Twas three weeks before Christmas. The Barkley household was bustling with activity in preparation for the Christmas festivities. Jarrod, Victoria and Tom busied themselves hanging ornaments and trimming the tree. All were basking in the spirit of the holidays save for Nick who would stay cloistered in his room, sulking. He was obstinate in his refusal to partake in the rejoicing with the family, vowing never to celebrate Christmas again until Santa granted him his cherished dream: a little brother.
He had nurtured high hopes of seeing his wish come true when Victoria gave birth last summer, but was sourly disappointed when the infant was revealed to be a girl.
As Christmas day neared, Nick would increasingly withdraw into his own world; snubbing his friends at school who would cruelly tease him about his big-brother duty to a girl. He adopted a snobbish attitude with his family; this earning him a few wooden spoons that he would bear and grin with a disturbing aloofness.
The suppressed emotions reached a pinnacle when one night at dinner, Tom broached the subject of the Christmas list. Young Nick would strive to keep his composure from crumbling while at the table, but the blood simmering beneath the surface was about to blow a cork.
“Jarrod, have you finished your list yet? You know I need to wire it to Santa this afternoon to be sure he gets it,” Tom explained casually to his eldest.
“Almost done, Father. I need to go over it once more to determine which item I should or shouldn’t scratch from the list. There are so many this year.”
“Let me guess: books?” Tom hinted with a knowing wink to his wife.
“Some are and others are…well I assume that’s between Santa and me.”
Victoria and Tom exchanged conniving looks as they suspected the nature of the other articles on the list. Tom then turned to Nick who was seen tossing around food on his plate.
“And about you Nick? Almost done with your list?”
“I don’t have any,” he mumbled unintelligibly while rolling his peas with his finger.
“Nicolas, Honey, don’t play with your food,” Victoria admonished, happily relieved that her son complied on the first warning.
“I need your list by this afternoon when I go into town,” Tom stressed, but realized his request was falling on deaf ear.
“I don’t have a list,” Nick peeved. “I just want one thing and Santa won’t bring it to me. So until he does,” Nick angrily pushed his chair back and stood, “”I’m not gonna make any list for him. And I won’t be leaving milk and cookies for him either.” On that acrid note, Nick stormed out of the dinning room leaving three stunned people in his wake.
“He didn’t ask to be excused from the table. That boy needs to be taught some manners.”
“Tom, leave him be. He’s upset.”
“Victoria he’s been like this ever since Audra was born. He can’t keep up the attitude. It’s not healthy for him, for us. Lord knows we did try to grant him his wish but God decided otherwise.”
“He’ll come to love his little sister,” Victoria assured, convinced that her mulish-headed son would eventually mellow out and welcome his new sibling.
“I wish I had your confidence. Nick can be pretty stubborn.”
“Yes, he takes after you.” Her teasing managed to wring a small amusing curl of the lip from across the table. “But even you concede when reason takes over. Nick will too.”
“So, what do you suggest we do for his list?”
“Santa will provide, Don’t ask me how, but he will come through somehow,” she implied, throwing a discreet wink at her husband.
In early afternoon, Tom rode into town to pick the special pearl necklace he had ordered from San Francisco. The store clerk brought the exquisite gift to the counter and popped open the velvet box before Tom’s saucer-wide eyes. “Oh wow! It’s breathtaking.”
“Victoria is going to love that necklace. The price tag was steep but look at that fine craftsmanship, You’re getting your money’s worth and more,” the clerk boasted to ensure his client would close the transaction.
“She will look ravishing in this piece of jewellery.”
“Should I wrap it up for you?”
“Yes please. I’m all thumbs when it gets to gift wrapping.”
“I am too that’s why I ask my sister to do the work. She’s good at it. I’ll only be a minute. In the meantime, browse around; see if there’s anything else you need,” the clerk invited, hoping the wealthy rancher could be tempted to add another expensive item on his list.
Across the street from the general store, a lone woman with a four-year-old boy clinging to her skirt made her way to the livery stables to rent a buggy.
“Look! Horsies!” the boy exulted, bouncing up and down and quickly releasing his grip on her skirt to approach the animals.
“Careful!” she warned, clawing at his arm to draw him away from the potential hoof kicks. “Don’t get too close. They might rear up and hurt you.”
“They look like good horsies,” the boy argued with a pout that never failed to melt the woman’s heart.
“Something I can help you with, Ma’am?” the stable boy queried.
“Yes, I would like to rent a horse and buggy if I may?”
“Sure, no problem.” The man led her to the far end of the stalls where a gentle bay was feasting on her oats. “That’s Gingerbread. She’s the gentlest mare you could ever come across. Some don’t like her because she’s a slowpoke but I recommend her to ladies and youngsters alike.”
“I’ll take her.”
“All right. Just give me a few minutes to hitch her up and you’ll be ready to go.”
