In early afternoon, Heath ditched his chores and rode into town to pick up a special package at the general store. He dismounted his cherished horse, gave him two friendly pats on the neck and bounced up the steps, politely tipping his hat to two beautiful young maidens ambling past before entering the store.
“Hank, you got it?”
“I do, Heath. I received it this morning.” The manager made his way to the back store to retrieve a rectangular oak box that he gingerly set on the counter. He slowly pulled open the lid to reveal a shiny Winchester ’73.
Heath whistled, utterly awestruck by its beauty as he roamed his hand over the exquisite workmanship. “Mighty fine handiwork there.” He delicately bent his fingers to let the tip gently caress the glistening solid gold engraved letters on the cross that read: Nick Barkley.
“They do incredible work over there. That’s why it costs a pretty penny to have those engraved.”
“But worth every cent. I hope Nick likes it.” Heath wondered with a shiver with trepidation.
“Heath, your brother has been ogling this rifle for quite some time. Take my word for it, he will like it.”
“I hope you’re right, Hank,” Heath said glumly with the doubt lurking in the back of his mind. “I reckon if he don’t I’ll keep it for myself.”
“Want me to wrap it for you?”
“I’d be much obliged if you did, thanks.”
Minutes later the manager returned with the box neatly wrapped in a brown paper with a string attached. Cradling the precious item solidly in the hook of his shoulder he crossed to the exit with a spring in his step. So entranced by his special gift was he that he omitted to see the alluring sprucely dressed brunette coming the opposite way.
“Hey watch it!” Heath roared in spite of himself. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he hawked apologetically, berating himself inwardly for snapping at a lady.
“It was my fault,” she said ruefully, bushing herself off.
“Did I hurt you?” Heath enquired with great concern, eyeing her from head to toe to ensure she didn’t sustain any injury.
“No, I’m all right. It was just a…” her breath caught in her throat at those bewitching blue eyes staring worriedly at her. “I’m…I’m.”
“You sure you’re okay?” Heath insisted.
“Well, see you around.” Heath tipped his hat out of deference and made his way to Charger teetered to the hitching post to put the box inside his saddlebag.
“Mister Barkley,” came running the young store clerk. “Mister Gregson asked me to give you that. It’s your receipt, sir.”
“Thanks Steve.” Heath took the bill of sale and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. He fashioned his trademark grin at the blushing young maiden as he gracefully mounted his horse and started down the street at a light amble.
“Barkley,” she mused, her bright brown eyes glowing as a rush of excitement coursed through her. “I can’t believe it.”
She swirled round and whipped down the street to her house. “Mother!” she shouted with glee, huffing and puffing with ecstasy.
“My goodness child, what’s wrong?” the grayish woman asked worriedly upon noticing her daughter in obvious distress.
“Mother, the most wonderful thing just happened.”
“I met a Barkley?”
“I don’t know his name but he’s gorrrrrrrgeous,” she purred dreamily. “We bumped into each other at the general store.”
“Are you hurt?”
“On the contrary, I’m better than I’ve ever been. Oh mother do you think he could ever be interested in a girl like me?”
“What do you men a girl like you?” Delia retorted, peeved by her daughter’s low self-esteem. “You are a beautifully entrancing woman, Gloria. Any man would be proud to court you. The Barkleys are well respected in this valley. Those brothers are quite a catch. Who did you meet, the lawyer?”
“I don’t know who it was. He has blond hair and the most fetching blue eyes I’ve ever seen,” she continued to stargaze, her thoughts wandering back to that bumpy encounter.
“I know of two brothers, Jarrod and Nick. Must be the youngest son who’s been back East studying medicine.”
“I hope I’ll see him again.” Her dreamy gaze turned to a sly smile as an idea popped into mind.
Late next morning Gloria spruced herself up in her best riding attire and snuck out of the house to ride out to the Barkley ranch with a picnic basket full of goodies that she had baked especially for her blond dreamboat. Arriving at the gates, she halted her the surrey and sat admiring the mansion erected majestically before her. She pondered her decision to make the first step towards a foreseeable future as Mrs. Barkley, wondering whether she should leave it up to him to do the pursuing. But what if he didn’t? She was aware of the fierce competition among spinsters to catch a Barkley and refused to be left out in the lurch. She wanted that young man to notice her and remembered her mother’s words that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. With that in mind, she flicked her horse onwards and stopped the carriage by the front door.
“Good morning,” greeted the black servant. “May I help you?”
“Ah yes. My name is Gloria Halliday and I’m looking for…well…” she hemmed and hawed, somewhat embarrassed by her straightforwardness. “I was wondering if I could speak to Mister Barkley?”
“Which one would that be?”
“Euh… the light-brown haired one.
