Heath was looking forward to getting home to the ranch after his trip to buy a new mare. The trip had been successful and he rode Charger with purpose trailing the new mare he had bought behind them.
It had been an uneventful ride. The sun shone but not too strong, dust kicked up from dry earth road under Charger’s hooves and Heath’s thoughts were occupied by the hot bath he would get when he got home and the blind date Nick had arranged for him.
Now Heath, ordinarily, liked to pick his own dates. He had a certain type of woman he liked to date. ‘Heath’s type’ was how Jarrod and Nick described it and they were rarely wrong. She was usually small, 5’3” to 5’5”, pretty, but in a way that was natural and not self-absorbed. Hair coloring didn’t matter, but he liked it to hang loose and natural, not all fastened up like fashion dictated. He liked girls who talked more than he did, for like a reluctant dance partner he needed someone to draw him out of his natural reserve. And she had to come to understand that quietness on his part didn’t imply disinterest, but was a part of the nature that attracted her in the first place.
In picking Heath’s blind date Nick felt confident he had picked a winner. He had a double date planned in which he would see the girl he had been seeing for some weeks now, Marianne, and Heath was lined up to date and occupy her best friend, Betsy, who was visiting from back east.
Heath hadn’t been sure about Nick’s idea. As he saw it he liked to do the asking. He bowed to Nick on a lot of things, but letting him pick his dates for him was not one of them. When Nick had first mentioned it, they had heated discussions on the matter; ‘discussion’ which followed them from the dining room to the billiard room and upstairs to bed, Heath finally having to cave in and agree so he could finally evict Nick from his room and get some sleep.
Nick opened the door and returned. “You’re not going to weasel out on me, are you?” Heath threw a pillow at him, pleased that it hit its mark.
All that had been four days ago. In the meantime, Heath had a mare to buy. The distance the trip created between brothers was welcomed by all.
Family, Nick included, was so much a part of the man now returning home. He looked forward to be welcomed home and the attention he would get.
He’d been living with his brothers, sister, and step-mother for two years now. Settled in a way that belied the short passage of time he could imagine no other life, or wanted one. Marriage and children and a home of his own beckoned one day, but he was young still and in no hurry for such responsibility. Besides, he had loved and lost in the past and those scars were still not healed. As if summoned the images of Sarah and Maria entered his mind and the hurt returned.
Elsewhere in the family, only Jarrod had married. Tragically brief, the marriage had been happy until sadly, Beth had been killed. Jarrod, privately, still grieved a widower’s grief.
Nick, it seemed was the eternal bachelor; as quickly falling out of love as he fell into it. Women were his passion as he was theirs; he could turn on the charm and the smooth words at the flick of a switch. He’d had his set backs; been hurt in the same way as Heath, but unlike his younger brother, he had bounced back more easily and thrown himself into the next love affair with promise and hope, if still wary and avoiding of that final commitment.
Audra was their younger sister. At 21 she was five years Heath’s junior and, not unnaturally, all the brothers felt protective of their only sister. She had been seeing Carl Wheelerfor two years. Sometimes seriously - sometimes not. Now she had agreed to marry him. The family celebrated with her for she seemed to have made up her mind and they all liked Carl, who had been a childhood friend of Nick’s. A friendship which despite some deep differences over cattle and sheep remained so. Heath, who had not known Carl since childhood, was less sure. But Audra had made her choice and because of that Heath would support her and sit on his own reservations.
Holding them all together was their Mother, Heath’s stepmother – his mother, he mentally corrected. Acceptance and love from Victoria Barkley made Heath rich in the true sense of the word, for it is certain that if Victoria had not overcome the very physical pain of her husband’s infidelity, out of which Heath had been born, then his siblings would have found it very hard to side against her. That she did, made it possible for Heath to live within the family and not outside it.
Heath’s thoughts returned to the road. It took on a familiar feel, and he knew that home was not too many miles away. Suddenly, the uneventful journey was no more. Turning a corner in the road, both rider and horses had to pull up sharply in response to a man blocking their path.
He carried a saddle and was dressed in preacher’s clothes. Both were quickly explained. Heath was guarded. The man introduced himself as Weaver, a deputy marshal on the trail of the outlaw Ben Rawlins. The name was familiar to Heath as the outlaw's crimes were well recorded in these parts.
Weaver quickly explained his horse has gone lame and just as quickly threatened Heath with a gun so he could take his mare to resume the outlaw's trail. Not wanting to lose a valuable mare, Heath insisted that he accompany Weaver in his search. An uneasy alliance followed, each rider distrustful of their partner and motives.
The search ended when they reached a cabin in a clearing. Dismounting cautiously, they drew their guns and surveyed the area carefully around them before stepping on to the weather-beaten porch and pausing at the door, Heath as wary of Weaver as he was of what they would find inside.
Inside, they found a woman lying in a large iron bed. A quick eye search of the one-room cabin located no fugitive. The woman in the bed attempted to get up in protest at the intrusion, but fell back down again, overcome by a severe attack of coughing.
Putting his gun away, Heath went to her assistance, helping her to sit up in order to ease the effort of coughing. Weaver looked on with contempt. His anger was raw and he kicked a wooden chair across the floor in frustration breaking one its legs.
Heath ignored the outward tantrum, concentrating his efforts on the woman lying in the bed. When she was settled he got up, by-passed Weaver to reach the small kitchen area and pumped fresh water into the sink before filling a tin cup to take back to her. Once again, he took the woman’s weight as she drank from the proffered cup thirstily. Several times Heath had to withdraw the cup, warning her to take small sips.
“Thank you.” She whispered with effort, when she had drunk enough. Beads of sweat evidenced how difficult the simple task had been for her. Fever simmered red under the paleness of her skin.
Heath smiled back at her.
Suddenly, the violence of the forced entry returned. This time manifesting itself in a volley of unrelenting questions from Weaver who's hands gripped the bed post till his knuckles turned white. “Where was Rawlins? Where was he hiding? When had she last seen him?” The questions were as bad as any physical assault on her sick person.
Amanda Rawlins, sick woman that she was, put up a spirited defence, truly believing that her husband was not a killer. When Weaver showed no signs of letting up on his verbal assault of the woman, Heath cut in, “Enough, Weaver. You can see Rawlins isn’t here. She’s sick. If you’re not going to help here, go see to the horses.”
“And leave you with her?”
“She’s sick, Weaver. Anyone can see that.”
“And who made you Sir Galahad, all of a sudden.”
Heath ignored the barb. He looked at Weaver “There’s more to this. What are you not telling me? You’re no marshal. What are you? A bounty hunter?”
“Dead or alive. Rawlins is mine and so is that reward. I heard about you Barkleys. We’re not all born with a silver spoon in our mouth.”
The two men exchanged looks, their values and outlook on life miles apart from the other. Heath didn’t bother to explain his own circumstances. Weaver was driven by money. He returned to take care of the woman.
Weaver’s contempt reappeared. “You play nursemaid and I’m outta here.”
“Not without me and not with my horses.” There was enough in Heath's voice to make Weaver think again.
“Then leave her ‘cuz I’m going now. I’m not losing Rawlin’s trail. He’s around here somewhere. I can feel it.”
"I'm not leaving her. And you're not going without me."
A baby cried, the sound catching both men’s attention. The woman looked fearful lest the two men harm her child. With as much strength she could muster from her tired body she tried to reach for the child from where he lay in his crib at the other side of the bed. Heath made his way around to the crib at the same time, but where the woman’s strength failed, his did not. He reached into the crib and pulled out the baby with ease. Making eye contact, he asked: “A boy?”
The question from his lips developed into a smile, encouraging the woman to trust him. He held the child firmly then with an ease of movement cradled the baby in his left arm, gently loosening the child’s grip on his shirt so he could hold him more secure. The woman still traumatised by the violent break-in to her home was still fearful, but somehow registered the kindness in the man’s actions and words. She had to trust someone. She was unable to feed or look after the baby herself. Her illness had crept up on her, stealing her strength by degrees. Then two days ago, she had taken to her bed, the child in a crib next to her. She stole a glance at the preacher standing at the end of the bed. She could feel the hatred emanating from him; he was going to have his reward at the expense of her husband’s life. Her baby would stand no chance with him. She turned to the young cowboy. He had kind eyes. A trusting face. Could she trust him? She had no choice.
