Heath came in from riding the range as the hour struck 3 in the afternoon. Hearing him come in Meg came out of the Parlor to watch him take off his gun belt and hat before giving him a welcome home kiss. Not satisfied with a quick peck, Heath pulled her back playfully for a deeper more satisfying one and literally swept her off her feet in doing so. Her feet dangling in mid-air, as his six foot frame held closely on to her five foot, six one, she laughed and duly obliged with a long passionate kiss, not minding the dust off the road on his face and clothes, or its liberal dusting of his greying, blond hair which he wore a little longer now and which threaded provocatively through her fingers in waves.
"Boy Howdy, woman! You're a mighty fine looking woman, I think I'll marry you," Heath enthused, his tired spirits rejuvenated, his bruises temporarily forgetting the ornery steer that had caused them.
"Oh sir," Meg mocked in return, "You mean you'll make an honest woman of me and give my children a name."
"Hmm," A loud, disapproving voice interjected.
They turned to see Estella Winthrop, the town's general busy body and disapprover of all things fun standing in the open doorway. "I'm sorry, the door was open, but I could see you were otherwise engaged," she said cuttingly.
Meg quickly got Heath to put her down and then set about tidying her hair and her dress. Her cheeks quickly flushed red with embarrassment, whilst Heath simply wore a smile on his face.
"I've come to see Victoria," Estella Winthrop continued, haughtily.
"Of course," Meg replied, still flustered.
"Would you tell her I am here?" the older woman continued impatiently. It was plain that she had not liked what she had seen so far.
Just at that moment Nicholas and James, their shirts half in and half out of their pants, their faces and knees dirty and their boots muddy, ran noisily through the foyer and into the Parlor, with Max, the dog, equally bedraggled, quickly following and barking in delight. That he nearly toppled Estella Winthrop over, did not help her mood.
"You have fifteen, I understand. Children, that is," She offered no more to her statement but the disapproval was there.
Now it was Heath's turn to reply. He picked up on the intended edge in her voice and was now the one about to do the disapproving. He had long since stopped apologizing for how he lived his life.
"We do," It was only two words, but his voice possessed a tone which challenged her to say anything further on the subject and she duly took note.
"Wo...nd...er..ful," she strangulated out through her bitter mouth. "You must be... be... very.. err... very proud."
Heath smiled, watching her almost choke on the insincerity of her words. He simply nodded and felt he did not need to add anything further. "You wanted to see my mother?"
"Your mother, yes." She replied, "I have some business I would like to discuss with her,"
"I'll show you up to her sitting room," Meg offered, her own manners never leaving her. "She usually takes her afternoon nap around now, but I'll just check to if she can receive you."
"Receive me?" Estella Winthrop had not counted on the possibility of not being seen. She was unaccustomed to not being received. "Oh well, yes. I suppose I should have sent word of my visit in advance."
"Yes, maybe you should have," Heath replied. "If you'll excuse me, ladies. I'll be away to get myself cleaned up. Meg?"
"Would you bring me some clean clothes to the bathroom when you have a moment?"
He left to go upstairs, leaving Estella Winthrop speechless in the foyer.
Some five minutes later, Meg was admonishing Heath as he prepared for his bath. "Really, Heath!" she said exasperated whilst picking up his dusty clothes as quickly as he shed them.
"Well, you heard her disapproving tone," Heath offered in explanation as he stood naked and about ready to ease himself into the tub. When he did, she noticed he lowered himself gingerly and her tone of admonishment took on a note of wifely concern as she noticed a large bruise on his lower back which had not been there this morning, nor the grazing down his arm. With tenderness she gently touched both areas, "What happened?" she said softly.
"Oh, I had an argument with a steer and the steer won. It's nothing," he reassured her, "A hot soak will sort me out."
"I'll put some liniment on it after your bathe. Don't stay too long. Remember, Sean and Libby will be back soon."
Thoughts quickly turned to their son.
