fifteen-year-old Meggy insisted she practice her new dance The Shimmy with her father, the children laughed to see their grandfather dance in such a way. Heath exasperated by the new fangled dance soon found Meggy another partner and sought refuge with a slower, more familiar dance with his wife. He twirled her around the room expertly drawing admiration from everyone in the room.
Soon children were taken off to bed, eliciting promises from their grandparents that they would come up and read them a story. Parents were only too happy to let them do so and in due course Heath and Meg climbed the stairs dividing the children up between them, Heath's embellished stories running over the children's normal bedtimes and earning him a playful reprimand when he finally came downstairs.
"I have the right," was all he would say when he came down, enjoying the indulgent role of grandfather.
The evening ended with a selection of songs around the piano and the promise of snow on the morrow.
"But Grandpa? What will I do?"
Heath who was finishing putting the final touches to a letter moved the spectacles half-way down his nose and looked down at his grandson, Preston, the eight year old son of his son Samuel. Preston wore such a worried look. He was biting his lip and tears were pooling in his blue eyes. He had not had chance to buy his parents a Christmas present and was confiding in the only man he could do aside from his father.
Heath wanted to tell the boy that the purchase of a present wasn't necessary to the boy's parents, but this wasn't about the receiving of the gift, it was about the joy it would bring Preston to give his parents a present with money he had earned from his Grandfather for chores he had done around the ranch. Preston loved spending time with his grandparents and was already marking himself out as a future custodian of the land both his Grandfather Heath and Great Uncle Nick loved.
Now with the money he had earned from his Grandfather he did not know how he was going to get to town without his parents knowing so he could buy their gift.
Heath pushed himself back from the desk and sat back in his chair. "Now stop your crying. I'm going into town with your Grandmother this morning. If your parents agree you can come into town with us and get your present then."
Preston hugged his grandfather, giving him a grateful kiss on his cheek and received one in return. "Thank you Grandpa. I'll go get ready now." The tears had gone, the smile had returned to his rosy cheeks and Heath watched him fly up the stairs to get ready. Heath simply smiled. The crisis for his eight-year-old grandson was over.
"Where is Preston going in such a hurry?" Meg asked her husband as she came into his study.
"It seems our grandson needs to go to town to buy his parents' Christmas present. You about ready?" Heath replied.
"Don't I look ready?" Meg responded with a touch of spousal indignation, putting on her hat and gloves and showing off her outfit.
"Should I get the car or the buggy?"
Meg who had never quite taken to the automobile, a little like Heath who was and always would remain a horse and buggy man, considered the winter cold and opted for the car. The road to Stockton had improved considerably over the years making the journey by car less hazardous. But riding in the car with her husband did not afford for the closeness she and Heath could share as they sat side by side in the buggy, his hand reaching out for hers whilst his other held the reins steady, then his arm pulling her closer, her snuggling in close. Yes, the buggy had its own attraction and air of old fashioned romance.
Heath took a moment to admire his wife whose figure belied her 63 years. She was dressed in clothes that combined practicality and style. The new fashions accentuated her slim waist with their nipped in waist as did the raised hemline, which afforded a hint of fine ankle. Her hair was grey now like his was but attractively so, flattering her complexion, which she had always kept carefully, protected from the sun. Heath's face on the other hand was tanned and weathered from his years working on the ranch and though lined by the passage of time remained strikingly handsome still, the signature smile still there, the eyes still blue and sparkling, and his head crowned by his now thick wavy, blond/grey hair which he wore slightly longer now in a style that flattered him.
They shared a kiss which deepened easily into a longer one and only broke apart when Preston returned to his grandfather's study with his sister Leonie in tow, both children giggling at finding their grandparents kissing so.
"Leonie wants to come too Grandpa," Preston announced as his little sister fumbled with the buttons on her coat, eventually helped by her grandmother when the buttons were fastened all wrong.
Heath scooped his granddaughter up in his arms, stole a further quick kiss from his wife and made the same promise to Leonie that he had done to Preston. "Let's go ask your parents."