“That would be Mister Heath. Sure. Come on inside.” Silas widened the door and bade the visitor in. “Mister Heath is upstairs getting changed for dinner. He should be right down. Would you like to wait in the living room?”
“Please, I would. Thank you.”
Silas gallantly showed her the way and motioned to the sofa where she sat, her picnic basket on her lap.
“Silas, do we have a visitor?” Victoria asked as she glid down the stairs.
“Yes Mrs. Barkley. A Miss Halliday. She came to see Mister Heath.”
Victoria made her way to the living room to greet the young lady. “Hello Miss Halliday. I’m Victoria Barkley. Heath’s mother.” She reached out her arm to clasp the shy woman’s hand.
“Mrs. Barkley. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Halliday? I don’t believe I know any Hallidays in the valley. Are you visiting?”
“My mother and I just settled in a month ago.”
In the few seconds of silence that followed Gloria felt smothered by the matriarch’s scrutinizing stare that bordered on suspicion. She shifted uncomfortably, hoping for Heath to make his entrance and sever the unbearable tension. Her prayers were answered when the front door banged open and a bellow resonated through the house.
“Nick,” Victoria cringed. “I’m right here. No need to shout,” she chastised in a whispering voice to bring a soothing contrast to the hollering.
“Sorry.” he repented as he removed his gloves and leaned in for a kiss. The angle allowed his eye to catch sight of the entrancing sight coming from the living room. “Oh, and who have we here?” he drawled with an elfish grin as he made his way to the young lady. “Nick Barkley,” he said proudly, extending his arm to shake her hand.
“Gloria came for your brother.” Victoria informed bluntly as a friendly warning not to step on Heath’s territory.
“Heath? Why would you want him when I’m so better looking than he is,” Nick teased, eliciting a giggle out of the girl.
“I heard that big brother,” Heath retorted from behind as he made his way down the last steps of the staircase. “Don’t flatter yourself Nick.”
“Heath, this young lady is here to you,” Victoria motioned to Gloria who took a few faltering step forward to meet with Heath halfway.
Heath squinted at the familiar face. “I know you, don’t I?”
Gloria hung her head shyly to hide her blush. “The general store, yesterday? I…I bumped into you.”
“I’d say it was the other way ‘round.”
“I brought you a little piece offering to apologize for the bumpy encounter.” She presented him with the basket. “I baked you a light lunch with some of my specialties and threw in a few peaches preserves as well.”
“Mmmmmmmm I love peach preserves.”
Nick arched an eyebrow at the statement and glanced at Victoria who responded with a knowing look.
Heath rummaged through the basket to take stock of all the food. He stole a cursory glance at Gloria who stood in trepidation of his reaction with mesmeric brown eyes that reached the very core of his being. He was helpless in tearing himself away from the powerful attraction she was exerting. For a brief moment time froze as mirrors of souls met each other. Once his words had carefully been chosen he swallowed hard the lump caught down his throat and said, “I’m afraid there’s too much for a single cowhand to wolf down. You wouldn’t mind sharing it with me?”
Gloria gaped at Heath’s offer, hemming and hawing until finally she found her voice and stuttered a choked, “If you want.”
Heath flashed his endearing lopsided grin that made the girl weak at the knees. He clasped her hand and led her out of the house.
Nick turned to Victoria with brows knitted. “Heath doesn’t like peach preserves, does he?”
Victoria answered with a meaningful smile. “No he doesn’t.”
Heath escorted the lovely brunette to the gazebo where both settled to partake in the feast Gloria had slaved over a hot stove to prepare. A few silent deep breaths later Gloria was finally able to regain the composure that Heath’s fetching grin had easily melted.
“It’s beautiful out here,” she rhapsodized over the multihued blossoms that adorned the pergola.
“It’s my mother’s cherished flower garden. I often come here to soak up the atmosphere. It helps calms one’s troubled soul.”
“It’s positively spellbinding,” she continued to gush, drawing an invigorating whiff out of a full bloomed red rose. Heath stood and pulled out his pocketknife to cut the rose that he handed to Gloria. “Oh no, you shouldn’t! What will your mother say?”
“She would have given me an earful if I hadn’t done it,” Heath said amusedly as he resumed his seat by the picnic basket. “By the way I don’t know your name.”
“Oh! It’s Gloria Halliday.”
“Well nice to meet you, Gloria. Been in Stockton long?”
“Not long. My mother and I moved here last month.”
“I hope you’ll like it here?”
“I already do,” she drawled dreamily with doe eyes. She quickly sloughed off her impure thoughts and regained her composure when Heath glanced her way.
Much to Delia’s delight Heath came courting her daughter on a regular basis. Although she had questions about his attentions towards Gloria she refrained from broaching the topic for fear of disrupting the delicate thread upon which the couple was still treading. She deemed best to wait for a solid foundation to be established before offering her opinion on how the walls of life should be erected.
