Thursday, July 10th, 1889
Their bed had been use to passion filled days and nights, and sometimes evenings when they were just simply content to snuggle into each other and lie in each other's arms, enjoying a closeness born of their ten years together. The large bed had seen seven children delivered, three of whom had to be delivered by Heath, so quick was their eagerness to get into the world. Over the years, Heath had delivered many calves and foals, each a wonderment in their own, but each one paled in comparison to the birth of his own children. A human life was so precious and to be there at the start of it was a rare privilege which he knew many fathers did not get.
From hasty births the bed had seen babies being suckled at their mother's breast and toddlers, eager for their own share of attention, climbing up on to it vast plain and into their parents arms, seeking cuddles and comfort and unconditional love.
It had seen sickness too. Too much sickness and nights filled with prayer that, yet again in God's mercy, Heath would be spared.
Now, this late afternoon, it saw distance and confusion between them. On one side of the bed, Meg sobbed quietly into her pillow as tears fell down her face, her back turned away from her husband. On the other side, Heath lay on his back, one hand cradling his injured head and the other resting uneasily on his chest, rising up and down with the steady expansion and exhalation of his lungs, as he tried to make sense of the day and his own actions.
Like most marriages their ten year union had seen its fare share of arguments over the years. Heath had a tendency to be stubborn and Meg could be quick to temper sometimes, but their arguments often faded as quickly as they began, for neither could remain angry with the other one for long. This day had started out so well and promised so much. They and the family had been looking forward to it. Where had it all gone wrong? How had it gone from the state of blissfulness in which it had begun, with when like newlyweds they had made love to the fresh dawning of a new day, to this well of confusion and hurt which had developed rapidly between them. Heath felt lost without his wife beside him. It had been the both of them for so long, that to suddenly lose the physical presence of her caught him off balance. Was this is it? Was this the end? Was she really going to leave him?
Earlier that day........
Victoria was about to call Heath and Meg in when she caught their profiles kissing in the rose garden, oblivious to being watched. "Ten years she thought. Where do the years go and how quickly they fly by. Oh Tom, even after all these years I miss your embrace and your kiss. I am envious of them and their love. How dare you leave me alone these past twenty years? To leave me to go on alone.
"The years have been filled by the children and grandchildren but in that way between a man and a woman they have been lonely too. We should have had so many more years together. Now look, there is your son ~ our son now. It's their tenth anniversary, Tom. Oh Tom, you have missed so much. When I think what you have missed I grow so angry at you. Does that surprise you? I have so many emotions when it comes to you. How could you miss Heath coming to us and becoming so much a part of our lives, that physically I ache that I am not his natural mother. In my heart I am every bit of it.
"He has the sweetest family Tom. The children are scattered all over this large house you built. Stop and listen a moment. Hear that? That's Rosie and Clara coming down the stairs. Oh and that voice belongs to Thomas. Yes we have another Thomas. I love hearing the mansion come alive under their sounds. This place was never meant to stand empty and still with me its sole occupant. I thank the day, Heath and Meg agreed to live here and let me be an integral part of their lives.
"You would be proud of Jarrod, but you always knew he would do well, didn't you? You saw his legal career even before he did. I know a part of you was disappointed that he did not choose the ranch, but he has headed and guided this family well over the years and we owe him much more than we can ever pay back. There's talk of him being a judge one day and he will do it well.
"They're all married now and with families of their own. I miss Audra, but she travels back when she can. Nick, as expected, lives and breathes this ranch just as you did. He has your spirit. Out of all of the children, you live on in him the most.
"Oh look at me! You have me crying now. I am watching Heath and Meg share a moment of stolen intimacy and wishing it were you and me. With or without you I am undone. I bet you are enjoying that. You knew so early on that I loved you and part of you used that against me when you told me about the affair. You knew I would forgive you.