"No need to Grandpa." Preston was quick to respond as he put on his hat. "Mother said we could go as long as we behave ourselves and didn't give you any trouble."
Meg and Heath who had never considered their children or grandchildren trouble shared a smile. "Well let's go then. There's lots to be done today and times a wastin if we want to get back before Santa Claus gets here."
"Oh Grandpa! Look!" " Preston held onto his grandfather's hand whilst Leonie held onto Meg's. "Can we go in? Please, Grandpa. Can we go and see?" Preston's face was pressed against the window of the toyshop. His eyes mesmerized by the train set and clockwork trains.
Seeing the delight on his grandchildren's faces Heath agreed and the family group made their way inside. The store was busy with late Christmas shoppers, but the children didn't notice. Preston immediately ran to see the train set once more, this time from inside. It was a wonderful sight. Never in the world would he hope that he could receive such a train set, but a part of him hoped that Santa might hear his wish. Meg found herself following Leonie as she gravitated with wonder to the dolls, each exquisitely dressed, their faces painted and their human hair topped by pretty pink and yellow bows.
Meg reconsidered the wisdom of bringing the children into the store. Leonie looked like she would not be able to leave the dolls behind and Preston the same with his trains, but the children impressed her when after about 30 minutes in the store they obediently put their toys down and slipped their hands into their grandparents without question when their Grandfather told them it was time to leave. "Grandpa. When can I get my present?" Preston asked, still worried that his grandpa might forget. And if he forgot, Preston might forget too.
Heath smiled "Well, little fella. I reckon there's no time like the present."
"Boy Howdy, I reckon so. Besides I have to get your grandmother's present yet or else she'll have my hide."
That earned him a swat from Meg's glove. "Heath Barkley you better be jesting."
Heath winked at his grandson. "See." Preston giggled. Heath told Meg they would meet her at the restaurant where they would dine. "We won't be too long." He promised.
"You think?" Meg knew how long it took children to decide. Heath looked down at his grandson. "Well maybe a while."
Watching Meg and his granddaughter disappear into a store, Heath bent down low to his grandson. "Now Preston. You tell me what you have in mind for your parents and we'll see if we can find the right store."
When Preston thought long and hard and then asked his grandfather what he thought he should buy, Heath knew he was in trouble. Shopping was definitely Meg's area.
"Yes sir," Preston answered.
"This is going to be an experience for both of us. We better get going before the stores close."
Preston put his hand in his Grandpa's. "Do you know what I should buy, Grandpa?"
"Well, not yet. But it'll come to me." Heath hoped he would be right.
An hour later, Preston and Heath came out of a book store. "You really think Papa will like it, Grandpa?"
Heath looked at the book he had helped his grandson choose. "Sure do. And you know what? When your father is finished with it, I'll read it myself."
Preston took hold of the brown paper parcel tied with string and a loop to carry. "Now what do we buy Mama?"
Heath's satisfied smile quickly fell. The challenge was not over yet.
When finally Preston had his presents, Grandfather and Grandson headed towards the restaurant. The streets were crowded and Heath held his grandson close, navigating him safely through the number of people and cars. As they continued, Heath ran into some friends. The exchange of news was about their boys coming home from the war, sadness that they would not be there for Christmas. The news sobered their festivities, though for Preston's benefit Heath did not let it show.
"You hungry Preston?"
"Oh yes, Grandpa."
Heath squeezed his gloved hand with his own.
"Well let's go eat. Harold, Mary, I hope you have a good Christmas."
"You too Heath." Harold replied, envying his friend his grandchildren. "Give our best to Meg and the family."
When Heath, Meg and their grandchildren eventually got home later that day, they were surprised to see the family gathered and awaiting their arrival. Preston and Leonie immediately ran to their parents to tell them about their exciting day. Unusually, they were told to be quiet for a moment. "What is it Mama?" Preston asked. His question went unanswered.
Heath joked about the gathering, then his face grew serious for a moment.
His eldest son nodded.
"Upstairs in their rooms, Father. They waited for you both, but they were so tired."