“Thank you. I’ll be at the hotel renting a room.” She tugged at the boy’s hand to nudge him away from his fond interest. “Come on, we’ll be back in a few minutes so you can pat the horsies.”
With a rapt smile, she bent down to his level and placed a smacking kiss on his forehead. “I promise.”
As she proceeded toward the exit, she inadvertently crossed path with Tom coming in to get his horse. “Charlie, can you get my horse ready?” he requested of the stable boy.
“Sure thing Mister Barkley.”
“Barkley?” the woman whispered to herself, shuddering at the name. She stopped and turned to peek at the tall rancher whom she instantly recognized as the reason for her visit.
“Hello Tom,” she greeted shyly with a heart pounding down her throat in trepidation of his reaction.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it.” Tom enthused. “Rachel Caulfield?”
“It’s been awhile.”
“Too long.” Tom stepped up to her with outstretched arms to enfold her in a tight embrace. “It’s good to see you again.”
Still shyly clinging to Rachel’s skirt, the boy looked up at the couple with a bemused expression.
“Is Leah with you?” The aggrieved look sent shivers down his spine. “What’s the matter?” he hazarded to ask, bracing himself for the suspected bombshell to hit.
“Leah died two months ago,” she informed grimly, instinctively tightening her grip on the boy’s hand.
Tom offered his sympathy in another soul-stirring hug that disturbed the boy to some extend. Upset by this display of affection on a stranger, he tugged on her aunt’s skirt to make his presence known.
“Oh dear me. I’m sorry sweetie,” she said, acting contrite. She placed her hands on the boy’s shoulders and nudged him forward. “Tom, I’d like you to me Heath. Heath, this is my good friend, Tom Barkley.”
With a convivial smile Tom hunched down to Heath’s level. “Nice meeting you, Heath.” He extended his hand to shake the boy’s but instead, Heath cowered behind her aunt’s skirt and buried his face in her skirt.
“He’s a little shy.”
“So should all the boys his age. How old is he?”
“He turned four six weeks ago,” she hinted on a tone exhorting him to do the math.
“Four years old?” Tom confirmed as the blood drained from his face. “You don’t mean?” he gulped, thrown aback by the all too familiar colouring. Rachel nodded affirmatively to his unspoken question, thrusting Tom into an emotional turmoil. “My son?”
“On her dead bed Leah asked that I bring Heath to you.”
“But,” he choked, swallowing hard before continuing, “Why didn’t she tell me?”
“She was afraid you’d take him away.”
“Oh my God, what have I done?” he sighed heavily; his eyes welling up with ears at the sight of the orphan boy staring at him quizzically.
“I admit I was a little uneasy about coming here. I thought of sending you a telegram but was afraid that perhaps your wife might read it first. Then I figured best to come to Stockton and try to talk to you alone. Our meeting like this is a blessing.”
“Victoria knows about my affair with Leah, but never did she and I suspect there was a child involved,” he repented without unfastening his gaze from the boy.
“I assume you would have returned to Strawberry to check on Leah if you had.”
Tom’s display of pride and adoration held a hint of apprehension at the thought of breaking the news of a love child to his wife, and therefore she quickly put his fears to rest. “Listen Tom I didn’t come here to cause trouble with your family. I’m merely honouring a promise to Leah. Heath and me will leave town first thing in the morning.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” he rebuked, “You’re coming to stay at the ranch.”
“Tom, I can’t do that. Your wife mustn’t see Heath. She can’t know about him or that will destroy your family.”
“I cannot shy away from my responsibilities. Heath is my son and it’s my duty to provide for him. Victoria must be told. Better to come from me than from a stranger.”
“Tom, talk to her first. If you wish I can stay in town for another few days until you’re ready to bring Heath to meet the family. For now I think it’s best if we laid low.”
Tom silently pondered Rachel’s suggestion until a noise echoing from the stalls disrupted his concentration. “Charlie,” he sighed whisperingly, cursing inwardly his lack of discretion before a man who was known as a busy body. This shocker was bound to run rampant around town once Charlie spread the word of a bastard child. It was now imperative for Tom to patch the breach of confidentiality before it leaked and smeared innocent people’s reputes in its wake.
Tom nudged Rachel outside the barn and as far away possible from the entrance to gain more privacy. “I need to settle this quickly; otherwise I have a hunch word of my infidelity will soon spread like wildfire. That man in there is known as the town gossiper.”
“What should we do?”
“I’ll have to tell Victoria once we get to the ranch. She needs to know now.”
“I don’t know Tom,” Rachel wavered, caught between a rock and a hard place; her mind swaying between seemingly blind-alley options. “The risk is too great. I wouldn’t want you or Heath to get hurt.”
“I doubt Victoria would make a scene in front of strangers, especially a child. She’ll wait till were alone and as far as I’m concerned I can take a punch.”