“Joey,” she said, giving up the baby’s name, before another coughing fit sapped her remaining strength. She was just 30 years old and yet she felt like eighty.
“I couldn’t take care of him when I took sick.” She began explaining. “Please. Please. Look after my baby. He needs milk. He’s need looking after.”
Heath nodded. His right hand reached out to her floundering one. She was looking for a lifeline. “Don’t worry. I’ll see to him. Get some rest. As soon as I have seen to him, I’ll get some food on the stove for you.” She relaxed into the bed. Physically drained, mentally she had tried to keep going for her son. Sleep was nearly overtaking her. Her hand relaxed and gradually released its hold of his. Heath put the baby down for the moment and checked the woman’s pulse. It was still there. He pulled up the blankets and then got up to complete his promised tasks.
Weaver went outside.
Heath, without fuss, had the baby cleaned and diapered in no time at all, and prepared a bottle from which the child suckled hungrily. “Hey there little fella, you’re a strong one” he drawled as Joey’s small hands wrapped around his own fingers to grip on tothe bottle. All the time Joey suckled he kept eye contact with Heath. The rancher smiled back, stopping just short of making baby noises.
“You’re good at that,” Amanda Rawlins observed as she came awake to find Heath sitting on the edge of the bed feeding Joey.
Heath chuckled lightly as a memory flooded back to him. “Lived with a family of 12 once, had to learn to diaper in self defence. I reckon you could say I got to be expert in it.
Amanda chuckled too. Her cough was still present but less agitated than before.
“Ya got any children of your own?”
“No ma’am.” Came back Heath's polite reply.
“Well, whoever she is one day, she will be a lucky woman. You have gentle ways. A woman likes that.”
Heath blushed and adjusted the bottle for something to do.
“Oh my!” The woman continued. “No girl will be able to resist that,” she said, referring to his blushing.
Heath didn’t have time to respond as Amanda Rawlins’ coughing returned with renewed force. On the piece of cloth she held close to her, spots of blood appeared with the phlegm she coughed up. Heath concerned put the baby down with his bottle to attend to her.
“We need to get you to a doctor ma’am. First light tomorrow, we’ll set off for town.”
It took a while for Amanda Rawlins to respond.
“You’d...you'd do that?” She finally whispered, her voice all but robbed from the effort of coughing. She turned her worried gaze towards Weaver who had sat himself at her table and helped himself to her food. “But what about him?”
“He’s my concern, ma’am. Don't you go worrying about him.”
Joey let the bottle go and it fell off his tummy to the side.
“It looks like he’s finished.” Heath commented, admiring the gusty little fella who didn't cry, but only smiled now that his tummy was full.
Without prompting he picked the baby up again and extended Joey over his shoulder so he could rub his back to aid the little fella's digestion. Joey responded after a while with the necessary burp and small pool of sick, and Heath let the baby sit back in his crib. Again, without fuss, he wiped the sick off his shirt without comment. Something else living with a family of 12 had taught him.
Amanda Rawlins’ smiled and her trust in the man grew. She harboured a fear that her son would be left alone. Now something was telling her that though not yet asked this man would not let that happen.
Heath patted her hand. “I’ll get you that broth now. You’ll feel better once you have something inside you.”
She gripped his hand with surprised strength. “Thank you. Thank you for being here - for protecting me and my baby from him.”
Heath said nothing and returned to the kitchen area to fetch the broth. Amanda Rawlins looked on her son as he played happily in his crib with his toy doll, his hunger now satiated. She noticed that the man had diapered and changed Joey into clean clothes and also changed the baby's bedding too. When had Ben ever done that? She thought angrily. She longed to pick her only child up and cradle him. "I'm your Mama, Joey. Don't ever forget me," she whispered, sensing her own fate.
Over in the kitchen area Weaver's eyes watched Heath. "Getting yourself awful cozy over there, aren’t you cowboy?” Weaver sneered. “Wouldn’t like to be in your shoes when Ben Rawlins finds out.”
Heath ignored him and stated flatly. “I’m taking her to the doctor tomorrow.”
“No, you’re not." Weaver shot back. "We’ve wasted enough time on her already. Tomorrow morning we’re out of here.” Weaver leaned threateningly across the table. “You’re not going to cost me Rawlins, ya hear. I won’t let you.”
“Then you'll find him on foot.” Heath responded, eyes unblinking, his steady gaze uncompromising in its message to the bounty hunter.
Weaver would not give up.
“Barkley. You're a fool. She knows where he is! I just need five minutes with her. I’ll get it out of her.”
“You go near her or the baby and I’ll shoot you dead.”
Still Weaver would not give up.
“She’s hoodwinked you, Barkley. You’ve fallen for her story. She’s not sick at all. She’s putting it on. As soon as our backs our turned she’ll be outta here warning that no good husband of hers.”
“She’s coughing up blood.” Heath stated flatly.
Weaver was silenced by the knowledge but inside he fumed. Rawlins was so damned close. He could smell the reward money and now this! “Barkley, you cost me Rawlins and I’ll ....” He spat out raising his fist and then dropping it hard to the simply fashioned table so that it shook. His words trailed off as rather than continue he stood up to go outside.
Heath watched him leave. His mind was heavy with thought. So far he was maintaining the upper hand with Weaver but that could soon change. Weaver, he suspected, but not with certainty, would not kill him in cold blood. He would not hesitate, however, to take Rawlins dead rather than alive.
He ladled some broth into a bowl and carried it with a spoon over to Mrs Rawlins. Putting it down on the table next to the bed he helped the woman to sit up against a bank of worn pillows and then spoon-fed her the retrieved broth with the patience and slowness it required.
Outwardly, encouraging her to take more, inwardly his thoughts were preoccupied with the morrow and the responsibilities he had acquired.
Whilst Weaver and Joey slept, Heath attended the baby’s mother during the night. He continually filled a basin with water and tried to cool sponge the fever out of the sick woman. In the end it dawned on him that he was fighting a losing battle. She was getting sicker by the moment despite fleeting moments of lucidity in which Joey’s welfare was her primary concern. She gripped his shirt as he held her. “Pl...Please...take Joey...Promise me,” she gasped. “Promise me. You’ll look after him.
“Ma’am. I’m not sure I’m the person to....” Heath voiced in self-doubt.
“Want you. Not...Not...Ben to raise him.” Her voice hoarse, she summoned her last moments of strength and gripped on to his shirt more fiercely to make her plea. “I don’t believe my Ben is a killer, but Joey needs protection. Promise me.”
Heath could sense they were her last words and saw the fear of things unresolved in her eyes. He thought of her, of Rawlins and most of all Joey. He nodded, giving his agreement. “I’ll see he is looked after.” He promised. Her prayer for her son answered, Amanda Rawlinss' eyes closed, her body sagged, and she quietly died in the young rancher’s arms. Heath held her for a while, contemplating what he had just promised.
An hour later as morning dawned, he dug a grave for Ben Rawlins’ wife watched on by Weaver who stood idly by. “I’ll be leaving with Joey and my horses this morning.” Heath announced as he finished digging the grave.
“What about Rawlins?”
“There’s a horse in the barn. You can use him to track him.”
Without further explanation Heath climbed out of the hollow grave and went inside to prepare Amanda for her final resting place. She looked strangely becalmed. Death had made her face youthful again. Freed of the illness Heath could see she was a beautiful woman. She lay on a sheet partially prepared for burial. He looked at her once last time and then wrapped the sheet around her, picking her up in his arms to carry her out of the house.
An hour later, he finished filling the grave in and stood alone, Weaver having already left. A quietly religious man Heath Barkley recited the prayers of his childhood, remembering his promise to keep safe the dead woman’s child. Afterwards he fashioned a simple weather-beaten wooden cross on which he wrote her name, the date and year of her death. Then he went to saddle his horse and mare for the journey. Finally, he went inside the cabin to collect a few things for Joey, stuffing them into his roomy saddle bags which he then slung over his shoulder before picking up Joey. Joey’s smile heartened him after his sad morning tasks. He kissed him on his cheek and then settled him into his carrying crib before leaving the cabin for the last time.