Meg and Heath did not wait, their hearts in the mouths, they climbed the stairs. Their boys were home and they had to see them. Their sons had arrived home together, travelling day and night to get home and their parents had not been home to welcome them.
They stopped outside Matty's room. Heath held on to Meg's hand and they entered together. The curtains were closed shutting out the late winter sun. Matty was lying fully clothed on his bed. He was sound asleep, sheer fatigue having overtaken him. A kit bag lay on the floor where it had dropped. Meg put her hand to her mouth to stifle a cry of relief and happiness at seeing her beloved son, safe, home, back within their protection and love. Heath reached the bed, the need to touch his son overpowering - he had to know he was real. He had dreamed of them being home for so long - the reality now here, it was hard to take in.
Matty stirred at his father's gentle touch.
Sleepily he smiled. "Papa?" Like he had never been away.
"Yes son," Heath choked, pulling his son up into his arms and gathering him to him. He thought he would never let him go. The family were reunited. Against all odds, they had been spared. Heath sent up a prayer of thanks, for all his sons were now home.
Later that evening, the family gathered at the scene of the nativity, the figures of the Holy Family lit by candlelight against the blackness of the night. The children stood around in awe, small ones at the front wanting to see baby Jesus, the older ones holding candles of their own. Meg and Heath stood to one side, Nicholas and Matty at each of their sides. Men came out from the bunkhouse, the help from the house and the large gathering sang carols and thanks to the Lord up above.
"Happy Birthday Jesus," Little Suzy said.
A week later Heath and Meg were due to attend Stockton's New Years' ball. His brothers would both be there with their grown up families and accompanying their parents would be their daughter Meggy, attending her first ball and his safely returned sons, Matty, Nicholas and James along with George the son who wanted to go to war but who Heath had stopped. It had not really been until James returned wounded that George understood his father's decision. He would still have gone to war, but it would have been with a older, more understanding head. The household emptied from the Christmas festivities, the help given the day off to visit their families and celebrate as they chose, the children made do, Meggy cooking breakfast for her brothers who teased her and loved her all at the same time. She was excited at having her brothers home and also at the prospect of her first ball.
Upstairs, Heath whose body clock no longer kept time with the sunrise, lay abed whilst Meg pottered around the room, having bathed and partially dressed. Coming slowly awake, Heath silently watched her as she sat down at her vanity brushing her now shortened hair. The sight to him was so much more beautiful than the sunrise. He watched for several minutes as she brushed her hair the same number of times she had done so since she was a child.
Heath wasn't too sure he liked the modern vogue for women cutting their hair. He had been shocked when Meg returned with it cut. A woman's hair was luxuriant, sensual, enticing, meant for a lover's touch. He sighed, communicating to Meg that he was awake. She turned and gave him a captivating smile. Could this woman really have turned sixty? Not in his eyes. To him she was forever young.
Meg took in her husband and a never quite extinguished hunger grew. She moved over to him, sitting on the edge of the bed, bending low so the softness of their lips could meet in a dance of deliberate stolen kisses. "Mmmm," her husband responded wanting more but being denied. Her soft hands and slender fingers found their way under the jacket of his pyjamas which even after all these years, he wore tantalizingly open, his now grey chest hair on permanent display.
She began her slow seduction of him, Heath for the moment powerless against the sensuality of the assault, loving every minute of it, compliant, delaying the moment when he would want greater control. He couldn't resist teasing, despite the increasing huskiness of his voice as she toured his body in homage of love. "Tell me. Am I being seduced?" The words were said between kisses, breath hitching at Meg's touch. She raised her head momentarily and he captured the lips that were about to speak. He needed no further answer. Slipping her chemise off her shoulders he pulled her on to the bed where together they welcomed the new day with their morning lovemaking,
When they finally made it downstairs they found the house empty, their children scattered. They acclimatised quickly, Meg sauntering like a young bride on her honeymoon into the kitchen and preparing a late breakfast for them both over which they talked easily, enjoying the time to breakfast alone.