“Want to pat the horsies,” young Heath whined, snapping the two adults back to attention.
Tom bent down to Heath’s level and holding him by the shoulders, he laid out an enticing invitation to visit a place with dozens of his favourite animal. Heath squealed in delight at the idea, but glanced up at his aunt to first get her consent before accepting enthusiastically.
Tom remained silent on the ride back to the ranch. Although she was uneasy at the prospect of meeting Tom’s wife, Rachel remained cool and composed as she figured the ball was in Tom Barkley’s court and that he alone had to face whatever may befall him. Though Heath had no clue as to who Tom Barkley was, she nevertheless worried about his reaction to meeting Victoria and vice-versa.
It wasn’t long before they arrived at the iron gates. No sooner had the crossed them that Rachel grabbed Tom’s arm. “Stop right here, Tom.”
Tom reined in the horse and stared at Rachel in puzzlement. “What is it?”
“It’s still not too late to double back. Are you sure you want to do this so abruptly?”
Tom smiled and squeezed the woman’s hand. “It has to be done and I can’t see any other way to break the news to Victoria. “
“I still say you should talk to her before she meets the boy,” Rachel reasoned, believing her way was best to avoid a fall out.
Rachel flashed a half-hearted smile back at Tom, not convinced that the pieces would so easily fall into place.
“Horsies! Horsies! I want to see the horsies!” Heath shouted ecstatically, bouncing up and down in his seat at the sight of the horses grazing in the paddock.
“We will, son. But first I’d like you to meet someone.”
“Tom, perhaps we should let you speak with Victoria first while we go pat the horses. It might be easier.”
“No, I want her to see the boy. I have a hunch she’ll figure it out all by herself when she sees his coloring.” After assisting Rachel and Heath down the carriage, Tom gently clasped Rachel’s hand and nudged her towards the front door. “Come on. It’ll be all right.”
“If you say so,” she sighed heavily, bracing herself for the worse.
All three crossed the threshold and into the foyer where the boy caught sight of the beautiful Christmas tree. His eyes lit up at the sight of all the ornaments. He pulled on his aunt’s hand to the living room. “I want to see the tree.”
“Later Heath,” she responded rather coldly, causing the boy to pout.
“You go, Rachel,” Tom invited by ushering her and Heath into the living room. “I’ll go see where Victoria is.”
“Okay.” Rachel agreed somewhat reluctantly, afraid to be discovered before Tom found his wife. She indulged Little Heath’s whim while Tom went to seek out his wife.
Soon after Nick emerged from the kitchen with a chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk. He strode to the living room unaware of the two visitors. As he crossed the arch he noticed the little boy slowly approaching the tree.
“Hey!” Nick bellowed, scaring Heath who ran to his aunt who sat in an armchair. “Hey take it easy, boy. I didn’t mean to scare you.” Rachel stood and faced Nick who gave an apologetic smile. “Oh, sorry ma’am. I didn’t know you were there.”
“That’s okay. I’m Rachel and this here is Heath. You must be Nick?”
“Yeah. How d’did you know?” He asked amazed.
“Your father told me a lot about you.”
“You know my folks?”
“You might say that.” She peeled off Heath’s little hand still clinging onto her skirt . “Heath it’s okay. That’s Nick. He won’t hurt you.”
“Course I won’t. Say, are you my new little brother?” Nick asked bluntly, taking Rachel by surprise.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I asked Santa to bring me a little brother. I thought maybe he’d answered my wish,” Nick replied with confidence, already feeling a connection with the boy. He put his glass and cookie on the table, walked up to Heath and held out his hand. “Want to see the horses?”
Heath looked up at his aunt to get her consent. “I think it’s best we stay here until Mr. Barkley returns.” Heath’s face fell to the floor but Nick insisted that they wouldn’t go far and that Ciego was nearby to keep an eye on them.
“Please Aunt Rachel, please!” Heath beseeched with imploring baby blues that never failed to melt her heart.
“Oh all right,” she conceded. “But don’t stray far, you hear?”
“We won’t,” Nick assured her, He then clasped the boy’s hand and led him outside. Rachel followed close by and stood under the front door to admire the bonding between the two boys.
“Rachel?” Tom’s voice brought her out of her reverie. “Where’s the boy?” With a serene smile on her face, she motioned to the horse paddock. “Well how about that.”
“You know what your son said when he first saw Heath?” Tom shook his head in confusion. “ He said: are you my new little brother?”
“He said that?”
“Apparently it was on his Christmas wish list. Tom, I just have a good feeling about those two. Heath has never taken to strangers this fast. You and Nick appear to be exceptions. That’s a good sign.” She turned to Tom and asked,” Is your wife here?”