Outside, he struggled to think how he would ride with the baby in the crib. He decided to loop the handles of the crib around the saddle horn and hoist himself into the saddle one handed holding Joey. Youth, strength and agility ensured he completed the task in one fluid movement. He settled the uncomplaining child in his left arm, blanketed warmly against the morning chill, and began the unusual journey home.
In due course, rider, child and horses came to a stop. Joey was crying and Heath, dismounting, settled him on the ground. It was clear that Joey required some attendance and he went to retrieve spare diapers from his saddle. He proceeded to change, feed, burp and walk the baby, all the mandatory things he had in his knowledge to do. Still Joey cried.
Heath was stumped. He reasoned with the child that he had done all the necessary things. His quizzical expression revealed his struggle for further answers. Then he noticed a little reddening of Joey’s cheeks. “You’re teething, aren’t you?” he exclaimed as comprehension dawned. “You need something to bite on.” He searched his mind for what he could use, and then decided with cowboy practicality on cutting a piece of leather from his saddle. The baby chewed on it and settled. Heath, smiled, grateful for the solution and ensuing silence. He laughed and kissed the baby out of gratitude.
Within in due course, the party were on their way again until finally the mansion that was the Barkley home came into sight. He was a day overdue. Nick would be annoyed at him for missing his date. He would not hear the last of it. Heath felt trepidation as he neared the house. He was bringing Ben Rawlins’s child home with him. How would his family react? He could almost hear Nick’s disbelief at what he had done. He braced himself for the repercussions of his actions and the objections that would come.
Heath secured his horse to the hitching post and chose to go in the house the back way in the hope that it would give him more preparation time to face his family. He was relieved to find no one was around and put the baby down on the center table in his bassinet whilst he looked around for any sign of life in the house.
His mother’s voice welcoming him home brought him back into the foyer from the Parlor. “Heath! Heath, dear. It’s so good to see you home.” Victoria's welcome was always warm, enthusiastic and loving and Heath fell into her extended arms, accepting and giving a kiss. “What have we here,” she said eying the mysterious basket on the table. Just then Audra came into the room and gave her brother a further kiss. Crying emanated from the basket and Victoria immediately went to open the loose cover under which Heath had placed Joey.
“Heath! Where did you get this baby?” Victoria Barkley demanded immediately picking up the baby.
Her youngest son stood, hand to mouth in quandary mode. He could no longer hide the child’s parentage. It was not fair to his family. “He’s Ben Rawlins’ son. I came across his wife dying in a cabin nearby. She asked me to look after the baby. There was no one else.”
Victoria face registered a degree of alarm but with wisdom born of age she quickly covered it and put Heath’s fears to rest. “Of course you had to bring him here, Heath. The poor motherless child.” It had been so long since her own children were this age and she melted at the sight of Joey who gurgled and smiled, and then reached out to Heath with his arms, who, somewhat surprised, found himself saddled with the baby again.
Victoria smiled to see Heath’s discomfort. “It looks like he has taking a liking to you, Heath. You must have formed quite a bond.”
“We did?” Heath’s confusion at her observation was funny to witness.
“Oh Heath. What a sweet picture you both make.” Audra teased. Just then came opend the main door.
“What’s this about a pretty picture?” The dark haired rancher projected his question loudly across the foyer. Removing his hat and gloves he took a double take at Heath holding a baby. “You were supposed to be bringing us back a new mare.”
“I did,” Heath objected.
“Then what’s that?” Nick said waving his removed glove at the startled child.
Heath hesitated. He felt a nudging prompt from his mother. “He’s Ben Rawlins’ son.”
Nick’s capacity to shout surpassed itself. “WHAT! Are you a damned fool? Bringing Ben Rawlins’ child here.”
“His mother died this morning, Nick. I couldn’t leave him on his own.”
“There’s the orphanage!”
“Nick!” Audra admonished.
Nick was apologetic. “I didn’t mean it that way. But Rawlins has always been trouble. Even more so with that price on his head. And he's bound to come looking for his son. You just can’t take his son and expect Rawlins to lay right down and let you.”
“His wife wanted me to have him.” Heath interjected.
“Heath! See sense, boy! Your actions will bring only cause trouble to yourself and this family.”
Heath, sensitive to a fault, bristled. He went to pick up the bassinet and leave.
Nick’s hand pressed obstructively against his brother's chest. “And where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“I’m taking Joey so you won’t need to be bothered by Rawlins.”
Nick snorted. “Like I’m going to let my little brother handle this on his own.”
“But you just said?”
“I say a lot of things.”
Victoria and Audra smiled at the sudden change of heart from Nick. It was not untypical behaviour from the contrary man.
“Audra, you still got your things in the old nursery?” The question came out of the blue.
“Yes.” Audra answered her brother, Nick.
“Well, I guess I better change my work detail then. Seems I got a nursery to put back together again. I see any more dresses in there Audra; I give you fair warning I’m putting them in the charity box.”
Amidst Audra’s protests and pleas to her mother to overrule him, Nick went to pick up Joey from Heath’s arms. Joey took one look at him and squirmed closer into Heath’s chest where he hid his face. The put out look on Nick’s face was a picture to see. “Suit yourself,” he mumbled as he climbed the stairs. He looked back to see Joey looking back up at him and thought he had gained a reprieve. Then just as quickly Joey hid his face in Heath’s neck again forcing Heath to lift his chin. Nick knew then the reprieve had been granted only temporary.
A little later, Joey had relaxed in the company of Victoria and Audra enough to relinquish his dependence on Heath. This allowed the hungry rancher to eat some food, served up by Silas. Victoria busied Joey with some toys on the floor.
As much as she enjoyed the baby’s presence she knew she had to ask Heath some tough questions. She broached Joey’s future and listened supportively as Heath responded only that they’d manage.
“Yes, but darling," Victoria continued quietly, "Children thrive in the company of other children. You know the Whitakers are looking for a child to adopt.”
“They are?” Heath did not want this discussion. He continued eating his food.
Victoria knew, however, she had got his attention. As much as Heath had formed an affection for Joey, he would do what was best for the child.
“Yes. Why only the other day Peggy Whittaker said as much. It's been a sad time since they lost little Alex. And they have a little boy, not much older than Joey. They could be companions for each other.”
“I guess so,” was Heath’s weak-hearted reply. He really didn't want to think on it. The idea of looking after Joey had grown on him. Nick came downstairs, announcing the nursery was now ready for the feminine touch; he’d done the heavy work and cleared out the storage. Sitting down at the table he helped himself to food fro Heath’s plate.
“Haven’t you eaten?” Heath protested, not being particularly careful where he stabbed his fork. When it made contact with Nick’s intrusive forefinger he smiled victoriously.
Victoria didn’t want the beginnings of her argument to be forgotten. As she got up from the floor and picked up Joey to take him upstairs to the nursery, she reminded Heath of her words.
“Think on it, Heath. We could visit the Whittakers tomorrow.” She kissed Heath on his forehead and Heath nodded but didn't respond.
“The Whittakers?” Nick asked open-faced, waiting for an explanation.
Not in the mood to explain, Heath picked up a roll of bread from his side plate and stuffed it into his brother’s mouth. Silence at last had been achieved.
Later that evening, Nick joined Heath on the porch.
Heath stubbed his cigarette out under his foot. An apology was due. “Sorry I couldn’t make it back in time to go on that date. Did you go in the end?”
“No. Marianne didn’t want to leave Betsy on her own.”
“I’ll make it up to you.”
“You couldn’t help it, I guess. Must have been tough seeing the boy’s mother die.”
“It wasn’t pretty.”
“How’d you happen on her anyway?”
“Bounty hunter tried to take the mare at gun-point.”
“He was after Rawlins?”
“To be expected I suppose.” Nick said phlegmatically. “He won’t be the first, and if Rawlins is not caught, he won’t be the last. I hear tell the reward has gone up to $10,000. There's a poweful lobby wanting him brought to justice."