"After Leah, I should have cut you out of my heart, but I didn't. I learned to live with my pain. And you know why? Because I still love you Tom Barkley. You don't deserve me, but I do. And there is something else. How could I hate a woman who indirectly brought me Heath? He is the balm that soothes the hurt of your affair. Because believe me Tom Barkley, what you did hurt, it wounded me so deep, I still bear the scars.
"But what can I do? You possess me today as you first did fifty years ago. I am yours and you are mine, death or the affair has not succeeded in separating us and I miss and love you more each passing day.
"Now begone. You have haunted me too much today. Today is a day of happiness. Today is Heath and Meg's tenth wedding anniversary and the valley that you so loved has a barn to raise for young Esther and Sam Davidson. You know Hal and Betsy's boy? Time marches on and before you know it, it is gone in the blink of an eye."
"Come on you, we can't stand kissing here all day. You and your brothers have a barn to help raise and your mother, Libby, Abby and I have all that food to prepare and parcel up. Now don't forget the basket auction at noon. I want you to buy my basket, so make sure it doesn't end up with someone else. If it does, Heath Barkley there will be no repeat of this morning's episode. Be warned. I am prepared to use all the weapons I have in my armory." Meg threatened with a laugh.
Heath stepped back and allowed Meg to redo the top buttons of her dress which his fingers had deftly undone as his kisses had reached down her neck. "I'll be there" he said sighing as the last trace of exposed flesh was covered up. His wife had the most delectable, slender neck and he was hungry for it still. "There's no way I am having anyone eat a lunch that my wife prepared and what's more, share her company whilst he eats it. You my sweet, are not for sharing."
"A little uncharitable of us I know," Meg observed, "but this is our wedding anniversary after all and I want to spend some time with you."
Heath laughed. "And about fifty others, going by who the Davidsons are expecting to come help them today. I promise my dear, we will be alone to share lunch and again tonight." He kissed her passionately once again, their lips reluctantly parting and recapturing each other so as to prolong the kiss.
Heath sighed, finding his feelings hard to control. "Good job I'm going to be kept busy with that barn today. Damned if I know how a man is supposed to concentrate on anything after that kiss and this morning and last night and yesterday afternoon........and..."
Meg playfully swatted his behind and laughed, leaving him to try quell his growing ardor with a walk around the rose garden and a long smoke. She made excuses for him when she found the family gathering in the foyer.
The men set off early and left the women to follow later with the food. A barn raising worked up an appetite and there would be fifty men to feed by all accounts. They took a wagon and their tools and shared stories along the way. Jarrod and Nick teased Heath about the permanent smile he wore on his face and Heath let them. Today was a good day, nothing was going to spoil it, not even a gentle ribbing at his expense.
Reaching the Davidson's farm they were greeted by Sam and his father, Hal, and friends from the valley. The barn was half-prepared and today they would complete it with the added help of their neighbours.
Over yonder, Betsy and Esther Davidson and some ladies were setting up trestles where lunch would be served and a bit beyond that was the place where some of the fund-raising events would happen; the food basket auction; the kissing booth and the shooting contest, among others, all proceeds going towards the local orphanage, a favorite charity.
"You shooting today, Heath?" Nick asked absently, sure that his brother would be. He always enjoyed the challenge of going up against his brother.
"Not today, Nick. I promised I'd be at the auction to win me Meg's food basket. We're going to try and find us a spot where we can be alone."
"Why you old married man, you! This morning you look like the cat who got the cream and now you’re acting like a newlywed itching to be with his bride. Well, I can't say I blame you. Come to think of it, my Jenny's raffling a basket today. Looked pretty good too. Not sure I like the idea of it being shared with another man."
"Well be prepared to part with your money, Nick, for there's many a man who envy us our Barkley women. Robert Larabee for one."
"Larabee? You sure?"
"I'm sure," Heath said with some unexpected animosity.
"What's he done to get your dander up, Heath? He's not tried anything with Meg, has he?" said Nick suddenly alarmed, his thoughts running ahead of him two paces at at time.