"Libby isn't likely to say no to Sean's proposal, is she?" Heath said with a twinkle in his eye, knowing the situation was unlikely. Sean and Libby had been courting for a year now and seemed ideally suited.
"Let's hope not." Meg replied, her mother's heart unable to stop worrying, "I couldn't be doing nursing a wounded heart as well as a broken husband tonight." she teased back.
"I'm not broken, just bruised," Heath said, with a note of indignation. "I'm still in my prime. Not fifty yet, you know? Not like Nick."
"Yes dear, I know" Meg placated. "Now, not too long in here, all right. And remember, Mrs. Winthrop is just down the hall visiting mother, so make sure you wear your robe before coming out. I'll go see to the children and see that everything is set for dinner for tonight. I have the champagne chilled."
"My back?" Heath protested as he saw her making to leave.
"Is indeed a beautiful back, my dear," Meg teased. "Five minutes Heath," she reminded him before scooping up his clothes for the laundry and setting off down the hallway.
Victoria had always been a gracious host, but Estella Winthrop was trying her patience beyond belief. With an increasingly strained smile, the curl of which was ever threatening to turn downwards into a granite sulk, she listened to the woman gossip and talk about all things inconsequential. Eventually, the woman reached the purpose of her visit. Would Victoria agree to host a fund-raising ball at the ranch?
Hearing the reason for the fund-raising, Victoria kept her own disapproval at bay, "Well naturally, that would be a question for my son and daughter-in-law to answer," she eventually replied.
"Your son and daughter-in-law?" Estella queried, uncertain as to why.
"This is there house now. Has been for many years." Victoria continued, knowing that Estella Winthrop was a relative newcomer to Stockton. "Any request will have to be made directly to them. I will be happy to ask them on your behalf, if you prefer, but Heath and Meg will make the final decision."
Estella knew all about Victoria's "son" and his ignominious birth. Her predilection for gossip had soon made her acquainted with the story of his arrival in town and claim for his heritage. She wondered how a grand lady like Victoria Barkley could have done it. Taken her husband's son in, like that. But, any attempt to engender gossip about the subject met with little appetite in town. Strangely, the people of Stockton seem to like this interloper and talked fondly of him and his large family. And what a family!!!! Fifteen children. It was almost obscene that a man and woman should have so many children and not be poor. Didn't they know how to control the situation? Why Meg Barkley must have been pregnant nearly every year of her marriage. And now she, Estella Winthrop, would have to ask Heath Barkley's permission to host a fund-raising ball for her husband's political campaign. Really! She could only hope she wouldn't run into any more of his numerous children downstairs. 'Oh well, needs must', she resigned.
She took her leave of the grand matriarch she had heard so much about, but had only met through social functions in town. She had longed wished to come out to the ranch and meet her. Socially ambitious, Estella knew that Victoria and the Barkley name was influential around these parts and calculated she would need their support if she was going to be able to help her husband get to Washington. She swallowed her pride and made her way down the hallway and to turn the corner. Suddenly, she gave out a startled scream.
"Oh for heaven's sake!" Heath complained as he stepped out of the tub. "What on earth is all the racket about?"
He quickly toweled himself dry and put a large towel around his waist to step outside and see what all the commotion was about. Just as he did so, James and Nicholas came running down the corridor, followed a few seconds later by a lolloping Max. "Boys, get Max downstairs now!" Heath rebuked. "You know better than to allow Max upstairs."
He met Meg coming up the stairs. "What was the scream?" she said, her voice full of concern, then seeing Heath's state of undress she rebuked him, "Oh Heath, put some clothes on please."
Heath was put out. "Do you want me to check out the scream, or put some clothes on first?" he said, a touch of sarcasm entering his voice.
"I'm sorry," she apologized. "It's just. Well, I do hope that scream didn't emanate from Mrs. Winthrop."
"Let's go see," Heath consoled her. Together they hastened down the hallway and on turning the corner found the source of the scream lying on the floor in a heap of skirts and petticoats and red bloomers!!