The talk moved to the coming ball, though Meg was the most eager about the subject. Heath pulled a face. He looked forward to it but hated all the fuss, his discomfort with evening attire not having left him all these years. But he knew when he saw Meg resplendent in her chosen ball gown he would want to do her proud and not let her down, so he amiably agreed to the fuss being made.
The door to the mansion opened and their fifteen year old daughter made her presence known. She was flushed from her morning ride and full of chatter. "Oh Mother! You're finally up," she said with the impatience and insensitivity of youth. "I was going to bring you both breakfast but James told me to leave you alone." Heath had the decency to cough, then quickly moved to excuse himself with a kiss to his wife "I'll leave this to you," he whispered. He made his way round the table to where Meggy, still in riding clothes, had seated herself to help herself to a second helping of breakfast. He dropped a kiss to the top of her head and said, "You better have reserved the first dance on your dance card for me tonight, young lady."
"Oh Papa!" Meggy exclaimed. She returned his kiss threefold. She was both nervous and excited, by rights a little young to be attending her first ball, but her parents had consented and she couldn't wait to get ready in the beautiful ball gown her parents had bought for her. "Mother? Now you are up," she said, reaching out for a slice of toast, the piece quickly followed by some butter and jam. "Will you please help me with the hem of my dress. I am sure I shall trip tonight." Meg smiled, knowing it was just another excuse for her daughter to try on her new dress. There was nothing wrong with the hem at all, but she would indulge her fifteen-year-old daughter, the baby of the family now about to blossom into a beautiful young woman. She would keep the news from Heath. He would see it tonight when his daughter appeared at the top of the stairs all grown up. The realization would not sit easily with her husband and she would have to deal with that tomorrow.
Heath spent the day seeing the men still around the ranch wishing them Happy New Years', taking a ride out to south pasture to look over the herd, principally for the enjoyment of the ride rather than a need to go out that way. There he met two of his sons, Sean and Samuel, Samuel who split his time these days between being the editor of the Stockton Chronicle and time working on the ranch. Both had their own family arrangements for New Years' and so father and sons spent some time together enjoying the outdoors and the coffee around the fire topped up with a shot of brandy.
The day passed and soon it was ready to get ready for the ball. For Heath who would take less time getting ready than his womenfolk, it was a time to enjoy a few moments alone with his favourite cigar and book. His love of books had extended the library from the time his father and then Jarrod had built it up. Samuel was always bringing him a new book to read and adding it to the collection.
Upstairs, Meggy had bathed, powdered, and was now having her hair put up by Meg who picked out two special combs for her daughter to work into the grown up style.
Meg saw Meggy transform in front of her eyes and thought of Heath seeing the same. 'Oh dear, Heath. Meggy is our baby and you will grow sad that she is growing up and will one day leave.'
Finally, the family was ready. Heath helped Meg on with her cape. If Heath admired his wife in her emerald ball gown then Meg equally took stock of her handsome husband. He may hate dressing up and putting on a tie but he looked distinguished and dashing, even if he did not feel it himself. She planted a kiss on his lips. "What's that for?" Heath smiled. "Because sir, I am being escorted to the ball by the most handsome man in Stockton." She was sure Heath actually blushed. It simply made him even more handsome.
"Papa. Mama." Both parents turned to see Meggy at the top of the stairs. Heath sucked in a breath at the sight of her. She wore a gown of the softest yellow and blue, her hair was done up like her mother's use to be. She was beautiful and she took his breath away. His baby had grown up. He walked up the stairs to escort her down, offering his arm, taking her gloved hand in his large one. "Darlin' you look beautiful." He said before they started down the stairs.
"Really Papa. I do?"
"Yes you do," her father confirmed. At the bottom of the stairs, Meg let a tear fall to her cheek at the father and daughter scene.
"Boys ready?" Heath asked as he reached the bottom step and helped his daughter on with her cloak.
"Aha" Meg said, "Nicholas is just getting the car."
"The car, huh?" Meg knew what Heath was thinking.
"Kids," Heath said as Matty, Nicholas, James and George came bounding into the foyer.
"Yes father," they all chorused.
"Your mother and I are going by buggy tonight. You take the car and look after your sister."