“Yes, I’m here,” Victoria spoke icily before Tom could answer the question. Rachel trembled at the imposing figure standing defiantly at the top of the stairs. She glanced at Tom whose beaten look was a portent of a degrading situation.
The room grew cold and eerie as Victoria glanced her way down the stairs. Rachel unconsciously inched her way toward Tom to seek shelter from the imminent raging storm that was about to befall her. Instead she was surprisingly relieved when the imposing figure extended her arm to shake her hand.
“Hello, I’m Victoria Barkley. And you are Rachel Caulfield?”
“Euh…yes…I am,” Rachel stuttered nervously as she shyly clasped Victoria.
“And where is the boy? Heath, isn’t it?”
Rachel looked up at Tom who winked encouragingly. “He’s outside petting the horses with your son, Nick.”
Victoria walked over to the front door and stood on the porch watching the two boys by the horse paddock.
“Let her,” Tom suggested to Rachel, holding her from following Victoria making her way to the two boys. “She needs to do this by herself.” With bathed breath they watched her approach the two little friends.
“Oh Mother!” he enthused. “Mother, look what Santa brought me. My special wish.”
“Your special wish?” she asked, slightly bemused.
“A little brother.”
“Oh I see,” she humoured at best as she strove to remain undisturbed by her son’s statement. She bent down to Heath’s level and with an inviting smile she clasped both his hands.
“Mama?” Heath breathed out in utter awe.
“What did you say?”
Heath swallowed hard and blinked twice to establish clear focus on the face before him. “I thought you were my mama. You look just like her.”
“I’m flattered. And you young man are Heath, am I correct?”
“Yes ma’am,” the replied coyly with his head hanging low.
“I’m very happy to meet you. I see you two are becoming good friends?”
Nick wrapped his arm around Heath and said proudly, “Yes, Mother. I’m his big brother now. I asked him if he wanted to stay here and he said he would.”
“Did he now?” She searched Heath’s eyes for attestation to the contrary, but pure wonderment is all that mirrored in those baby blues. There was no mistaken that coloring. Heath was irrefutably her husband’s son. Pangs in her heart sent emotional lumps to her throat. How could she cope with this situation? She felt wedged in, trapped in a dilemma that allowed little room for negotiation. She knew she was outnumbered as to what had to be done. She had to resign to the fact that she would soon be mother to a third son.
She stared at Tom and Rachel still standing by the front door, their anxiety alleviated by Victoria’s heartening smile conveying a message of hope. Both Tom and Rachel reciprocated the beam.
“You boys don’t stay out here too long. It’s a bit chilly. I wouldn’t want you to catch cold.”
“We’ll just be a little while if it’s okay,” Nick requested of Victoria who gave an approving nod in return.
“I’ll go make you some hot chocolate. You don’t stray now.”
“We won’t,” Nick reassured. “Thanks Mother.”
Victoria left the two boys and returned to the house. “Miss Caulfiled, would you mind if I spoke to my husband in private? You could make yourself comfortable in the living room. I’ll ask Silas to bring you some coffee.”
“Thank you Mrs. Barkley.” Rachel suspected by Victoria’s harsh tone that Tom was to be put to the grinder. A severe tongue-lashing was forthcoming, but she was nevertheless grateful to the matriarch for not venting her obvious resentment on the innocent boy.
After instructing Silas on serving their guest, Victoria led Tom into he parlour and slid the door close behind her.
“Before you say anything Victoria, I swear to you I had no idea about the boy.”
“You told me nothing happened between you and Leah Thomson.”
“And it didn’t”
“Tom what do you take me for? I know how babies are made,” she rebuked icily with smouldering dark eyes. “Tom, did you tell Nick that Heath was his brother?”
“No I didn’t. He took one look at him and instantly assumed that Santa had brought him his little brother.”
“Hard to say no to the boy now.”
“Leah died a few months ago. On her deadbed she asked that Rachel bring Heath to me so I would see my son.”
“See or keep?” Victoria shot straightforwardly and waited for an honest answer from her husband.
“I’ve made my decision. It’s up to you.”
Victoria gave a slight conniving smile as she stepped up to the settee to sit. “And what would you have me do? Deny him as your son? Send him back where he belongs? Wouldn’t that be cruel of me?”
Tom hung his head in repentance. “Torie, I never wanted this to happen, believe me.”
“But it did. You have a son. That little boy downstairs needs a stable home and we can provide it for him. Besides Nick seemed to have adopted him,” she said with a thoughtful smile.
“That he did. I guess he got his wish.”
Victoria heaved a heavy sigh and closed her eyes in despair. “Oh Tom.”
Tom edged up to his distraught wide and sat beside her. He clasped her hand and wrapped the other around her shoulders. “We’ll make it through this.” Victoria’s sceptical look threw a scare into him. “Will we?”
“For our children’s sake we’ll have to work at it. I don’t want to feel resentment towards you whenever I look at that little boy. I imagine it’ll take time before…before I completely forgive you.”