"Mrs. Winthrop!" Meg exclaimed. "What on earth happened? Oh dear, let me help you up."
With Heath's help she assisted Estella Wintrop from a spread-eagled position to a sitting position. "Ow!", the older woman exclaimed. "Ow! My ankle! I think it must be sprained it. That silly dog of yours! He just ran over me like a herd of elephants."
"Max did this? Our Max? Oh, Mrs. Winthrop I can't apologize enough," said Meg deeply embarrassed.
"He's not a dog, he's a... he's..." Estella Winthrop started to protest in a high pitched voice.
"He's just Max," Heath stated flatly, bringing an end to her babbling hysteria. He would sort the boys and the dog out later, but for now, he stood half-naked in the hallway with a hysterical woman sitting on his carpet.
"Mrs. Wintrop let us help you to one of the guest rooms," Meg offered. "We can send someone for Doctor Warner to have a look at your ankle."
"Well, yes it is very sore. I don't think I can possibly walk on it on my own." Together Meg and Heath helped her to a standing position where it was confirmed that she had indeed hurt her ankle.
"Heath," Meg advised. "Please go put some clothes on. We will wait here for you to return and help." Meg somehow sensed that Heath and the towel would become separated if he continued to help in his half-dressed state. It had been one of those days and it was bound to happen.
"Oh my! Estella exclaimed. "You have no clothes on!" she said suddenly realizing his state of undress. "Oh My!" she said outraged. "Oh my," she said, her tone softening as she took in his physique. 'Mr. Winthrop, sure never looked like this.' Maybe she was beginning to understand the reason for Meg Barkley having fifteen children after all. 'Children, children!' She was suddenly reminded of the cause of her current distress. They and the dog were the cause of all this, she thought, quickly becoming enraged again.
Heath was amused at how Estella Winthrop could so easily get worked up over something. Seeing Meg's pleading look, he went off in search of some clothes.
"Well, it's a bad sprain. Not helped by those silly boots that she wears."
"Max ran her over," Heath explained dryly.
"Always knew he was an intelligent dog," Doctor Warner, joked. He knew Mrs. Winthrop to be a difficult person and had no doubt she would prove a difficult patient. He did not relish telling Heath the bad news. "Best not to move her at the moment though, until that swelling starts to go down, that is."
"Move her?" You mean she has to stay here?" the alarm in Heath's voice was immediately evident.
"Well, it is a bad sprain. I think for a couple of days and then her husband can come to collect her. I'll give him the news when I get back to town. Sorry Heath, it's really the best thing for her at the moment, though I know she can be difficult."
"Difficult! Boy Howdy! That's an understatement. And she's going to love the kids! Excuse me Doc. I think I need a word with my boys and Max. It's they that have go us into this mess!"
On the return of Sean and Libby, the Heath Barkley's forgot their troubles for a while and welcomed the news that Libby had indeed accepted Sean's proposal. It was a happy event and not one even the presence of Mrs. Winthrop upstairs could spoil. The family celebrated with champagne, much to the younger children's delight. They each of them squealed as the champagne bottles corked loudly like fireworks on the Fourth of July, and giggled as they were allowed to feel the champagne bubbles tickle under their noses. To their disappointment though the glasses were then quickly taken away and they were each given a glass of fresh orange to drink whilst the grown ups were allowed to drink the champagne.
Still it had all been fun, though the smaller ones did not really know what all the fuss was about. Four year old James and Nicholas looked at each other blankly as they saw all the grown-ups kissing each other. They received a few themselves and were less than impressed, quickly wiping them away.
They had quickly recovered from their telling off earlier. Their father had told them off for allowing Max upstairs and made them aware that Max had injured Mrs. Winthrop when he ran her over in his exuberance.
"We didn't know, Pa, honest," Nicholas said, "It was just that Max was chasing us and we got all excited. We didn't know Mrs. Winfop was hurt, truly."