“You think people will hold it against Joey?”
Nick sighed. “Could be. It’s human nature. Rawlins turned bad early. People around here have long memories. Sins of the father and all that.”
“That ain’t fair, Nick. Joey’s done nothing wrong. He ain’t but ten months old. An innocent.”
“It’s not something I subscribe to, but to many it’s enough that he’s Ben Rawlins’ child.”
Heath thought long and hard before saying what he wanted to say next. He leaned across the porch railings, inhaling the fragrant air of his mother's flowers. “You really don’t want him here, then?”
“It’s not that I don’t want him, Heath.” Nick sighed. He was careful with his next words, sensing they would not be welcome. “Look, Heath. I can see you are fond of the boy. But Joey already has a father.”
Heath’s blue eyes shot round to Nick. “I’m not trying to be his father, Nick.”
“Aren’t you, Heath?”
Heath’s silence was answer enough for Nick. The boy was heading for a hard fall.
After his talk with Nick, Heath went upstairs to his mother's room and promised to go with her the next day to visit the Whittakers.
Victoria, just about to retire to bed, was grateful at least for her son’s decision to consider the option. As she said goodnight to him, she observed his sad figure leave, snuggled down, confident that in the end they would find a home for Joey and with it some peace for Heath.
Heath took a little longer to settle. Normally, he retired early in the evening for the early start the next day. But tonight his mind was recalling the events of yesterday and his separate talks with Nick and his mother.
He’d not been entirely truthful with Nick. Joey had certainly snuck into his heart and he did harbour thoughts of keeping him. It seemed to him that Joey’s interests were paramount. Amanda Rawlins had chosen him, a near stranger, over her husband to care for the child. He found it a hard responsibility to ignore.
His thoughts still churning over, he donned a robe and slippers and padded down the hall to the old Barkley nursery; until today little more than a storage room. The room had been aired and brightened with freshly hung drapes and the crib that had been used for all the Barkley children save Heath who had been raised separately by his own mother.
He looked in on Joey, the subject of his troubled thoughts. He was asleep, oblivious to the decisions being made about him. The baby suckled on his thumb. When Heath removed his thumb from his mouth, Joey suckled on Heath’s. He was snug and fed and protected from the world outside. This is what Heath could offer Joey. Could it be so wrong? And yet tomorrow he’d had to give the child up. Probably for the best, he reasoned. He knew his mother talked sense. Nick, too. How could he, Heath Barkley, a bachelor, bring up the child? Yes, the family would help, but would that be fair to Joey or the family? If Joey were older, five or six may be, it may have been possible. But a baby needed a mother at such a young age and Heath could not provide that.
He stood for a while watching Joey sleep before returning to his room and to sleep.
An hour later, Nick was pulled from his own sleep by the sound of crying. He pulled the pillow over his ears to block out the sound, certain that his mother or Audra would see to the baby.
When the crying continued, Nick sat up in defeat. “For the love of God can’t a man get some sleep around here?” He complained. He turned the covers back and dived for his robe and slippers. “I’m coming.” He announced to the crying child.
Unbeknownst to Nick or Joey, Uncle Nick was about to be born.
Nick hopped down the landing, robe gaping open as he tried to fix his right slipper on to his foot. Joey was still crying and to Nick’s amazement the house was still soundly asleep.
He opened the door to the nursery and stepped inside, hurriedly trying to locate and light the lamp. Once done he looked towards the crib. Red faced, wet-eyed, Joey stood holding on to the sides of the crib and bawled for attention.
“Now then young fella. You sure have got a powerful pair of lungs on you. Why you go on like that you’ll wake up the whole county. Now what you need to do is to get back to sleep.” Nick mimed the action of going to sleep but Joey just stared back at him blankly. His crying reached a crescendo leaving Nick no choice but to pick him up; an awkward action at first but made easier when he sat down in the rocker and sat Joey on his lap.
“There now,” Nick cooed as Joey’s crying dissolved into intermittent hiccups. “See now. All you needed was your Uncle Nick. That’s me by the way. Nick Barkley.” He lifted Joey so his bare feet stood on Nick’s lap, testing the strength of the legs that would one day allow him to walk. Nick was impressed. “You’re a strong one, aren’t you? Well cowboy, what’s this crying all about, huh? Ya going to tell your Uncle Nick? Ya see this being a working ranch we tend to sleep during the night and work during the day. It’s kinda the order of things round here. Your kinda of upsetting that routine right now.”
Joey looked at him quizzically.
“May be ya hungry?
"No! That can’t be it. I know you've been fed.
"Maybe it’s those teeth of yours getting all jittery?
"No. Your cheeks aren’t too red so it can’t be that”
He didn’t want to go to the area of his third guess. Gingerly he raised Joey up in his arms and sniffed. The source of Joey’s crying became pungently evident. A major diaper change was required. “Nooooo.” Nick silently pleaded. Joey only smiled, or maybe grimaced from his discomfort.
Nick had an idea. He put Joey down back in his crib. Joey crawled to the side and looked through the railings. “I’ll be right back,” he promised as Joey looked at him curiously.
Nick made his way down to Heath’s room. “Heath! Heath!” He whispered loudly as he shook his brother awake.
Heath swatted his hand away. “Leave me alone.” He protested.
“Heath! You ever diapered a baby?”
Heath groaned. “It ain’t hard, Nick. Just get a spare diaper from the chest of drawers.”
“A spare diaper, huh?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Well now pardner. What do you say to showing me, this being my first time an all.”
Heath groaned at Nick’s manipulation of the situation.
Nick pleaded lack of experience again. “Ah hell, Heath, I’m likely to stab him with the pin I’d be that damned nervous.”
“Okay, I give in.” Heath protested, turning back the covers to get up, unsnagging his foot in the process. He ruffled his hair sending it upright and wiped the sleep out of his eyes. Ignoring his robe and his slippers he followed Nick down the hall.
Inside, he picked up Joey. “Guess he is kind of fragrant.” He conceded. “In that drawer you’ll find some diapers.”
While Nick got busy, Heath, with Joey nestled in the crook of his left arm, searched for something to clean him up with and the baby powder and such. He then placed Joey on a tall chest of drawers on which was spread an old blanket.
He lifted up Joey’s night shirt and started to remove the soiled diaper from underneath. The escaping odor hit Heath and Nick’s nostrils just about the same time.
Nick contorted his face in disgust. “How does a little thing like that produce that much....”
“Shut up Nick, and fill me a basin with some water and soap.” Heath rolled up his pyjama sleeves.
When Nick returned, Heath lifted Joey’s legs up with one hand and swiftly and efficiently with the other set about cleaning Joey up and re-diapering him.
Never having seen this side to Heath before, Nick was amazed. “Where the hell did you learn that from?”
“Please don’t cuss around Joey.” Heath said in his most parsimonious tone.
Nick stood corrected. Heath smiled at his small victory.
“Tomorrow, Nick. I’ll tell you how I learned to diaper tomorrow. There he’s done.” He said, finally, pulling down Joey’s nightshirt. Joey, more comfortable, kicked his legs in the air.
Nick reached across Heath to pick him up.
“Oh now, you’ll pick him up.” Heath observed as he moved to clear the soiled diaper and cloths away. He was awful tired having been up the night before, and reasoned Joey was in safe hands. “See you in the morning, Nick.” He said as he reached the door.
“What? Oh yeah.” Nick grunted, totally absorbed by Joey as he sat down in the rocker with his new charge. He looked every bit the doting and favourite uncle. “See you tomorrow Heath. Me and Joey, we’ll just sit here a spell. Don’t worry, I’ll look after him. I’ve got everything under control.”
The dark-haired rancher totally missed the irony of his words.
Heath just smiled, leaving Joey and his new champion exchanging baby language into the night.
Ben Rawlins entered the cabin he had shared married life with Amanda with total disregard for the fact that he had been away for six months and the events in between. A career criminal, notorious outlaw with a sizeable bounty on his head, he’d never done an honest days work in his life or considered one. That in two years of marriage he had spent little than four months of that time at home - a few weeks here, a few weeks there – didn’t reduce his expectation that Amanda, and now the baby, would be there to welcome him home.