“I understand.” Tom stood and slouched up to the window to cast an eye out at the two boys. “In the meantime I assume we’ll have another hungry mouth to feed.”
Victoria joined him at the window and rejoiced at the happy picture of two brothers bonding. “He is adorable.”
He risked an arm around her waist. “You’ll be a great mother for him. I can tell he likes you already.”
“For a brief second he mistook me for his own mother.”
“You do look like Leah in every shape and form. Maybe that’s why I feel in love with her. Unconsciously I was loving another Victoria Barkley.”
A small piercing cry coming from the foyer drew their attention.
Tom and Victoria hurried out of the parlor and into the livingroom where they saw a shivering Heath clinging to his aunt with all of his might.
“Nick, what happened?” Tom enquired of his son.
“Seems we have a visitor that cared Heath.”
Rachel peeled Heath’s fingers off her legs and bent down to his level. “Heath, tell me. Who did you see?”
“The..,the bad man,”h e hiccupped, gripping Rachel’s sleeves, afraid to let go.
“The bad man?” Victoria asked, puzzled.
“Heath, do you mean Uncle Matt?” Heath nodded and buried his face into Rachel’s blouse. She picked him up in her arms and attempted to alleviate his fears.
“Rachel, does he mean Matt Simmons?”
“I’’m afraid so. He must have followed us here,”
The doorbell sent every one’s nerves on edge. They stood riveted to the spot as Silas walked to the door. Tom stepped forward and waved him back. “No don’t Silas. I’ll answer the door myself,” he said resolutely with a brisk step. “Victoria, take Rachel and the boys in the parlor. I’ll handle this.”
Victoria did as instructed and beckoned her guests and Nick into the parlor. Tom waited until they were out of sight before opening the front door. “Simmons. What are you doing here?” Tom welcomed spitefully.
“Tom Barkley. Well good day to you too,” Matt sneered, extending his arm to shake Tom’s hand.
Tom ignored the olive branch and reiterated his question with brutal detachment. “I said what are you doing here.”
“I’m afraid you have something of mine that was dropped off by mistake. I want it back.”
“A blond bastard by the name of Heath. He’s my sister’s brat and he belongs to me.”
“Over my dead body he does,” Tom spat menacingly with dark eyes ablaze.
Matt reached into his breast pocket and produced a legal document. “Maybe this will convince you.”
Tom roughly snatched the sheet from Matt’s hand and began perusing it. One cursory glance at the judge’s signature and his educated guess told him that the paper was in order. “You think this document makes you a fit parent for the boy?” Tom lashed out.
“He’s kin. He belongs to me. My wife wants him.”
“For what? I doubt she’s the maternal kind,” Tom countered with crushing cynicism.
Matt took one step forward to stand inches from Tom’s face and with smouldering eyes, grounded out, “Don’t you badmouth my wife, Barkley.”
“Did I beat you to it?” Tom sassed back with a smug.
“Look I don’t want trouble with you. All I want is the brat. Now where is he?” Matt barged his way in side, only to be shoved back against the door.
“Now you listen to me, Simmons,” Tom spat with eyes ablaze with wrath. “You will not touch a hair on that boy’s head until I prove the document’s valid and even then I will see you in court to have this order overturned. Now I want you out of my property at once. And if you can do it on your own I have half dozen who will take pleasure in kicking your ass. You decide.”
“The law’s on my side, Barkley. I can have the sheriff force you to hand over the brat to me.”
“Don’t try it or you might be sorry,” an undeterred Tom threatened as he shoved Matt out the door and smashed close the door behind him.
Satisfied by his performance, Matt casually walked back to his horse and mounted.
Tom drew in a few cleansing breath to collect his thoughts before heading to the parlour to face the expectant audience. As he entered, Rachel and Victoria met with him halfway and stood rooted to the spot with bathed breath.
Tom waved the document in the air. “Matt Simmons gave me this court order which states that he’s Heath’s legal guardian.”
“But he’s not anymore. You are,” Rachel was quick to point out, notwithstanding the emotional impact her words could have on Victoria.
“I know, Rachel. I’m holding all the aces but I didn’t want to blurt it out just yet until I’ve had a chance to have our lawyer take a look at the document.”
“You don’t think…,”Rachel gulped at the grim notion that sprung into mind, “he could actually take Heath, do you?”
“I need to prove I’m the boy’s…” Tom stopped short of revealing his real identity to two young boys hanging on his every word with absorbed interest. “It shouldn’t be hard but nevertheless I want to tip the scale in my favour,” he glanced at Victoria who flashed him a proud smile and retracted, “ our favour.”
A trembling Heath gripped his aunt’s skirt and pleaded. “I don’t want to go with the bad man.”