James readily agreed, little pearls of tears forming in the corner of his eyes.
"I know you didn't, Nicholas." Heath sympathized, but still intent on his purpose. "You have to learn though that there are consequences to your actions."
"Con...sic...wences?" Nicholas queried the new big word his father was giving him.
"Something that happens because of what we do, " Heath explained. "And when we do things without thinking, those actions can sometimes hurt other people. So we have to be careful about what we do and say and one of the ways we can be careful is by not running in the house, and also by keeping Max downstairs. He knows the rules and so do you, don't you, boys?"
Both boys nodded.
"Well, now what you did today was wrong, and it also had consequences, therefore, you must be punished."
The boys looked very sad for themselves.
"Max!" Heath shouted and duly the dog came to his master, his tail well down between his legs, his eyes as doleful as the boys.
"Now all three of you," Heath continued, looking at each one of them, "can sit in the corner over there and think about what you have done today, and later you will go and apologize to Mrs. Winthrop."
"Max too?" Nicholas said surprised. "But he's not allowed upstairs!"
Not recognizing his mistake, Heath nodded, "Yes, Max too. He can show her what a good dog he can be, can't you Max."
Max briefly wagged his tail in response and then returned to his more doleful look. He knew how to work it and his master too.
"Alright, Papa," the boys agreed.
Heath kept a straight face and without saying anything further, walked away too the door, only glancing back from the doorway to see his sons and Max walk over in a line to the corner of the room where they sat on the floor to fulfill their punishment.
Now all that was forgotten. Their punishment complete, Heath had embraced them afterwards when they had run to him to say they were sorry and Max had jumped up at him, not wanting to be left out of the attention. Now they were celebrating with their family. But what were they celebrating? That's what they wanted to know. They decided to ask their older sister, Clara, who was 12 years old.
Tugging at her skirts, James whispered loudly, "What is everyone happy about, Clara?"
Clara turned to her two brothers and bent down to their level. ""Sean and Libby are getting married," the little girl answered. "That means Libby is going to become our new sister."
"Urgh! Another sister!" Nicholas said, screwing up his face in complete disgust. "I already got too many of those. Come on James," he said sidling off with his hands in his pockets, his happiness ruined, "let's go and apologize to Mrs. Winfop. We promised Papa so we better make sure we take Max with us. I'll apologize first because I'm the oldest, then you, then Max, okay?"
It was a sorry little trio that traipsed up the grand staircase and walked down the hallway to the guest room. There weren't many spare rooms in the big house because most were filled with children, but there was one or two, and Mrs Winthrop was in the one situated next to their mother and father's room.
They were almost tempted to dive into their parents room and sit it out, hoping the task would go away, but they'd been naughty and they knew it and they knew they better get it over with. Their Papa had told them a person always felt better when they apologized and learned from something they did wrong. But they sure didn't feel good at this moment. Nicholas tummy was feeling funny and he was sure James and Max must be feeling the same way.
The door to the guest room loomed before them. Suddenly, it seemed huge to the little boys, more so because of who was on the other side of it. They did not know Mrs. Winfop very well, but she always looked a bit fierce when they saw her in town or in church. Nicholas bravely knocked on the door, his gentle tap barely registering to the occupant inside. He knocked a little harder. Still there was no answer. He looked at James and Max. Both gave him unhelpful blank stares.
Sometimes it was hard being the oldest of the three of them. You had to figure out things all for yourself. Using two small hands, he slowly turned the door knob and pushed the door open. The door stuck and he used more force, causing all three of them to fall into the room when if finally opened. Estella Winthrop, who was sitting in bed, with a big night cap on, gave out a shriek as two children and a dog, tumbled into her room. Because of the festivities below her startled cry went unheard.
Picking themselves off the floor and straightening themselves up, Nicholas and James approached the bed.
"What do you want?" Estella Winthrop, squealed, pulling the covers up to her neck as if instead of children she'd just seen a mouse.