“Amanda!” He shouted out, flinging his hat on the bed. When she did not come running, he quickly grew annoyed.
“Didn’t she know the risks he was taking just being here? His conceit turned angry. He looked around for something to drink and eat, his belly complaining. He slammed the cupboard door at what little was there. The bread was mouldy and the milk off. Empty baby milk cans lay about. The remnants of a congealed cold broth sat on the stove.
He went out on to the porch, unable to call out her name lest his voice carried. His eyes surveyed the sorry looking yard and then paused on the unfamiliar sight set off to the right – a mound of earth, a cross. His heart stopped at its possible meaning. His first thought was Joey.
He mouthed his son’s name, refusing to except what it could mean. Running to the newly shovelled earth he stopped in front of it, sinking to the ground, his hands turning over the loose earth, his eyes unable to read the name on the cross till the last. Relief sighed from his lips. The name on the cross was not Joey’s. “Amanda Rawlins, May 7th 1878” it read. His eyes became fixated on the date. It had happened just the day before.
As much as Ben Rawlins grieved, it was for himself largely that he did so. Amanda had always been there to come back to, a fixture in his life. He’d not been faithful. Saloon girl, someone’s wife, he did not care so long as he satisfied his needs. He could be charming, the side he had presented to Amanda, a young widow he had met two years before, but he was vicious too. He would not think twice about shooting a man dead, even if the situation could be avoided. His bank robberies were characterised by the shooting of innocent citizens and hence the bounty on him was high and attracted the Weavers of this world to hunt him down.
He went back into the house, determined on tracking his son down. Someone had buried his wife and taken Joey. He would make whoever it was regret it and get his son back. A shot rang out and he turned pulling his gun in the direction it had been fired. Weaver, nicked on his side, fell to the ground and slunk away back to his horse. The hunter was now the hunted as Rawlins took after him on his horse.
Heath pulled up the buggy outside the Whittakers’ small painted house. It was a neat house, with a well-tended flower garden and vegetable patch. The Whittakers, Heath knew, could offer Joey a good home. Even so, he found himself wanting to find fault; to find a reason why they would not be right for Joey. The Whittakers welcomed them like old friends. This was going to be hard.
Inside the house and seated in their neat parlor, Peggy Whittaker took to Joey immediately. “Oh Victoria, he’s adorable." She turned to her older husband. "Sam, what do you think? We could take him, couldn’t we?”
Sam Whittaker looked on, less animated than his wife, but that was the nature of the quiet farmer. His quietness did not indicate less interest. “I reckon we could.” He smiled at his wife, knowing that his wife still mourned the loss of their child.
Heath felt uneasy. His mother looked pleased. He was fixed between a rock and a hard place. It looked like it was going to happen. Then something happened. The Whittakers asked about Joey’s parentage. Their demeanour changed once they learned the information. Peggy Whittaker’s cradling of Joey froze and she held him at arms length, willing Victoria to take him back again.
“I’m sorry. We won’t be able to take him, Victoria.”
“But why?” Came back Victoria’s shocked reply. Joey not understanding trembled at her startled voice and the sudden change of people holding him. Crying, he reached out to Heath who was sitting next to Victoria and was scooped up into the rancher’s arms.
“Because he’s Ben Rawlins’ son. That’s why.” Heath injected, his voice not hiding his disgust.
“You must understand, Victoria...Heath.” Peggy Whittaker tried to justify.
“I’m not sure I do.” Victoria said somewhat coldly.
“Like father like son.” Sam Whittaker opined.
“But he’s an innocent. Given a good home, Joey will not grow up like his father.”
“It’s in the blood. Bad blood.” Sam Whittaker stood up to signify the visit was over.
Embarrassed, Peggy Whittaker stood up, too, but to apologize. Her words were lost on the Barkleys.
They left with Joey, silence accompanying them home.
Finding a home for Joey was going to be more difficult than they thought. Heath, silently came to a conclusion. They would not look any more. He was going to keep Joey and he would discuss his plans with the family tonight.
The family listened in silence to Heath’s explanation as to why he wanted to keep Joey and not put him up for adoption. The manner of his telling them indicated how deeply he had thought on the matter and it was clear that he had because he had been largely absent in his room since returning to the house.
He remained soft-spoken and reasoned all the way through, explaining to them he had come to not only care for Joey but to love him too, and that he felt heavily the responsibility Amanda Rawlins had placed in him to take care of him. He did not think for one minute that he could do it alone and he was asking the family to support him. They and Joey meant that much to him.
Victoria listened with admiration and concern. Heath, her youngest son had a noble heart and a good sense of doing what was right. She knew that he had thought this through, the pros as well as the cons. His thoughts would have been for Joey’s well-being first and foremost. Nevertheless, she had her concerns. Joey still had a father; a father likely to be imprisoned or killed, whichever came first from the bounty on his head, but a father nonetheless. Something Nick had mentioned before and which they had too easily dismissed was that Ben Rawlins might come looking for his son. Maybe not this week, maybe not next month, but sometime and that would put Heath and Joey at risk.
Nick listened with the same thoughts. He had no objection to being an uncle to Joey but he did not want to live in fear of Rawlins catching up with Heath.
With the exception of Audra who welcomed the news, all were of the same thought. Nevertheless for the sake of their brother they kept their own counsel. They had never seen Heath so determined on a course of action or in need of their help.
Heath left the room, realizing that the family needed to think about what he had proposed. It seemed as though he had been talking for ages and he needed air and a smoke to settle his inner nerves.
The moment the family heard the door shut behind him Nick finally released the pent up energy he had been keeping in and paced the room. “Did anyone else see that coming?” he asked.
“I think I could,” Victoria, said. The normally upright woman leaned back into her chair, wondering how best to help her youngest son.
“Well, I think it’s a wonderful idea,” declared Audra, excited at having little Joey to stay with them permanently. “What’s wrong with Joey living here, or Heath being his father?”
“Nether of those things are wrong, honey.” Jarrod reassured her, “It’s just that...”
“Just what? Audra answered impatiently, annoyed that she once again appeared to be being withheld certain information in the fear that she might not be able to handle it.
Jarrod quite rightly felt the rebuke. “It’s just that there is a real possibility that Ben Rawlins could come looking for Joey. I don’t think anyone has quite realised that possibility until now.”
“I did!” Nick said quietly, though he took no satisfaction from saying it. His brother meant more to him than anything Ben Rawlins threatened. He had come to his own decision. Whatever his brother had decided he would back him all the way. That and watch his brother’s back.
The family came to a consensus. They left Victoria to tell Heath.
Heath was sitting on the veranda. Victoria stole a moment to watch him unobserved. Pride filled her heart and she put her concerns to one side. She joined him on the swing seat. “It’s a beautiful night,” she sighed. “You should be out romancing some sweetheart.”
“Reckon I’m doing that now,” he said, gifting her with a devastating smile, one that Tom Barkley might have given her twenty years ago. He paused a moment, letting the gentle swing of the seat simply exist between them. “Family come to a decision?” He asked after a few minutes, letting his foot give renewed power to the slowing swing.
“We have,” she said taking his hand in hers and caressing it. “The family are right behind you.”
“Really?” He showed surprise. “Even Nick?”
She could tell that meant a great deal to him and squeezed his hand.
“And you?” he asked.
“I worry that you might get hurt.”
“Don’t be.” He tried to reassure her.
“It’s my right. It’s any parent’s right. You’ll find that out one day.”
He nodded in acknowledgement. “Guess I will.”
“You love him so much, don’t you?”
Again Heath nodded. “Don’t know how it happened. I wasn’t intending to get fond of him. But the little fella kinda snuck right into here without me knowing.” He said patting his heart. “Don’t mind telling you, I’m afraid though. Afraid, if I’m doing the right thing. Afraid, I’ll not be a good father to him. But I aim to give my life trying to be. A boy needs a father, Mother.”
Victoria couldn’t stop her heart from tightening over his last words. They reminded her of the hole in Heath’s heart caused by the absence of his father. She knew his family filled most of it but recognised there was a part that might forever be an open wound which occasionally would fester and cause him emotional turmoil. She hoped that when he married and had a family of his own, the wound would get chance to heal completely. That he was starting that family now with Joey might set him on that road.