Tom bent down to Heath’s level and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “And you won’t, Heath. I promise you that.” He glanced up at Victoria who gave him a sceptical look. “He won’t. I’ll see to it.” He stood and addressed an alarmed Rachel. “You’ll be safe at the ranch. I’ll post a few men around the house just in case Simmons should roam about.”
“Thank you, Tom. Leah was afraid of this. That’s why she asked that I come to you. That you’d see that Heath is safe.”
“And he will be,” Tom emphasized.
In the hush of night, Nick slipped into his clothes and crept down the stairs to the kitchen to stuff his satchel full of food. He stole back up the stairs and padded into the guest bedroom where Rachel and Heath were sleeping soundly. Nick edged up to Heath’s bed and nudged him lightly in the shoulder.
“Hey Heath,” he whispered. “Wake up!”
Heath blinked open his eyes and focused on the silhouetted form. “Nick?”
“Shuuuuuuuu, not so loud. Come on. Get dressed.”
“I’m taking you away so that the bad man won’t get to you.”
“But your daddy said that he wouldn’t let him,” a sleepy head reminded his friend as he rubbed the fog out of his eyes.
“We can’t take that chance. Daddy lost things in the past because of those papers. They are bad news.” He assisted Heath out of the bed and handed him his trousers. “Here put them on . And don’t make noise.”
Minutes later the two boys were climbing down the stairs with Nick leading the way. When he realized Little Heath was lagging behind, he clasped his hand and guided him the rest of the way.
“Where are we going?” Heath asked, puzzled.
“Some place far where no one can find us.”
Trusting his new friend implicitly, Heath did as instructed as quietly as he could. He threw one last glance at his aunt sleeping soundly before following Nick out the door.
Nick clasped Heath’s hand and both padded down the stairs and out the front door.
“Where are we going, Nick?”
“I know a place where they’ll never find us. It’s a small cave I found a while back while playing. No one knows about it.”
“Are you sure? My uncle has ways of finding me.”
“Well I guarantee it he won’t find you this time.” Nick led the trusting little boy to the barn where he sat him on a bale of hay while he saddled his horse.
“Nick, I’m scared. It’s so dark.”
Nick finished tightening the cinch on the saddle and approached his friend. “Don’t worry about it, Kid,” he said reassuringly with an emboldening clap on Heath’s back. “I know my way around these parts, even in the dark. You trust me, don’t ya?” With a strained smile, Heath nodded shyly. Nick reciprocated and pulled him off the bale. “Come on, let’s go quietly. We don’t want to wake anybody.” With one hand, Nick grabbed his horse’s reins and clasped Heath’s clammy hand with the other. “Don’t worry, Heath. I know what I’m doing. We’ll stay together and no one will break us apart.”
“I’d like that, Nick. But what about my aunt Rachel?”
“She can stay at the ranch. Besides she doesn’t want you to go back with your uncle, does she?” Heath shook his head. “There you go. She’ll be happy to know that you’re safe with me.”
Nick assisted Heath on a bale of hay and up the horse where he settled into the saddle. Nick hoisted himself up behind Heath and nudged his horse out of the barn. He kept the pace at a light amble until they reached the iron gates where he picked up at a trot.
Damn was barely breaking in the horizon that Tom was up and dressed. His first business of the day was to ride into town and meet with his attorney to discuss Matt Simmons’s document. He dropped by the bunkhouse to inform the men of the situation and to be on the lookout for any suspicious character roaming the land.
As he swung into the saddle, Rachel came running out the door in hysteria. “Tom! Tom! Is Heath with you?”
“No. He’s not in your room?”
“No. I got up with this morning and found his bed empty. His clothes are gone. Oh Tom, where could he be?”
Tom dismounted and hurried up to the house. He met with his wife gliding down the stairs. “Torie, have you seen Heath this morning?”
Victoria frowned at the question. “No, why?”
“He’s missing,” Rachel cried. “I can’t believe he could have gone very far. Heath hate the dark.”
“Father, what’s going on?” Jarrod asked as he appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Our little houseguest is missing.”
“Missing? He could have just gone out to look at the horses with Nick.”
“Yeah, he’s not in his room either.”
“Oh no! He couldn’t have?” Tom wondered out loud, staring at his wife whose horrified expression confirmed his fear. “He heard us talking about Simmons and wanted to get Heath out of sight.”
“That’d be my guess,” Victoria agreed. “Oh Tom, we have to find them.”
“I’ll gather a few men together and we’ll start looking for them. I agree they couldn’t have gone far, especially if they left during the night, in the dark. I’ll check the barn to see if Nick’s horse’s still there, but I doubt it.”
“On horseback they can cover a wider distance than on foot,” Rachel surmised worriedly.
Tom laid a comforting hand on Rachel’s shoulder with a glint in his eyes, assured her that he would move heaven and earth to find the two boys. She responded with a grateful smile and a healthy squeeze on his arm.