Nicholas was the first to speak as he reached the edge of the bed. As he came to a stop, James and Max, not paying as much attention, bunched up behind him.
"We come to say sorry Mrs. Winfop. We're very sorry that it was Max here who run you over this afternoon. You see, it was our fault that he was upstairs. We know he's suppose to stay downstairs. And he know it too, don't you Max?" he turned to Max, looking for confirmation. Right on cue, Max whimpered in agreement and looked very forlorn.
"My name's Winthrop, not Winfop, young man. Can you say that?"
"Yes, Mrs. Winfop," Nicholas replied, not realizing that he was pronouncing it wrong and still making the mistake. "Like I say, Mrs. Winfop, we're sorry you're sick because of what Max did. It's our fault he got excited and he doesn't know about con...sic..wences yet, because he's just a dog. He's knows lots of other things though. My brother is sorry too, aren't you James?"
James was struck shy. Nicholas was such a talker, it often meant he didn't have to say much, but the spotlight was on him now.
"Aren't you, James?" Nicholas encouraged.
"I'm sorreee," he eventually said in a low voice.
"Now you Max," Nicholas reminded the dog. "Show Mrs. Winfop here, that you are sorry."
"No. No.... that won't be necessary," Estella said, worried about further injury from the dog.
"Oh that's okay, Mrs. Winfop, Max knows how to say sorry, don't you boy? I taught him good. Go on Max, show Mrs. Winfop how you say sorry."
Max came to the edge of the bed and stood up on his hind legs, placing two paws on the covers. Estella backed up as far as she could to the headboard.
"It's okay, Mrs. Winfop. Max won't hurt you. Now say sorry, Max." Nicholas reassured Mrs. Winfop.
Slowly, Max held out his right front paw for Mrs. Winfop to take.
"What does he want me to do?" Estella said confused and not at all happy to have the dog so close.
"He just wants to shake your hand, Mrs. Winfop."
With a pained look, Estella Winthrop held out her own hand and shook Max's paw. "Woof," Max pronounced, his apology complete.
Grateful that he immediately got down, Estella Winfop, Winthrop, I mean, straightened her covers and brushed away the hairs that Max had left on the bed with a disapproving hand.
"Very nice," she said, grateful that the experience was over and not meaning her words at all.
"Does your ankle hurt real bad, Mrs. Winfop?" Nicholas asked concerned.
"My, but you talk a lot, boy," Estella objected. Not having any children of her own, she was unused to their constant idle chatter.
"I know," Nicholas said cheerily. "My Papa says I never stop. Only time I stop is when I eat and go to sleep."
"I was always taught that children should be seen and not heard," Estella Winthrop, said imperiously.
"What, never speak! Oh I don't think I can do that. " replied Nicholas, truly alarmed. "Is that true, Mrs. Winfop. Children should never speak? I think I would die, if I was never allowed to speak. Why I think I would burst with all the words inside of me wanting to get out!"
"Don't exaggerate child!" Estella objected. "What I mean is that, children should be quiet, especially around adults and when you have company."
"We ain't exactly a quiet house, Mrs. Winfop. I got me lots of brothers and sisters and they make a lot of noise. I guess if you're staying you'll find that out for yourself."
"I don't know how your poor mother copes. " Estella sympathized. "Really, to have so many of you, seems excessive to say the least." She looked at James who was dancing from one leg to the other. "Why is your brother hopping like that?" she finally asked of the older boy.
Seeing James' pained look on his face and understanding the reason, Nicholas realized they would have to go. "My brother needs to go to the bathroom. Sorry, Mrs. Winfop, but we will have to go now. Don't worry, though we will come and see you again tomorrow. I'll bring some of my other brothers and sisters so you can meet them. Uncle Nick is coming tomorrow too and he's bringing Little Heath. You'll like Little Heath. Everyone does."
Before she could object, the trio scurried out of the room. A moment later though, Little Nicholas came back. "What is it boy?" Estella said, slightly put out at being disturbed again.