"No. It's just that lately, well, there ain't a day I go into town and I don't hear Larabee ask after Meg, telling me what a fine woman she is."
"Well she is?" Nick tried to mollify, getting control of temper and realizing that he needed to help pacify a jealous Heath.
"No, there's more to it. He doesn't say anything direct, but it's there, just under the surface. You know what I mean? It's like I'm in the way. Incidental. I swear Nick, I'm a peaceable man, but I just want to deck the man the minute I see him walk over to me or give Meg some attention."
"Jealous, Heath. You're jealous. You know Meg would never do anything. It's inconceivable."
"I know that. It's him! You see how he behaves with women around town."
"Meg wouldn't fall for his charm, Heath. Dammit man! You only have to look at her face when you walk into a room. As far as she is concerned, there is only you and has only ever been you."
Heath smiled, knowing deep down what his brother had said was true, annoyed that he was letting his jealously get the better of him. "C'mon, let's find Jarrod. How about us three brothers working close by today. It's been a long time since we all worked out in the fresh air together. We'll soon get Jarrod to lose some of that pastiness of his from being indoors."
"You're on brother." Nick smiled broadly, thankful for the change of subject and putting an arm around his brother. Both brothers turned and their good humor drained instantly as they saw Larabee ride up and be greeted by Sam Davidson.
"Damn," Nick thought. "Easy Heath," he cautioned. "Don't let him get to you." Even as he said the words, he could feel Heath's back tense under his hand
As it was there was little time for Heath to simmer any more on the subject of Robert Larabee. Work soon got underway to help raise the barn. Floor joists and a temporary floor already in place, the morning would see the raising of the bent itself and being experienced in helping with many barn raisings, Nick and Heath found their assigned places quickly, ready to work as part of the lifting team.
Jarrod, watched from the sides marvelling at the scale of organization and team work required. Once the mighty bent was over the heads of the lifters, men standing behind them holding pike poles moved forward to make contact and bring the bent to a 45 degree angle. As they did so, the lifters, including Nick and Heath dropped back and grabbed longer pike poles to continue the process until the bent was almost vertical. Two men stood at each end with ropes helping to keep the bent in place and from toppling over. Then other men positioned themselves where the tenons would be dropped into the sills. Every man knew his job and it was wonderfully orchestrated and carried out.
Once the bent was in place and fully vertical, a temporary brace was nailed at a 45 degree angle to the sill to stabilize it. No man took his work lightly, knowing that to make a mistake could end up costing a life. Small children looked on from a safe distance, watching their fathers, learning and taking it all in. Checks were done a dozen times to make sure everything was secure. Sweat poured of the men's backs but no one stopped as the second bent needed to be assembled. When that was in place, the morning was over and it was time for lunch. Nick and Heath went to wash up a little, both eagerly looking out for their wives.
When Larabee who as an inexperienced member of the barn raising team had not taken part in the morning's activities, crossed their path and wished them good day, Heath tensed and glared at him. It was left to Nick to respond with a gruff response that was just on the right side of still being polite. He had never seen Heath jealous before and to be honest he wasn't quite sure how to handle his brother in this mood; he only knew that he had to ensure his brother didn't do anything stupid or that would hurt his relationship with Meg. And if he was honest too, he still wasn't sure if Heath was not getting things out of proportion. Larabee was a ladies man, for sure, but Heath and Meg were solid. Why was Heath letting Larabee get to him. He knew it was likely to get out of hand if Heath didn't begin to get a handle on it quick. Washed and feeling refreshed, they went to greet their wives. Instantly, Heath's dark mood was gone as he and his wife kissed.
The women served lunch and the men tucked into their food. Meg and Jenny were surprised to see their husbands among them. "How can you eat all that food and still want to buy our baskets?" Jenny admonished her husband and brother-in-law. Only Heath had the grace to look sheepish. "One would think that you didn't care that your wives had slaved over them all morning. or, that some of those gentlemen over there who are not partaking of lunch will win them instead?"