Tom placed a kiss on Victoria’s cheek and walked out the door. He made his way to the bunkhouse to choose the three men who would be joining him on the search for the two boys.
Meanwhile, Nick and Heath continued their journey to the cave. As they neared their destination, a rattlesnake spooked the horse that reared up on its hind legs, sending his two riders flying in the air and landing on the hard ground a few feet away.
“Jack and Jerry, you take the North range. Bill and Jake, the South. Duke and I will search Oak Meadows. We’ll meet back here in an hour,” Tom instructed to the ranch hands chosen for this delicate mission. All nodded in acknowledgment and took off in a whirl of dust towards their destination.
“Tom, you do have an idea where they might have gone, don’t you?” Duke presumed from the squint in Tom’s eyes.
“I’m not sure but I remember Nick often played in Oak Meadows. There’s a small cave nearby and I believe my son might have found it. I’m praying that my gut feeling is right.”
“Well then let’s go!”
Both men spurred their horses to a gallop.
Nick was slowly peeling his aching back off the ground only to see his friend lying motionless in front of him. His heart jumped to his throat at the sight of the bloody expressionless face. He crawled on hands and knees to reach Heath and tried to shake him awake.
“Heath! Hey little brother, come on. Wake up! You can’t be dead!” he sobbed, guilt creeping up on him for being the reason for this accident. “Heath, come on, wake up, please,” he wailed imploringly. Despite his best efforts at reviving his young friend, Heath remained listless.
Nick gently picked him up in his arms and teetered all the way to his horse grazing nearby. As he laid Heath on the ground a tiny groan escaped the bruised mouth. Nick dove to his knees and gave soft taps on Heath’s cheeks to bring him around. “”Come on Heath, wake up.”
“Nick?” came the feeble reply.
“Yeah. I’m here little brother. Don’t be afraid I’m going to get you help.”
“My horse got spooked by a rattler.”
Heath craned his neck back to look at the horse. “Is he okay?”
“Yeah, he’s fine. I’m going to hoist you up in the saddle. Do you think you can help me?”
“I don’t know. It hurts Nick,” Heath cried, his face distorting with pain.
“Where does it hurt?”
“All over. You can try going for help yourself.”
“I can’t leave you here alone.” Nick sat beside Heath and pondered about a solution to the problem. “I know. I’ll build a travois you can lie on.”
“Trust me. I’ve done this before. I just need to find a couple of dead branches that I’ll tie with the rope on my saddle.”
“I wish I could help you but…”
Heath looked up at Nick with a pained expression. “I think I broke my ankle.”
Nick’s brow furrowed deeply as he reached for the suspected injury. Heath moaned in pain at first touch.
“Could be just a sprain. Better not walk on it. You sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
As Nick started to stand, Heath grabbed his arm and stared at him pleadingly. “Don’t go too far, Nick.”
Nick smiled reassuringly at his friend and with a comforting hand on his shoulder, said, “Don’t worry. I’m not leaving you alone. You’re my little brother now. I’m not letting you out of my sight. You’re stuck with me whether you like it or not.”
“I like that,” Heath smiled back.
It was a good twenty minutes before Nick returned with enough branches to build a solid travois that Heath travel on. He busied himself securing each branch with a tight knot. When it was finished he fastened it to his saddle and gingerly placed Heath on it.
“You ready?” Heath nodded, despite his fear of the travois crumbling underneath his weight. Nick laughed at the obvious trepidation in Heath’s eyes. “Don’t worry. It’s solid. I know how to build them.” Again Heath nodded, still not convinced of the safety of the contraption.
Nick swung in the saddle and as he nudged his horse onwards, it suddenly dawned on him that they were returning to square one with Matt Simmons. “Heath I was just thinking. If we go back there your uncle might just take you away.”
“I was thinking the same. What are we going to do?”
While both boys explored other possibilities, the sound of thundering hooves in the distance caught their attention. With terror in their eyes they looked at each other hoping the other would provide a spur-of-the-moment mean of escape. Instead they remained rooted to the spot and waited in fear at the outcome.
“Well, look who’s here? The little bastard’” Simmons sneered.
“What are you doing on Barkley land? You’re trespassing mister,” Nick spewed out with adrenalin coursing through his veins.
“I don’t care, you brat. I have every right to be here. You have something that belongs to me.” Simmons climbed down his horse and with a malicious grin slowly advanced upon the two boys.
Nick jumped down and picked up a rock. “Stay back mister or I’ll hurt you.”
Simmons broke into guffaw and continued onwards.
Then out of nowhere a rock found its target. With a plunk sound it smashed against Simmons’s head, knocking him cold. Nick’s brows jerked up in surprise.
“Did I get him?” queried the weak voice from behind.