Victoria leaned forward to kiss him. Heath leaned down to meet her kiss. Theirs was an instinctively easy relationship. “I love you,” she said. “And I love Joey. We’ll manage this somehow, you’ll see. Now, I think I will take a look on my grandson before retiring. Don’t stay out too long. You know I think Joey is an earlier riser than you.”
Heath chuckled at the thought and regaled her with the story of Nick waking him up in the middle of the night to change Joey.
Victoria sighed. “Don’t worry Heath. We’ll break Joey’s Uncle Nick in gently.”
The days passed and a routine with Joey became established. Victoria secretly loved taking care of him during the day. When Heath came home he would take over and, of course, two uncles and an aunt were eagerly on hand. It was amazing how a baby not yet a year old could have five adults at his beck and call. They had to be careful of not spoiling the boy.
Feeding, burping, diapering, playing and bath time became second nature to the Barkley men. If they heard the baby cry, Nick and Jarrod were first up and fighting to get in through the nursery door. The new young father dealt with it all much more calmly, understanding better the ways and needs of a small child. His approach to fatherhood was like his approach to life, natural and unfussy.
A week later, Peggy Whittaker came around to apologise. She felt heartache on seeing Victoria with Joey on her knee, for had the child not been Ben Rawlins son they would sure have taken him in. Victoria accepted her apology with good grace and explained that her son, Heath, was going to adopt Joey now.
Peggy Whittaker cold not contain her surprise. “Is that wise?” she asked. “I mean. He’s unmarried.”
“He has his family to support him.” Victoria stated, making eye contact with Joey whilst bouncing him on her knee. She was rewarded by a delicious giggle that filled her new grandmother’s heart.
“Yes. All the same Victoria, if Joey had been placed with an orphanage he surely would have been given to a married couple, not some single gentleman. I mean I imagine it would affect his chances of finding a wife. Such a person would find it hard to accept someone else’s child.“
Victoria wondered at this woman’s density and talent for saying the wrong thing. “I know from personal experience that it is not hard to do.” She said pointedly, referring to her own circumstances in accepting Heath.
Peggy Whittaker, somewhat late realized her dreadful faux-pas. “I’m sorry Victoria; I didn’t mean to imply anything about yours and Heath’s relationship. I mean everyone knows around here you treat him as your own son.”
“He is my son, Peggy.” Victoria stated, brooking no further discussion about the matter. She had tolerated Petty Whittaker long enough. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I must put Joey down for his nap. Thank you for coming by to explain. I assure you there are no bad feelings. I am sure things have turned out for the best.”
Peggy Whittaker embarrassed bustled herself out of the room, the foyer and the house realizing that her visit had not been a success. It was going to take longer to get back into the Barkley’s good books. And there was something else, too. She found herself envious of the way Victoria interacted with Joey; Joey who might have become her son and not Heath Barkley's.
It was a gloriously sunny day. One that made you good to feel alive. Heath looked at his workmanship and decided to call it quits. He fetched his shirt and quickly put it on, still feeling the sweat trickling down his back. Putting his tools away he mounted Charger and decided to head for home earlier than usual. Maybe he’d take his mother and Joey out for a ride in the buggy and a picnic by the lake.
Arriving back at the ranch, Heath finished unsaddling his horse. He left Ciego to curry Charger down and set off for the house. He stopped midway to discuss a work detail with a new work hand the foreman had employed. The hand suggested a change in his work detail. The rancher nodded his agreement and then made a mental note to tell Nick. The lad showed promise.
He bounded up the steps to the house, looking forward to seeing Joey. Inside he flung his hat on the centre table and dropped his working gloves and gunbelt nearby. His sun-bronzed face was happy and his lips ready with a smile for his mother and Joey who he hoped was not napping. He turned the corner to enter the familiar parlour, less a parlour these days than a play room for Joey, and met with Ben Rawlins seated, holding Joey with one arm. Rawlins’ steel gaze locked onto Heath’s surprised one. He liked the advantage it and the gun in his hand gave him. So this was the man who had buried his wife and stolen his boy. His right thumb pressed down on the trigger. He pointed it at Heath ready to fire. Heath turned, realizing his gun was in the foyer. Instantly he was felled by the bullet. Unbelievable pain shot through the side of his upper leg and out through the flesh of his right buttock. Barely conscious, he eyelids fluttered and then opened nearly out of their sockets as he was kicked where he had been shot. His shriek of pain filled the air. He could just about hear Joey crying, then he heard the cries fade as he slipped into unconsciousness and Rawlins and Joey were gone.
The sound of the gunfire brought Silas running from the chicken coop where he had been collecting eggs. A couple of hands, including the new ranch hand, heard the shot too and came flying up the steps to the house and threw the doors. Unused to the interior of the house they looked around for any sign. Then they heard someone moan. They found their boss lying in a pool of blood and barely conscious. Silas looked around for Mrs Barkley and the child. “Look after him,” he told the hands as he went off in search knowing something more was badly wrong.
He searched the first floor, then the second, then finally the attic, finding Mrs. Barkley gagged and tied on the floor. He quickly untied the knots and told her what had happened. In silence they ran back down to the first floor, Victoria taking charge of her son’s injury and the situation. “Go fetch Doctor Merar,” she told one of the hands, the other whose name she could not remember, she told to help carry her son upstairs to his room. Together with Silas the new ranch hand helped carry his boss upstairs and lay him on the turned down bed.
“Please.” Victoria pleaded with him. “Go fetch his brothers. Tell them to hurry.”
Without word the young man did as he was instructed and ran down the stairs and out of the house.
“Oh Silas,” Victoria cried, suddenly a feared for Heath and Joey.
“There, there Mrs Barkley,” Silas soothed, the shock now having left him. “We’s going to see to Mr Heath here first and then we’s going to get his son back for him. I’ll fetch some water and towels. We’s going to need scissors to get those pants off him so that we can clean the wound and stop the blood. Mrs. Barkley,” he repeated when he got no response.
Brought to her senses by her faithful friend’s command of the situation, Victoria set to as instructed. She placed a tender mother’s hand on her son’s forehead and then went to fetch some scissors and medical supplies.
Victoria and Silas prepared Heath as best they could for Doctor Merar’s imminent arrival. Heath came to as they were doing so but was in a lot of pain.
He lay naked in the bed with a sheet covering as much of his lower half as practically possible given the location of the wound. The bullet had sliced through the flesh of his right upper thigh and upwards across his buttock cheek. It bled a lot and both Silas and Victoria were busy changing dressings when as soon as one became saturated.
The doctor arrived first. Silas led him upstairs after running downstairs first to answer the door.
“He’s in here,” Doctor, he said as he shepherded the doctor through the open door to Heath’s room. Victoria immediately stood aside.
The doctor took his jacket off and washed his hands ready to make a quick exam. “Now there, Heath I am just going to take a look,” he warned.
Heath nodded, preparing himself for the pain.
Doctor Merar was efficient and quick. “The bullet is out but it looks like it nicked the bone here as it glided across the flesh. That is why it is so painful for him. Don’t worry, Heath,” he said turning to his patient, “I will give you something for the pain. You’ll feel more comfortable shortly.”
Heath nodded into his pillow which he clung on to with clenched fingers as he rode out the worst of the pain.
The doctor with Victoria’s help cleaned and dressed the wound. Then he gave Heath something to make him sleep. “Clean and redress the wound every three hours,” he instructed. “Send someone for me if he gets any worse. I will stitch the wound in a couple of days providing there is no infection.”
Victoria nodded and pulled up the sheet over her son, adding a light blanket for extra warmth. Behind her Silas cleaned up the soiled dressings, bloody water and towels wordlessly, his movements unobtrusive. As he carried them downstairs, the door flung open and Nick and Jarrod swept through the door. “Silas! How is he?” Nick shouted, quickly dispensing his gloves and hat.
“The doctor’s just finished with him now. Mr. Heath is going to be alright, Mr Nick. But...”
“Master Joey. His father done take him.”