Nick glanced disdainfully over at the group of men who had forsaken lunch in the hope that they would win one of the ten food baskets on offer that day. "They're going to go home hungry if they are waiting for one with a Barkley brand."
"Whereas you most definitively are not going to go hungry the way you are putting that food away" Jenny admonished seeing her husband's plate filled high. Seizing the plate from under him she took it away and continued to admonish him. "The only food you will be eating today is mine, Nick Barkley. Now get over there and wait with the other men."
Nick dabbed his mouth with his napkin and pulled Jenny down onto his lap, the gesture made a little easier as he was sitting at the end of the table. "My appetite knows no bounds, my love, as you very well know," he said, kissing her, the reference to all things but food obvious and inviting a few embarrassed coughs from the top end of the table. Jenny swatted him and didn't know where to look. Heath simply stopped eating his food and moved away. Meg quickly followed after him.
"We were only joking Heath. Please go back to the table, you need to have a good meal inside you with the work you will be doing today." Heath's face relaxed into a smile. "I will have a good lunch," he smiled. "I'll be doing just what I want to. Sitting with my wife, eating the food she has prepared and hoping to taste her sweet lips along the way." He took her arm in his and wrapped his hand around hers lovingly as they strolled over to where the auction was about to take place.
The auction was ready to start and each of the ten ladies, collected their gingham covered baskets and waited for the bids to begin on their own. Just then, Robert Larabee joined the group and sat down in the row in front of Nick and Heath.
The bidding started off in good humor with steady bids being made for the baskets. Each man who won one got to share it with the woman who had prepared it and spend twenty minutes with her. Not all husbands bid for their wives baskets and took their chances on suffering the consequences when they got home. Some even felt it their neighborly duty to warn the prospective bidders of the potential endangerment to their health.
To sighs from the women, Johnny Gaines won his sweetheart's basket after some fierce competition from his rival, Jimmy East. It seemed to some that Sue Mae was enjoying the rivalry a little too much and her look of delight as the bidding went higher brought some censure from her mother and a return to more lady-like behavior. Nick looked worried, wondering if it was a portend of what was to come from his brother and Larabee. Whilst the valley would have expected it from two bucks like Johnny Gaines and Jimmy East, the last person they would expect to engage in a similar contest was his brother, Heath.
The arena was now packed with people coming to watch and take part in some of the other fund-raising activities, set aside for the next hour. Then it would be back to work, with long hours put in that would reach well into the evening.
After the auctioning of four more baskets, Jenny Barkley's basket was next up and Nick watched with glowing pride and increasing hunger pains as her dainty frame mounted the makeshift stage. "Now we're talkin', Heath," he said with gusto, nudging his brother in the ribs. Heath merely continued to bore holes into Larabee's back. Nick sighed and went back to concentrate on his pretty wife. He listened as Hal Davidson, told the crowd that Nick Barkley was a lucky man and Nick's smile told the assembled crowd he was damned right.
"Who will give me two dollars to start off the bidding?" Hal began. After conducting the bidding on five baskets so far he was well into his role, talking up the contents of each basket in delicious terms so that the mouths of the bidders watered.
The bidding soon increased and knowing Jenny Barkley was a good cook, more interest came from those who had finished lunch and still had room for some more.
Jenny looked pleased as the bidding went up to twenty dollars, confident that Nick would top the latest bid. Thirty dollars the bidding reached and then up to thirty-nine. Nick sealed it with a lavish gesture and a bid of fifty dollars. The crowd laughed at the eager husband, seeing him walk proudly up to the stage to happily part with his money and return with his wife and his lunch.
Next up was Victoria's basket. As expected it earned much interest and when won by the widower Dr. Merar everyone was delighted for the two old friends. Of course, the family knew nothing would come of it. Their mother was still wedded to Tom Barkley as much as the day she had first married him, but they were two old friends who enjoyed each other's company and that settled with them well.