"I didn't say goodnight, Mrs. Winfop." And with that he climbed up on to the bed and gave her a wet kiss on the cheek, before darting off again and outside the room.
Within the winter recesses of Mrs. Winthrop's heart, a slow spring thaw began to occur.
It had been a long day, but a happy one in the end. Heath climbed into bed, satisfied with its outcome. He felt good and not at all sleepy. Turning over to Meg who was reading, he snaked his arm around her waist and began nuzzling her neck. "Put the book away," he pleaded.
Though enjoying the attention, Meg remained determinedly engrossed in her book. Heath's attentions continued and she found herself re-reading the same word, unable to progress to the next. She knew she had to put a stop to it now.
"Darling," she said, as she lifted her head to allow his soft kisses to reach the base of her throat and travel upwards. Before too long their lips would meet and then it would be too late. "I'm sorry, but we can't."
Heath stopped abruptly. "What do you mean? We can't?"
"Mrs. Winthrop is in the next room. She'll hear us."
Heath couldn't believe it. "What possessed you to put her next door?"
"In case she needed any help during the night, so I could attend to her needs. After all, she is incapacitated." Meg said apologetically, hoping he would understand.
"And what about my needs?" Heath said petulantly.
Meg gave him a quick goodnight kiss. "They will be taken care of, don't you worry. All in good time."
Breakfast was a noisy affair the next morning. The excitement of the engagement still occupied most of the family's thoughts and was renewed again when Silas and James offered their own hearty congratulations. Sean, wore a permanent smile on his face, which greatly amused the family. He was happy and it was wonderful to see.
The little ones broke off to chatter in their little groups or across the table, whilst Nicholas remained unusually silent and thoughtful, churning something over in his mind.
James tried hard to reach for the butter for his toast and was helped by his mother, who then had to stop him from putting half the butter dish on his plate. In the process his hands got all sticky and messy with the butter and his mother took the little fellow away to get him cleaned up. As he passed, Heath gave him an indulgent smile which was immediately returned with a big grin.
The talk from the older girls was all about what their bridesmaids dresses would look like and for a moment Clara forgot their parents had eloped and asked her mother how many bridesmaids she'd had. Realizing her mistake, she look embarrassed as Meg who had just returned with a cleaned up James, sat down and quietly explained that she'd had none.
Heath heard the exchange with interest and looked at Meg intently, a thought churning over in his head. Neither father nor son noticed, but both Nicholas and Heath simultaneously then began playing with their food. First to twelve O'clock and then to three, the food moved clockwise around their plates, 'Hmm?" they both inwardly thought for very different reasons.
Nicholas, Matty, James and Max congregated in the foyer, looking as though they didn't know what to do with themselves. Heath, who was putting on his gun belt and hat, looked at them perplexed. His boys always had something to do, even it was getting into trouble.
"What's up boys? Want me to find you some jobs to do?" He teased.
"No Pa!," came back three voices quickly.
Heath smiled his crooked smile. "Didn't think so. Well don't get under your mother's feet today. She'll have enough work looking after Mrs. Winthrop, okay?"
"Okay, Papa," their voices chorused.
"No going upstairs today. Or else it's the yard for you."
"Woof," came back the more muted reply.
As soon as their father had gone out of the house, Nicholas beckoned his brothers upstairs. Max, forgetting his master's words, trundled along after them.
"No Max! You heard Papa. You have to stay downstairs. Or else he will put you out in the yard!" Nicholas stated with deadly earnest.
Max lay down at the bottom of the stairs, none too happy with his lot.
Upstairs, Nicholas told James and Matty of his plan and they went down the hallway to the store room where they would find what they needed.
The thought that had been playing in Heath's mind during breakfast returned several times that morning as he and his brother rode out to the south pasture to check on the herd.
Nick tired of hearing his own voice, noticed his brother's preoccupation and finally addressed his silence, "Something wrong, Heath?"