Nick and Jarrod ran up the stairs and made for Heath’s room.
“Mother?” Jarrod asked.
“He’s fine. Doctor Merar has given him something for the pain. Howard is just cleaning up in the bathroom.”
Nick went over to the bed where Heath was no sleeping. “Where?”
“His right thigh. It’s mostly a flesh wound, but Doctor Merar thinks it clipped the bone.”
Nick lifted the bed sheet and blanket, his eyes inspecting the site of the wound. In his relief that his brother was going to be alright, he couldn’t resist cracking a joke. “He’s going to feel just peachy about all of this.”
Jarrod turned to their mother. “Joey, mother? Silas said Rawlins had taken him.”
“How long ago?”
“What?” She was tired from worry and care.
“How long ago did Rawlins take Joey?”
“Two hours perhaps.”
Silas came into the room and confirmed it was nearer three.”
“I know acknowledged,” Nick. He placed the sheet and blanket over Heath once again and kissed his mother. “We’ll go get Joey.”
“Be careful.” Victoria requested of them.
Ben Rawlins had left the Barkley mansion with Joey and nothing more. No clothes, no food, no milk to provide for his needs. The baby’s crying only stopped when he fell into an exhausted sleep. Awake again, his crying resumed. Rawlins was sick of hearing it.
Coming to a cabin that looked occupied, he alighted from his horse with the baby and kicked the wooden door open, gun ready in his hand.
A frightened mother with two children cowered in the dark of the cabin in fear of their life. The little ones no more than two and five hid in their mother’s skirts. Rawlins was aware of the fear he had created.
“Feed him!” he demanded of the woman as he shoved Joey at arms length towards her. Joey, non-understanding, continued crying, his legs dangling helplessly in the air. The woman did not know what to do. She was paralyzed with fear.”Feed him!” Rawlins demanded again.
This time she responded. She gathered the baby into her arms. Her children tugged at her skirts, crying along with the baby.
Rawlins found himself a chair and with gun trained on the still frightened woman observed with tired eyes her try to find milk for the child.
His mind travelled back over the last week. Finding his son had been an anti-climax. He did not have the patience or character to deal with a kid, even his own. Yet, Joey was his kid; his flesh and blood. Damned if any Barkley would take him. As soon as he had found the trail to the Barkleys hate had begun to fill his heart. The hate had grown with each mile.
He’d found the woman first. Wormed his way into the house with charm he could turn on and off. Inside he held her hostage, bundled her upstairs, demanding to know where the baby was. Only when he threatened her did she lead him to the nursery. He tied her up in the attic, gathered up his son and waited; waited to kill the Barkley who had stolen his son. Only, after his misfired shot he had decided to let the Barkley kid stay alive; far better that way for Barkley to feel the loss of the boy.
Though frightened the woman’s child-rearing instincts took over. She quickly heated some milk and was soon feeding the child. Joey’s crying stopped. Rawlins thought the silence was pure joy. “Where’s your man?” He shouted.
The woman was frightened to answer. “Where’s your man?” His voice was more threatening.
“He’s gone to town for supplies.” She answered, wondering if she had sealed her fate. She made herself busy with the child and made sure her own brood stood closely by.
Rawlins took a look around, then went to the doorway. “You got horses?”
She shook her head.
Rawlins stepped out on to the porch. Weaver had him in his sights. “Dead or alive,” he mouthed as he fired one single shot. Rawlins was dead before he hit the floor.
Once Weaver had checked Rawlins was dead he strode across to the cabin where he found a woman and children huddled in a corner of the one-room darkened cabin. It seemed the only light entering the room was the low winter sunshine from the open door.
“Who are you?” He demanded. The woman, still in shock from the events that had taken place in the last half hour, took time to answer.
“No matter.” Weaver with a sweep of his hand dismissed both her and the circumstances as unimportant to him. “I don’t aim to hurt ya. I’m a bounty hunter and he was my quarry. I got what I wanted from here.” As an afterthought he added. “He hurt ya?”
The woman shook her head. Joey cried in the woman’s arms. As she shifted the bundle in her arms Weaver recognised the child. “That’s Ben Rawlins’ son.” He approached her, making sure he was right. When he placed a grubby hand on the child the woman turned and held the baby closer to her, protecting him from the man.
As Weaver smiled, his white teeth cut through the tan and the dirt on his face and made his smile more menacing. He began to think.
He looked back to the dead man who was still visible from the open door. If Rawlins had got the child he must have caught up with Barkley. Did that mean Barkley was alive or dead? Either way, the Barkleys were rich. He reckoned they'd pay a handsome price to get the child back. He’d heard enough general talk about the influential Barkleys to know they were a family that stuck together. People around this area respected them. Not too long ago word got about how the sons all risked their lives to stop the fires spreading into the valley and towards Stockton. It had, in the short time since it had happened, become the stuff of legend around the valley.
His attention returned to the woman. He approached her and she began to scream as he took the child away.
Heath came to and immediately found he was lying on his front. A low-throbbing pain emanated from his right thigh and backside. He groaned as he tried to lift himself. The sound and movement caused Victoria to wake from her doze and come quickly to his attention.
“Don’t move,” she soothed as she placed her hands on his shoulders. “You’re going to be fine, but sore for a few days.”
Heath took a moment to remember what happened. “He shot me in my butt?”
“Not seriously. The bullet did not enter but it has torn the flesh.”
“Joey?” Heath’s voice immediately became agitated, and despite his mother’s request for him not to move, he did. The pain shot through him but not as much as the fear he attached to Joey’s safety.
In vain, Victoria tried to quieten him. “Shush now. Jarrod and Nick have gone to get him. You are not to worry.”
“He’s safe, then?”
“Not yet.” Victoria wished she could give that assurance; nevertheless her strength of belief was what Heath needed now. She continued. “But your brothers will find him. Please Heath. Making yourself become agitated will not help the situation any, or help your recover. You know your brothers, and you know they will bring him home safely. You can help them and Joey by getting better.”
“God-willing they will find him” Heath muttered, plaintively. It was hard to hear the fear in his voice. Heath had lost so much over the years. Victoria did not want to countenance another loss for him. She steeled herself again. “God will protect him. Have faith, Heath. Hold on to your faith.”
“I do have faith, Mother.” Heath said quietly.
Inwardly she sighed for in her heart she knew Heath’s faith beat strong. He was not outwardly religious. His faith was quietly observed and practiced, much like the man himself, but he lived it every day. And to her that was more important than any regular church attendance he might give.
“Well then,” she said, finding continuing strength for her voice, “How about we start getting you on the mend so you will be ready for when they all get home. I am going to change that dressing and then fix you some breakfast.”
She saw him clench the pillow. Her concern was immediate. “Are you in a pain, Heath? Howard has left me something for the pain if it gets worse.
“No, it’s tolerable.” He answered. “Awkward but tolerable. The bullet? It didn’t go in?”
“Just sliced the flesh, Heath. “ She assured him again.
“I don’t know why he didn’t kill me. I had no gun. I had left it on the centre table.”
“He still shot you, Heath!” Victoria would brook no sympathy for a man who would shoot her son without a second thought.
“But he could have killed me, Mother. He didn’t.”
“And thank God he didn’t.”
Heath felt the sheet pulled down and sighed as he felt the cool air on his skin. “He had to shoot me in the butt, didn’t he?”
Victoria smiled. “I’ll be as quick as I can, dear.”
“All I need now is for Nick to bring me flowers.”
Victoria’s smile remained. It was Heath’s way of dealing with the fear he had for Joey’s safety and his own embarrassment at the site of his wound. She set about swiftly getting on with her task, taking great care to avoid him further pain.
Afterwards, she saw that Silas came to help him with his personal needs, then set about getting him a breakfast. She took consolation in knowing Heath was going to be alright, but worried for Joey. Away from Heath, she let her tears fall.
Jarrod and Nick had been riding for an hour when they met a rider coming from the other direction. Each of them came to a wary halt a few yards away from each other. They instantly recognised the child being carried by the other rider. They also instantly recognised a dead body draped over a trailing horse.