Astounded by this exploit, Nick walked up to the travois and glanced down at the flushed face. “Did you do that?”
“Guess I did. Did I get him good?”
Nick took another gander at the inert form sprawled on the ground. “You sure did,” he praised, giving Heath a light tap on the shoulder. “Right in the head. You’ve got some aim kid.”
Again the sound of horse hooves could be heard drawing closer. Both boys’ ears perked up and hearts began racing in fear. “Who do you think it might be?” Heath wondered.
Nick’s grimace turned into a smile at the approaching riders. “It’s father. He’s come for us.” Nick hurried towards the two riders to meet them halfway. “Father! Duke!”
Tom swung off his mount before it came to a complete halt and ran towards Nick. He dropped to his knees to enlace the boy with all of his might. “Nick, are you all right?”
“Yes I’m fine, but Heath is hurt.”
Tom stood and clasped Nick’s hand. “Show me.” He let Nick take the lead. “Is he hurt bad?”
“I don’t think so. My horse took a stumble and we both landed hard on the ground. I’m okay but Heath got the worse of it.”
Tom squatted by the travois and began roaming his hands over the tiny body to check for injuries. “How you doing, son?” Heath’s wincing was all the answer he needed to know that the boy was indeed in a great deal of pain. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home and the doctor will fix you up brand new.”
With glinting admiration in his eyes, Heath smiled and uttered a whispering, “Thank you.”
Tom reciprocated the smile and then turned to Nick with a glare. “That was a foolish thing you did, Nick. Your mother and his aunt Rachel were worried sick. Why did you take off like that?”
“We don’t want his uncle taking him away,” Nick defended.
“Speaking of uncle, what do you want me to do with him?” Duke asked from a few feet away, standing over the listless body on the ground.
Tom bolted upright in shock. “What the…? What’s he doing here?”
“He came to take Heath away. He was threatened us so Heath threw a rock at him,” Nick explained proudly. “He did it to save us, Father.”
Tom turned to Heath in amazement. “You did that?”
Heath could only nod his answer, afraid he might have done something wrong. He was relieved to hear praises instead of reprimands.
While Duke took Simmons on his mount, Tom led the way for Nick to pull the travois at a gentle pace all the way back to the ranch. Duke made better time than our threesome and soon as arrived at the ranch he sent a hand to fetch Dr. Merar in town. After getting two other men to stand guard the bunkhouse where he put Simmons pending the sheriff’s visit, he informed the women of the impending arrival. Victoria and Rachel both busied themselves preparing the guest room for the patient.
Five days cascaded down with Heath confined in bed with two broken ribs and a sprained ankle. Nick would do his best to entertain his friend the best he could but on the sixth day, Heath’s temper became unbearable. He was adamant about getting out of bed despite the doctor’s orders. Willing to accommodate his little brother, Nick snuck him out of the room and brought him to his bedroom where they played with a myriad of toy soldiers. There was ample room to play. Victoria had caught a glimpse of the sneaking around but seeing how Heath was in Nick’s bed not applying pressure on his injuries, she decided to let them have their fun while ensuring they kept it at a reasonable pace.
It was on that same day that Tom returned home with a legal court document declaring Simmons’s claim null and void. He admitted to Rachel and Victoria having to prove that he was Heath’s biological father in order to put the matter to rest once and for all.
“We won’t ever have to worry about Heath’s relative coming out of the woodworks to state a claim on the child. He is a Barkley.”
“That’s wonderful,” Rachel cried, tears running down her cheeks. “I’m sure Heath will be happy here.”
“And you will too, Rachel,” Tom insisted.”
“No I can’t. Heath needs to know you and Victoria without me around. He’s already made a home here with his brothers. I can tell by the glint in his eyes that he loves it here and I’m happy for it.”
“Where will you go?”
“I’ll return to Strawberry and visit from time to time.”
“That unacceptable, Rachel,” Victoria piped in. “The boy may like it here because you are with him. If you leave he’ll be miserable and we don’t want that. No you will stay at the ranch until we can fix the old foreman house just around the back. There you’ll have your own home and Heath will be able to visit you as often as he wants and vice versa.
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You didn’t, we offered. The matter is settled. Now how about some coffee?”
Gratefulness didn’t begin to express how Rachel felt. Words failed her. She then simply smiled responsively to the offer of coffee and followed Victoria into the living room.
“Where are the boys?”
“Upstairs in Nick’s room. Why?”
“I want to tell them the good news.”
“Later Tom. They’re having a good time playing with Nick’s toys. We’ll tell them tonight.”
Tom glanced up the stairs and back to Victoria. “I assume a couple of hours won’t make any difference.”
Meanwhile in town at the Sheriff’s office, Simmons paced his tiny cell, assessing his next move. When the deputy opened the door to bring him his supper, he sprung into action by knocking the man out cold and fled into the night.
What would be his next move?
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