Their horses continued at a steady pace, but no answer came. "Heath?" Nick asked again.
Startled out of his thoughts, Heath apologized, "Sorry, Nick. What did you say?"
"I asked if there was anything troublin' you. You look kind of pensive."
"Who me? No... Yes... I mean..."
"Well that clears things up wonderfully," Nick said, amused at his brother's confusion.
"Sorry Nick. Nick?"
"Do you mind going on to the south pasture yourself this morning? There's something I need to do in town."
"Anything in particular?" Nick asked, his curiosity peaked.
"Just something I need to do," responded Heath cryptically.
"Will I get to find out?" Nick probed, still fishing for more information.
"Don't you always," Heath replied with a smile replacing his furrowed brow.
"Okay. Look, I'll ride on alone and check the herd is being moved to the north pasture as planned. After I've done that I'll ride to town and meet you at the Cattleman's. You can buy me lunch and tell me all about it then."
Heath laughed. He could read his brother like a book. "I'll buy you lunch, brother. And you'll get to hear about, but not today. It's going to be a surprise."
"You're planning a surprise! For who? Ah, that ain't fair Heath. So I get to know there is going to be a surprise but not what's it's all about? You did that on purpose. You know I'm going to be trying to guess what you've got planned all the way to the south pasture, now."
"You should thank me brother," said Heath turning his horse around to head to town. "It'll give you something to mull over on the ride. You need something to exercise those gray cells of yours."
"My life is complicated enough by a house full of women without needing any puzzle to mull over. Sometimes Little Heath and me just have to go out on our own to get away from all the female voices."
Heath laughed. Much as his brother complained, he knew Nick loved "the women in his life!" He set off for town, a plan formulating in his mind.
"Well? What do you think?" Nicholas asked of his brothers.
Both Matty and James looked at each other and readily agreed it was a brilliant idea.
"Nicholas!" They all turned suddenly to hear their mother's voice coming up the stairs and panicked for a moment.
"Yes, Mama," Nicholas shouted, running into the corridor, so they wouldn't be discovered. He wanted what they were planning to be a surprise. Meeting his mother at the door to Mrs. Winthrop's room, his mother informed him that Little Heath was downstairs with Silas.
"Thanks Mama," said Nicholas. In his excitement to see his little cousin, he set off running down the rest of the corridor to rush downstairs.
"Nicholas!" his mother's voice reprimanded. "Please don't run!"
"Yes Mama," Nicholas said apologetically. "I do remember, Mama. I know running is not allowed in the house. It's just that my feet forget sometimes."
Meg smiled. Sometimes, there just wasn't anything she could say in response to her six year old son. He came out with such funny statements. Still smiling, she turned and knocked on the door.
"Come in," came the imperious voice of Mrs. Winthrop. Meg had to fight hard to keep the smile on her face as she opened the door and wished her house guest "Good Morning."
"I hope you slept well, Mrs. Winthrop," asked Meg as she placed a breakfast tray on the bedside table, and then helped Mrs. Winthrop sit up.
"Reasonably well, I suppose," Estella answered the younger woman, "though the bed is too soft for my liking, but yes, reasonably well. And those children of yours. My, they make a noise in the morning. I don't know how you stand the din, Mrs. Barkley. Still, I suppose you have got use to it, you and your husband, that is? Must have to, I suppose, with the number you have."
"I brought you some breakfast," Meg continued, ignoring the complaints which she thought were simply a part of Estella Winthrop's everyday speech. "If you like, I can help you to the bathroom and then you can sit back to enjoy your breakfast. I'll make sure the children don't disturb you today so you can fully rest."
"Thank you, that would be very kind, dear. Tell me, has Mr. Winthrop sent word of when he will be coming? He is bound to be worried and Lord knows how he will cope without me."
Meg answered tactfully. "I am sure he is very concerned, but no he has not sent word yet of when he will be visiting. If you like, I can send one of the hands to give him a message from you."
