Be right back," Meg said placing two year old Anna in her husband's spare arm. Before Heath could object, his lips were silenced with a kiss so sweet he truly lost the power of speech for a few moments. By the time he recovered, Meg had shot out of the door and he was left standing alone with the twins. Mrs. Lawson, the storekeeper's wife looked on with amusement, and not without a little envy. "That'll be twelve dollars," she said, bringing the father of fifteen down back to earth.
Heath looked back at her, not quite understanding. Little George and Anna were fighting for his attention and squirming in his arms. "Excuse me, Mrs. Lawson?" he asked.
"Twelve dollars," she repeated, referring to the package on the counter.
"Oh yes, of course." With his arms full, he considered how he was going to pay. Putting the twins down was not an option. Not unless he wanted to pay for damages to the store too. He looked at her helplessly. "Do you mind?" he asked, leaning forward and indicating that his wallet could be found in his inside pocket.
Mrs. Lawson smiled and leaned over the counter to reach inside his jacket. She caught a whiff of his manly cologne and thought just how many women in town would love to get this close to Heath Barkley, married or not. Somewhat reluctantly, she ended the search and retrieved his wallet, placing it on the counter so Heath could see her take out the twelve dollars. She then put the wallet back and placed the purchased small package in Heath's pocket, knowing he would not be able to carry it and the twins.
"Thanks Mrs. Lawson. Much obliged," Heath said smiling.
"Oh that smile," Mrs. Lawson thought dreamily. Suddenly, she was twenty years old again and not married to Mr. Lawson. "You're welcome Heath. See you on Saturday," she laughed, quickly dismissing her fantasies and remembering her age. "Here let me get the door for you. Tell Meg, I have that special tea for her and I'll bring it to the party."
Outside the store, Heath shifted the balance of George and Anna in his arms and absentmindedly told them to stop fidgeting and fighting with each other. Both children sensed their father was distracted and continued their fight anyway. Heath's eyes searched up and down the sidewalk for his wife. He had no idea where she had gone to, or in which direction she had set out. He spied two of his children two stores down, their eager faces glued to the window, contemplating what to buy for their Uncle Nick's birthday this coming Saturday. Heath Barkley and his family had come to town especially to find some gifts.
"Seen your mother?" Heath asked his son, Josh, off-loading one of the twins on him at the same time. Josh's arms instinctively reached out to take George who for a two year old was understandably unimpressed. He wanted to be on the ground and running around wherever his feet would take him. Josh, being a middle child was use to having to look after his small brothers and sisters at some time, or another. Can't be stuck in the middle of a family of fifteen and not learn to get on with it, was his philosophy. "No, Pa," he said, remembering his father's question. "We were just looking for something to buy for Uncle Nick.
Rosie, 12, tucked her hand into her father's and pulled him towards the window. "What about that Pa! Do you think Uncle Nick would like that?" she said, pointing to a shiny watch and chain. It was an expensive watch and chain.
Heath hated to disappoint his daughter, but had to tell her the price was more than she could afford. "It's thirty-two dollars, honey," he said bending down to her level. Little Anna took the opportunity to play with her sister's pig-tails.
"I've got five dollars," Rosie said sadly, trying to stop her little sisterfrom pulling her hair.
"I know honey, but it's just not enough. Tell you what, let's go inside and see what else we can find. Ya know something?"
"What?" Rosie asked, still thinking of the shiny watch and chain. It was very Uncle Nick. He liked things that were shiny. Just looking at his spurs, she knew that.
"Your Uncle Nick's going to love whatever you buy him, and you know why?"
Rosie shook her head, not understanding.
"Well, sweetheart. He'll love it, just because it comes from you."
"Oh Pa!" she said, realizing her father was trying to ease her disappointment. "I'm not a little girl any more," she objected, trying to sound grown up.
Heath gave her a disarming smile, "Wrong Rosie. You'll always be my little girl. Even when you are married and have children of your own."
Accepting a kiss and a hug from his daughter, he got up. "C'mon let's go inside and see what we can find. Then we must find your mother and Leah, and all the other children. Stockton's still standing, but I've got a feeling it's not likely to remain that way!
"Well, where did you get to?" Heath asked his wife, when she met him at the hotel entrance, where the family were due to have lunch.