After two more auctions, the next basket to be auctioned was that of Meg's. Nick stood by with Jenny, his eyes fixed on Heath. "What is it, Nick?" Jenny asked, realizing there was something wrong.
"Maybe something, maybe nothing," Nick cryptically replied. Jenny knew better than to ask any more at this moment.
Now Meg Barkley was equally known as a good cook; her cakes and jams were well sought after at local fairs and fund-raising events and today was no different. Pretty soon the bidding was up to forty dollars with bids coming in from five sources. Heath kept a pace with all of them, winning him a grateful smile from Meg each time he did.
All the family had smiles on their faces with the bidding going so well, all except Nick's whose eyes had now moved to Larabee. The gambler had remained silent throughout the bids so far.
The bidding had reached sixty dollars and was with Heath when all of a sudden a bid for two hundred came from Larabee's mouth. The crowd gasped, stunned at the serious bid and the new level it had reached.
Nick tensed and stepped forward when he saw his brother do the same. Victoria looked closely at Larabee from where she was standing, wondering who he was and distrusting him and his motives, sensing with a mother's instincts, he meant trouble for Heath and Meg.
Everyone sighed with relief when Heath responded with a confident bid of two-fifty, but it was short lived when Larabee came back swiftly with three hundred and fifty. Anxiously the crowd waited as bidders who simply did not have that kind of money fell away quickly, leaving the bidding contest to be played out by the two men.
"Four hundred," was Heath's equally swift reply. "Five hundred," Larabee responded flatly, as though money that would feed and house a family of six for a year, was of no consequence. The crowd sensed this was no longer a bidding contest, it had gained more serious undertones and tension grew as they waited for Heath to respond.
Meg didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. It was ridiculous! Why had the bidding got so dangerously high? Why was Heath being so reckless? She could see he was upset and being goaded into bidding higher by Robert Larabee, a man she barely knew, save to accept his assistance when crossing a muddy road in town a few weeks back. She felt like withdrawing her basket there and then and calling an end to the whole fiasco. No two dollar basket was worth so much money, charity or no charity. She would rather see the money given quietly to the orphanage than see it fought over like this. She was about to speak when she heard the bidding go higher. "Six hundred," she heard her husband bid.
The crowd gasped again, all eyes on Larabee and how he would respond. Larabee, let a slow, confident smile crease his face. He knew he was hurting Barkley and showing him up as a jealous husband in front of all his neighbors. No way was the cowboy going to let the gambler win. Hal Davidson looked anxiously at Larabee willing him to concede. Jarrod and Nick moved in to stand by their brother's side whilst, unseen, Meg moved her way to the center of the stage intent on stopping top the ungainly proceedings, anger building up inside her. "Seven hundred dollars," Larabee countered, enjoying the moment and the attention he had created.
Heath could barely contain his anger or his jealously. "1,000 dollars," they all heard him say. Shock went around the crowd. Nick moved forward to Heath and urged him to think again. Heath would have none of it. The family and the crowd held their breaths as they waited for Larabee to respond. Hal Davidson, anxious to close the bid in Heath's favor, asked for any more bids. Meg who had nearly fainted, unable to comprehend the contest that had just taken place, clutched her stomach anxiously, frightened to hear a further bid come from Robert Larabee
Larabee looked around the crowd and then back at Heath. Slowly he tipped his hat to Meg and then to Heath and conceded. "Well, it looks like the better man won for now, Barkley. Enjoy your meal and your pretty wife." He never saw the fist of Heath Barkley connect with his jaw, or the fallout that came afterwards.
After the shock of the punch, some of the crowd went to Larabee to see if he was alright, yet more were concerned for Heath. Nick and Jarrod moved in quick to pull Heath away and met with resistance from their younger brother who wasn't finished with Larabee yet. Meg screamed at him to stop and his brothers pulled harder, ripping his shirt and exposing the now fading scars on his back. There were few that didn't know about Heath's prisoner of war years as a young boy, nevertheless, the sight drew gasps from some in the crowd who had not seen the scars. Heath was still resisting his brothers, shirt or no shirt on his back, and their scuffle brought them all tumbling to the ground. It was Jarrod's voice of reason that reached him first.