"Err.. No, no, that won't be necessary..." Estella said, flustered, and a little put out at her husband's apparent lack of concern, "I'm sure he will visit today."
"Well, then." Meg said, trying to change the subject for the older woman's sake, "Shall we try walking to the bathroom. We can then make you comfortable for when he arrives."
"You're very kind, dear." Estella said, smiling weakly and suddenly realizing that Meg Barkley appeared to have more to her than she originally gave her credit.
Heath stood pensively looking at the selection in front of him. His decision had to be right. He had come to know Meg's tastes over the years and so knew not to go for anything ostentatious, or too expensive. His wife had simple but classic tastes and he wanted to reflect that in his purchase, but more importantly he wanted it to convey all that he deeply felt about her. "Do you have any more that I might see?" Heath asked. He then went on to describe just what he had in mind.
"Mind, Little Heath. You'll have to walk at the side of it, or else you will get run over."
Nicholas advised his little friend. Little Heath, skipped around to the side and looked on with bemusement at what his older cousins were doing.
"What's it for?" he asked Nicholas.
"It's to help Mrs. Winfop. She's staying with us because she hurt her leg."
"How did she hurt her leg."
"Well, umm... that's a long story. You don't need to know that right now, Little Heath," Nicholas replied, embarrassed.
"Where are we going?" Little Heath continued with his questions.
"We are going to Mrs. Winfop's room."
"Who is Mrs. Winfop?"
"Mrs. Winfop is.... Well, she's Mrs. Winfop, of course."
Little Heath was still looking confused and asking questions when all four little boys reached the door to Mrs. Winthrop's room.
"Okay, I'll go in first with Little Heath and then you and James can bring it in," Nicholas said, turning to Matty. All boys looked excited, except for Little Heath who just looked confused, if endearingly so.
"C'mon Little Heath," Nicholas said taking hold of his cousin's smaller hand. Using his other hand he knocked on the large oak door.
"Come in," the imperious voice from the night before said.
Opening the door and pulling his little cousin in with him, Nicholas strode confidently towards the bed with Little Heath whose steps were more tentative and shy. The little two year old clung on to his cousin's shirt, pulling it out from his pants and hid with just two large hazel eyes peeking out.
"Oh it's you," Estella Winthrop, said attempting her usual haughtiness, but finding her voice softening at Nicholas Barkley's charm.
"And who is this you have brought with you, today?" she said peering around him to see a smaller little boy.
"This is my cousin, Little Heath. He's my best friend and he's come to say hello."
"Your best friend, is he? Well, come here young man, let me look at you!"
Little Heath cowered behind his cousin even more.
"Shy is he? Does he speak at all?"
"Oh yes, Little Heath talks all the time when he gets to know you. He likes to talk as much as I do!" said Nicholas confidently.
"As much as you, does he? My, but your mothers must have the patience of saints. Well, if he won't come out from behind you to say hello, what am I to do with him?"
"Oh, he'll be alright. He'll probably just watch you for a bit and then when he sees you are not so bad, he'll come out and talk to you."
"Sees that I am not so bad! Land's sake boy, but you have a way with words." As much as she tried not to, she could not help liking the young Nicholas Barkley.
"Me and my brothers have brought you a surprise Mrs. Winfop."
"My brothers and I, child! And it's Winthrop, not Winfop!"
"Yes, Mrs. Winfop, I know. That's what I said. Anyway, wait till you see what we brung you. I'll just get my brothers James and Matty to bring it in."
"What more brothers! What are you doing to me boy? Don't you realize I am not well."
"Don't worry about that Mrs. Winfop. We got just the thing to help you get around. You met James last night and Matty is one of my older brothers. He's seven and I'm six."
"Oh Lord, your poor mother! Not even a year's break. Really, your parents should have been more careful."
"Careful? Why Mrs. Winfop? Why should Mama and Papa have been more careful?"
"Never you mind why, child. They just ought to have been, that's all."
At that moment, the door opened and in walked Matty and James.