"I was just getting my dress from the dressmakers and our present for Nick," she said innocently.
Heath gave her a quizzical look, "But we already got him a present. Remember, I bought that new saddle for him, only the other week. You know I've been working on it."
"I know darling, but I just thought I would get him something extra, this being his fiftieth birthday."
Quickly ushering the children into the hotel ahead of them where two long tables pushed together awaited them, Heath whispered out of earshot of his children, "You don't give me anything extra on my birthday! Why's Nick so special all of a sudden?"
Meg smiled, seeing his little boy hurt look. Heath didn't realize he had one, but if he felt he was being left out, the look soon emerged, "Heath Barkley! How can you say that?! Or, don't you remember what I gave you to unwrap on your last birthday! If you don't," she threatened, "then maybe it's time you and I exchanged our one bed for two separate ones. Just like I hear Elmer and Becky Roberts did!"
Remembering, the seductive negligee from Paris his wife had worn on the night of his last birthday, the teasing ribbons of which he had undone one by one with his teeth, whilst he hovered over her naked, his forty-six year old physique, tanned and muscled just as in his youth, the only signs of age being the gray hairs now matting his chest, Heath coughed at suddenly being compared to the portly, joyless and disapproving of sex, Elmer Roberts.
"Forgiven," Meg said, reading her husband's oh so transparent thoughts. From the happy smile on his face, he was doing too good of job of remembering his birthday and she sought to bring him back down to earth. "So, do you want to know what I have bought for Nick?"
"Show me later," said Heath. "Much later," he said huskily.
Nick was in his element. He might have turned fifty, but opening his presents, he was like a big kid again. With great gusto and enthusiasm he opened all his presents from his beloved wife and children, kissing them and hugging them all in return. Then it was his mother's turn to present her gift, and then the turn of Jarrod and Audra and their respective families. Heath and his family waited patiently for their turn, the little one's holding tightly on to their presents.
When their turn came, the older ones presented their gifts first, giving him things like, cigars, gloves, a brush and comb set, and a new set of spurs. Nick had received four sets so far and whilst he loved his spurs, enough was as good as a feast.
Eventually, the present giving reached down to the little one's turn, with Rosie stepping forward shyly to give him a new pair of socks which she had dressed meticulously with a pretty bow. Josh gave him yet another set of spurs, and Matty a half eaten bag of candy. Nicholas gave him a bag of marbles and beamed when his uncle promised him a game afterwards.
Finally, it came to Heath and Meg's present. Proudly, Heath handed him the new saddle he had been working on, and watched Nick take in the fine leather and skilled craftsmanship. "Thank you, Heath," he said, pulling his little and much beloved brother into a bear hug. The family enjoyed the moment as much as the two brothers did. Then quietly Meg stepped forward and handed him a parcel, plainly wrapped. "This is just something extra Nick. We hope you like it. It's with our love." Nick, who was very fond of Meg, gave her a kiss on the cheek and thanked her, not yet knowing what the parcel contained.
Slowly, he cut the twine and unwrapped the brown paper packaging, its plainness giving no indication of the treasures inside. Facing him was a leather bound book, the kind an artist would use for making sketches. Slowly, he turned the leaves of each page and a silence descended upon the room as his family watched and waited.
After a few moments, tears began falling down Nick's face, for each each page revealed a finely drawn sketch. There were sketches of the house, of a round up taking place; of Nick and Heath sitting by a campfire, and bedding down companionably for the night under the night stars. Sketches of Nick with his own family; of Nick with Jarrod sitting on the porch enjoying a whisky against the setting sun, and one of Nick alone sitting on a horse and overlooking his beloved ranch. Eventually, he put the book down, though his fingers never quite lost contact with the cover. It took some time before he could say anything. Jenny, wrapped her arms around him understandingly and he squeezed her small hand in his, conveying the depth of emotion he was feeling just then.
Heath and Meg smiled and holding each other's hand, stepped away from the family, knowing the gift Meg had commissioned had touched Nick deep inside. No words were spoken and slowly the family left the Parlor, leaving Nick alone with Jenny and his children, whilst they went into dinner. Eventually, Nick and his family joined them.
Later, Nick would pull his younger brother aside and into a bear-hug which he held for several minutes. It was his way of saying thanks and much more.
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