"Heath for God's sake! Don't let Meg and the boys, see you like this!" Only then was Heath able to consider how he must have looked, a grown man of thirty-seven, unable to control his temper, not caring who witnessed his descent. Two of his kids were there today, his eldest boys, Sean and Thomas, both fifteen. What must they think of their Pa now? And what of Meg? The green eyed monster had been stirring in for weeks and today it had let rip but at what cost.
"Let me up," he said, indicating he had calmed down to his brothers.
"Let him up," Jarrod agreed, releasing his own grip. Nick, having seen the volcano that was Heath simmer all morning and then erupt remained doubtful and still held Heath firm.
"Nick," Jarrod pleaded so only the two brothers could hear. "Give him back his dignity. Look over there, Sean and Thomas are watching."
Nick nodded and both brothers helped Heath up on his feet. Attempts to straighten his shirt so it covered his back, proved useless and it was left to Betsy Davidson to run to the house and fetch one of her husband's shirts for Heath to wear.
"There now Heath," she said on her return. "Why don't you and Meg go up to the house. You can get washed up and changed." Meg looked at her gratefully and without saying a word, helped her husband over to the house, keeping her own counsel and silently thanking her brother-in-laws with her eyes.
"With true admiration Nick whispered to Jarrod as they saw them walk away. "Meg's got real class."
"That she has, Nick," agreed Jarrod. "Now do you mind telling me what got into Heath? And why did Larabee bid so high?"
Nick was about to answer when they witnessed Sean and Thomas run over to their father and lend their support.
They watched their brother clasp them around their necks and say a few words. Then they saw both boys nod their heads and leave their mother and father to walk alone up to the house.
"I sure hope Meg can talk some sense into him," Nick sighed. "C'mon, let's see to the boys."
Larabee started to come around. Things looked hazy for a while. "I'm okay, I'm okay," he indicated, rubbing his jaw.
The crowd whose sympathy was solely with Heath, slowly drifted away with the exception of one lone figure. Victoria Barkley stood in front of a still dazed Larabee as he pushed himself back up on to his seat and brushed the grass and dirt from his clothes. Growing uneasy under her direct stare he finally challenged her. "Something I can do for you ma'am?"
"Barkley, Victoria Barkely," she replied, waiting a moment for her name to register with him.
"Barkley's mother?" he queried.
"Yes, Heath is my son."
"You going to punch me too?"
"I'm sorely tempted, but I think my son's punch was sufficient, don't you?"
"Wonderful hospitality you all have around here," he remarked sarcastically.
"It can be, providing our hospitality isn't abused."
"Hey, ma'am! All I was doing was bidding for a food basket," he said innocently.
"Don't take me or my family for fools, Mr. Larabee."
"Fools? Just what do you think I was doing?"
"I think my son's punch, though less than subtle, served to answer that, don't you?"
"It was an unprovoked attack. I should call the sheriff."
"Again, you take me for a fool, Mr. Larabee. We both know exactly what you were doing." Victoria approached him closer. " I am here to warn you off. My son and his wife are very happily married, Mr. Larabee. The man who attempts to come between them will have not only my son and his brothers to deal with, but me also, and believe me Mr. Larabee, it is not empty threat. The saloon you have just opened?"
"What about it?"
"My family owns that building."
Larabee laughed. "And I bet if I try to lease another building, I'll find you own that too?"
"More than likely. We own a number of properties in town."
"That figures. Well ma'am. I reckon I'll be taking my bruised ego and jaw off to consider what you have said. And I thought today was going to be boring."
Victoria flashed him a smile that fell short of her steel, gray eyes. "Oh, from where I'm standing Mr. Larabee the day has only just begun. You've started this, but let me tell you now, it will be a Barkley that will finish it."