Weaver saw their recognition. “Your brother wouldn’t be Heath Barkley would it?”
Jarrod spoke for them both. “Jarrod and Nick Barkley. Yes, Heath is our brother.”
“Last time I saw that brother of yours he was carrying this,” Weaver replied, pointing to the child. “Funny thing though. Next time I saw little Joey here he was being held by a woman in a small cabin three miles back. Now what do you suppose happened?”
Jarrod kept calm. “My brother was shot by Rawlins and the child was taken?”
“Is he dead?”
“No. Just wounded. Is that Rawlins back there?
Weaver turned his horse and stared at the lifeless body.
“Dead or alive, that’s what the bounty said.”
Jarrod and Nick passed no comment. They were too wary of what Weaver might do with Joey.
“Guess your brother will be wanting Rawlins kid, here, back.” Weaver said, reading their thoughts.
“Can we have him?”
“For a price.”
“Why you.” They were the first words uttered by Nick and they nearly cost them the child.
“Now, iff’n you’re not wanting to pay." Weaver said angrily, "I reckon I can find someone to take the boy. Of course, I can’t guarantee he’ll be treated well.”
Jarrod had to forcibly stop Nick from dismounting his horse.
“Well now. Let’s see. The father here was worth $10,000. I reckon the son is worth at least $5000.”
“I don’t carry that sum on me.”
“Don't fret. I’ll ride along until you can find it.”
“With a dead body? At least hand me the child. It’s obscene carrying the child and his dead father behind.”
Weaver was wary.
“You are riding along." Jarrod continued to reason. "What harm can it do?”
Reluctantly, Weaver gave the child up. Nick took him, inwardly sighing with relief that at least he had Joey safe.
“Shall we ride, gentlemen?” Weaver indicated with his gun.
Nick and Jarrod turned their horses around and began the journey home.
Two months later, Christmas was almost upon the Barkley family. The decorations and meal preparations were well in hand for the next day. Today, the eve of Christmas, the tree would go up and later, there would be celebrations with the ranch hands, some of who would be going home to their families and some who would be staying and enjoying a Christmas repast provided by the Barkleys along with presents they had bought. Jarrod, Nick and Heath had also seen to it that they all received extra pay.
Inside the house, Nick had put himself in charge of the tree, promising to have it up before Victoria and Heath returned from town. He good-naturedly took a few jokes at his own expense. In his office, Jarrod was seeing to the details of the bonuses to be paid to the men. Then he had allowed himself some time to wrap his presents to the family, before meeting up with Audra to deliver Christmas presents and food to the orphanage. In due course that time came.
“You look particularly festive this morning,” he observed, as Audra swept into his office wearing a red coat and fur lined hood and muff.
“Well, at least I made the effort.” Audra complained, noticing his usual staid lawyer clothes.
“I thought I looked rather dapper.”
“But that’s the trouble. You always look very dapper. You’re not entertaining one of your clients or lady friends now. These are children.”
“I am not wearing a Father Christmas outfit, Audra. I told you.”
“Which is why I have to make some effort with my own dress. But it’s not the same. If Heath was coming with me, he would wear one. He did last year.”
Jarrod put on his best hurt look.
“Oh stop it!”
“Maybe I will consider it.”
“Good I put the costume in your room.”
“I said, maybe.”
“You don’t have time. I give you half an hour to wrap your presents and change.”
Inside the foyer Victoria and Heath were ready to leave. Told by Ciego the buggy was ready at the front of the house they left Nick pondering the tree. Outside Heath helped Victoria up onto the buggy, then handed her Joey to sit on her knee. Everyone was wrapped up warmly against the cold.
They settled into a companionable journey towards town.
Nearing town, Heath asked. “Mother? Do you have much to do while I get the supplies?”
“No, not too much. But I do want to visit a few people in town who I won’t be seeing over the holidays. What about you?”
Heath was silent at first. “I thought I might take Joey to see the nativity scene in the church.” He said quietly.
“That’s a lovely idea.” She was tempted to say she would join them. Intuitively though she knew this was something that Heath wanted to do privately with his new son. Their relationship had grown since Joey had been returned to the safety of his father. No one had let on to the then injured Heath that they had settled $5000 on Weaver to ensure Joey’s safe return. Heath and Joey were more important than the money. And the issue would not present itself again.
Victoria made arrangements to look after Joey whilst Heath saw to the supplies and then visit her friends and see to her few errands in town.
Heath secured the wagon after loading their final festive supplies and then signed the Barkley account the family had with the store. He then scooped Joey up in his arms and kissed his mother, agreeing to pick her up at Mrs. Palmer’s her last intended call.
Back at the ranch, Jarrod looked at himself in the mirror. He felt foolish at the Father Christmas image staring back at him. “It’s for a good cause,” he had to remind himself as he made for the door and downstairs.
Heath entered the dimly lit church with Joey. The darkness seemed to illuminate the candle lit nativity scene even more. It stole Heath’s breath away with its beauty, reminding him of times when he stood knee high to his mother and stood on tiptoes to see the wonderful scene she had introduced him too. It was one of the earliest memories he had and very special. Joey was perhaps a might young to remember this visit, but there were other reasons for Heath wanting to visit the house of the Lord today. He felt he had to settle something in his mind and heart and he was searching for answers. He watched as Joey’s deep brown eyes twinkled in the candlelight and then swept back and forth across the Holy Family. He would point at the figures and look back to Heath for explanation or something and Heath would patiently point out whom and what the figures were.
Then after a few minutes, Heath found a pew and settled Joey on his knee, letting the boy play with his fingers whilst he gathered his thoughts. Then began a private communion between Heath and his Lord.
“Reckon you know I’ve been a bit preoccupied of lately. Reckon you know why too. Not much escapes you, huh?” Joey shifted and Heath pulled him and against him so he could look around. “This here is Joey. He’s the son of Ben and Amanda Rawlins. His mother was a good woman. Reckon she’s in your safe-keeping now. Ben, well, I reckon you know about him too and where he might be, right now.
“I promised Mrs Rawlins I would take care of Joey. He’s a good kid. I’m mindful of that promise and intend to keep it. As much as I can I aim to be a good and loving father to Joey. The love comes easy. He brings as much to my life as I can do to his. But, I’m worried, Lord. Worried about coming clean with Joey when he is older. I’ll be the only father he has ever known. Yet, we both know that’s not true. Ben Rawlins was his father. And Rawlins was a killer and a thief. Joey’s finding out one day, either from me or someone else, is keeping me awake of late. It’s not a responsibility I look forward to. He’s just an innocent. But I know from experience that doesn’t count for much when other kids start calling you names and worse. I know I’ll have the support of my family. “ Heath smiled at what he was next going to say. “I reckon you gave me the best family a man could get giving me Mother, Jarrod, Nick and Audra, ‘ceptin for my mama, of course, who I still miss. Say Merry Christmas to her, will ya? And tell her I miss her and that I love her very much. You got my Pa there too. Don’t cotton to know how the two of us would have gotten along in life but I would have liked to think that after all the anger and rage, we would have grown close. Maybe that will happen through my relationship with Joey. Maybe I'll come to understand him more. I’d like to think so. Well, I better go. One last thing though, Lord. Let Mrs. Rawlins know I will look after her son and protect him with my life.”
Heath gathered Joey up, wrapping him up against the cold. He had received no clear answers, but somehow just talking and being in private communion had helped. Somehow he had been left a feeling that the answers would come with life itself and that life had yet to be lived. As he steered Joey through life, he prayed God would help steer him. It was all that he could ask.
Stopping at the nativity scene he stopped to light four candles; one for his family; one for his mama; one for himself and Joey and finally one for the baby Jesus. “Happy Birthday” he said softly. Feeling fortunate and blessed, he dropped a kiss to Joey’s forehad. Joey responded by putting a wayward finger to his father’s lips.
“We’ll be alright,” Heath whispered. Now let’s you and me go and enjoy Christmas. Something tells me you're going to be one spoilt little boy by your uncles and aunt."
Before they left, Heath left a sizeable amount of money in the collection box. The Barkleys had donated considerable funds to the church but this was Heath's own contribution. It came with a promise to do more.
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