As the door closed behind them, Heath and Meg stood awkwardly and embarrassed in each other's presence. Eventually, it was Meg who broke the silence. "You better sit down. I'm sure Betsy has some ointment and bandages that I can use to clean your hand."
Heath looked down at his hand absently, typically dismissing his hurt and earning a swift rebuke from Meg.
"Oh don't be silly, Heath." she snapped, "Now is not the time for you to suffer in silence. You're bleeding, now sit down." She brushed the back of her hand across her brow as if trying to sweep away the events and emotions of the last half hour. Seeing her husband's hurt face, she weakened a little, "Please, Heath, sit down and let me fix your hand."
She busied herself and her thoughts by filling a basin with warm water. Finding a cupboard in which she discovered bandages, ointment and cloths, she joined Heath at the table. Heath put his hand out to hers for comfort, but she snatched her own away. "Don't" she snapped. "Just give me you hand. I'm so angry with you Heath," she finally admitted.
He extended his hand and saw tears pool in her eyes. Forbidden to comfort her, he looked sadly away.
Meg, knew she was hurting him with her words, but he had hurt her with his actions. He had such a soft, gentle soul and she loved him for it, but it was easily bruised and it was bruising now. She couldn't, just couldn't forgive what he had done. It wasn't simply the punch. It was the doubt he obviously had in their relationship. Jealously had thrown the punch, but insecurity had been its drive, and that he felt that insecurity after ten years, hurt her and made her question what they had together.
Doing something practical was all she could manage now. She picked up his hand and rolled it over in hers so the grazed and bruised knuckles faced upwards. Slowly, she began cleaning each knuckle with water. When he flinched from the sting and attempted to move his hand away she held on to him tighter. "I'm sorry," she said, in a soft voice. In silence she continued tending him, applying ointment to the knuckles and then a bandage to his hand.
"Thank you," he said, when she had finished. She nodded and moved away to empty the contents of the basin down the sink. As she did so, Heath fingered his bandage nervously, all the time wondering how he was going to explain his actions to Meg. When she passed by him to return to the table and gather the ointment and spare bandages to tidy away, he reached out to her waist and buried his head deep in her breasts. She stiffened, but still he held on, needing her to anchor him again. Slowly he was rewarded by the feel of her soft hand caressing the back of his neck and up into his hair. "Forgive me," he said.
Sighing deeply, she bent down to kiss the top of his head and when he lifted his head, she did not reject him when their lips met briefly in a kiss. Ten years of marriage did not suddenly vanish in one afternoon, but it hurt. Somewhere in his head, he thought he could lose her to another man. Did he not realize he was and would only be the one for her? Did he not trust her enough to have faith in their marriage and what they had together? Why had he let this Larabee cause him to doubt her and her fidelity to him. Was what they had so fragile? It was this that hurt most of all.
She had given Heath everything; her heart, body and soul, in return he had failed to give her his trust. He kept so much of himself inside, contained and controlled. If it wasn't for his eyes, even those closest to him would find it difficult to find out what he was truly feeling. To love him was to know this much about him and to accept the part of him that he allowed you to see. But his silences could hurt, his refusal to let you in and get close. "Why Heath, why?" she found herself asking and waited for him to speak.
When Meg fell down to her knees in front of him and asked the question again, Heath stood up and made her sit in the seat he had just vacated. Holding his injured hand, he paced the room, his eyes taking in for a moment the sight of his mother talking to Larabee outside. "God! What a mess I have made of things?" he thought.
"Heath," Meg pleaded again, desperately wanting to understand. He turned, wanting to explain, wanting to remove the pain from her eyes, but every time he tried to speak the words the explanation wouldn't come. How could he explain what he didn't understand himself. He picked up his hat and walked out of the door.
The afternoon sun beat down as Heath joined his brothers on the third level of the frame.
"What are you doing here?" Nick asked as he hammered another nail into the beam. Jarrod didn't say anything but his look indicated he felt the same.
"Got a barn to raise, haven't we? Heath said none too subtilely.
"You ain't fit." Nick protested, seeing Heath struggle, "Look, you've got a busted hand. You can barely hold the hammer you've got let alone use it. Go home, Heath."
"Nick's right, Heath," Jarrod agreed, offering his own counsel.
"I'm well enough. Now let's work," said Heath balancing himself on the beam and working on driving a nail into the wood.
From the determined grimace on his face, Nick and Jarrod knew they would not be able to persuade their brother to change his mind.
"You sort things out with Meg?" Nick ventured bravely.
Just at that moment the door opened to the house and Meg, crying, came out and walked over to the buggy. Waving off concern from Victoria and her sister in laws, she climbed up into the buggy and drove off at speed, watched by all three brothers. "Guess that answers my question," Nick observed with genuine disappointment. He exchanged concerned looks with Jarrod who could only shrug his shoulders.
The brothers worked on in uncomfortable silence all afternoon, occasionally stopping for water but not speaking. Heath put in such effort, the sweat rolled off him. All his anger and frustration at not being able to articulate his feelings to Meg was driven into each hammered nail. Two levels up, Larabee, watched on with smug satisfaction, biding his time. His sport wasn't over yet.
It got to about four in the afternoon and Heath moved past his brothers to cross to an adjacent beam. Still they weren't speaking. Larabee saw his chance.
Looking around to see that he wasn't being observed, he slowly opened his fingers and let his hammer plummet. He held his breath as it sailed down two levels towards Heath, shouting a warning only when it was too late.
All eyes looked up, including Heath's. The hammer glanced heavily off his temple and knocked him senseless at the same time. Losing his footing, he began to fall backwards.
"Jarrod grab him!" Nick screamed realizing with horror what was happening and yet unable to reach his younger brother from where he was.
Instinctively, Jarrod reached out his hand as Heath's feet left the safety of the beam. With all his strength he grabbed hold of his insentient brother's hand whilst Heath swung precariously in mid-air, unaware of the danger he was in.
Everyone on the ground held their breath, whilst others scrambled to try and reach him on the lower beam so as to pull him to safety by his legs. One level up, Nick scrambled across the beam towards Jarrod whose every facial muscle twitched as he struggled to keep his grip of Heath. It wasn't enough, Heath was slipping from his hands and quickly.
"Nick!" Jarrod screamed, willing his younger brother to get to him fast. "I... I can't hold him. I'm.. I'm losing him."
Just at that moment, Nick's hand crossed over Jarrod's and grabbed Heath further down his wrist. Together both brothers pulled him up and balanced him carefully back on the beam. Nick checked he was still breathing. Jarrod waited anxiously, relieved when Nick nodded indicating that the boy was alright. "Thank God," Jarrod breathed out, knowing how close they had come to losing him.
"Throw me a rope," Nick shouted down to the men below and quickly a rope was found and thrown up. Securing it around his brother's chest, Nick and Jarrod worked together to lower Heath to the ground where he was quickly gathered up and taken into the house, three Barkley women in tow, their numbers missing the most important person to Heath.
Nick made his way down and waited for Larabee to make his descent. As soon as the gambler's feet touched the ground, Nick lunged at him directly, felling him to the ground.
"What the Hell do you think you were doing?” he screamed as Larabee tried to fight him off.
"Look, I'm sorry," Larabee pleaded. "It was an accident... the.. the hammer... it.. it.. just slipped from my hands."
"Slipped! my foot! You dropped it deliberatively. You tried to kill my brother!"
Larabee shrugged him off contemptuously. "What is it with you Barkleys? Accidents don't happen to you?"
"This was no accident and you know it. My brother could have been killed."
"You can't prove anything," Larabee screamed, finally finding his feet and scrambling away to find his horse so he could make a quick retreat.
"Get out of this valley, Larabee!." Nick shouted after him, still trying to catch his breath. "If I see you around my brother or his wife, you will have me to deal with, you hear?"