A week before Nick’s birthday, Gloria was at a loss for the perfect gift to offer. Heath kept insisting that the rifle would be their shared gift to big brother, but the woman wished to choose a little something extra to show her appreciation of Nick’s blessing of her relationship with Heath. She settled on a nice pair of shiny black leather gloves that received Heath’s stamp of approval, as he thought of the old timeworn gloves that were the undeniable cause for the growing number of blisters to appear on Nick’s hands.
With a bit of wangling Jarrod managed to convince the judge to adjourn the court proceedings to allow him to attend the birthday celebration at the ranch. The lawyer within lying dormant for this occasion found itself jerked awake when told about his brother’s new romance. He tried to refrain the needling urge to open the dam of questions but a few were able to squeeze out, much to Heath’s dismay and Gloria’s discomposure.
Victoria’s stern disapproving stare made him clam up and veer off to the subject of the intense court case he was religiously involved with.
In the midst of the celebration Jarrod stole away from the party of guests to withdraw into the parlor in an attempt to soothe the gnawing feeling that kept tormenting him all evening. In the background an eyebrow arched in suspicion; the eyes following the path of the retreating brother until he disappeared behind the corner.
Standing by the window, the troubled man cast an eye out at the beautiful star-studded sky while puffing on his cigar, unaware of the unexpected visitor sneaking into the room.
“Jarrod, what are you doing here?” Nick asked rather casually. “The party’s in the other room.”
Jarrod smiled responsively and went to sit behind the desk. “I needed a break from all that noise. I’ll be right there in a few minutes.”
With a worried frown, Nick approached the desk to better read his sibling’s expression. “Something is wrong? What is it?”
“It’s nothing, Brother Nick. Go back to your party. Like I said I’ll be there in a spell.”
“Don’t give me that Jarrod,” Nick scowled, leaning forward on the desk to draw Jarrod’s eyes to his. “You’ve had that wrinkled brow most of the evening. Now what is it?”
Jarrod paused to exhale in a long trail of smoke before rising from his chair to stand across from Nick. “How well do you know Heath’s new girlfriend?” he questioned earnestly.
“Gloria? Not a whole lot. Heath’s only been courting her for two weeks. Why do you ask?”
“Nick, would you believe me if I said she was a fortune hunter?”
“Aw come on, Jarrod! You can’t be serious?”
“I’m not saying she is but my instincts are telling me otherwise. Something about the way she boasted about being the one to make the first move.”
Nick shrugged. “So? Some girls can be aggressive. When they want something or someone worth it, they grab it.”
“Yes but Heath usually takes a dislike to those kind of outspoken women. What did she do to lasso him in?”
“Counselor, have you taken a good look at her?” Nick quipped, his tone bordering on insolence. “She’s a knockout. Not only that she’s quite kind and compassionate. Two inner qualities that is attractive to any man.”
“I agree, but…”
“Something about her that bothers me and I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
“Have you met her before tonight?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Do me a favour, brother.” Nick stepped up to Jarrod to lay a friendly hand on his shoulder. “Tame that wild attorney beast of yours before it does serious damage. I’ve already given my blessing to Gloria. Since meeting her, our little brother has been treading on air. He’s happy. Let it be.” The hearty clap in the back carried a hint of warning not to allow unfounded suspicions ruin a beautiful romance.
“Gloria!” Audra shouted from the balcony at the girl storming out of the house in tears. “Gloria, come back.” The front door banging close was her only answer. Heads turn at the loud thud and eyes roamed over the crowd at Heath shouldering his way to the foyer to meet with his bemused sister.
“Sis, what is it? Why has Gloria stormed out like that?”
“What’s going on?” Nick queried as he and Jarrod exited the parlor, alerted by the shouts.
“I…I don’t know,” Audra stuttered, visibly shaken by the situation. “We were up in my room looking at dresses when we got to talking about how Heath came to the family. The next minute Gloria ran out of my room. I don’t know what I said wrong?” she wondered in an apologetic tone.
“Aren’t you going to go after her, Heath?” Nick asked.
“No.” His icy reply caught everyone unawares. All three siblings exchanged concerned looks, neither one wanting to broach the delicate subject. “I mean why would she be upset at the fact that I came to this family late? Is she in love with the man or the name?” His eyes roamed over the three bemused expressions, hoping for an answer to his question. He turned around to face Victoria standing a few feet away struggling with a similar dilemma. When the silence reached saturation Heath strode up the stairs and locked himself in his room.
Nick started up after his brother when Victoria grabbed his arm and shook her head. “Let him be for now.”
“Is he?” Jarrod piped up, locking stares with Nick who responded with a dark scowl.
“You should talk, Jarrod. You don’t even know her,” Nick hurled through gritted teeth.
“Boys, boys,” Victoria intervened, placing herself between the two men to sever the palpable tension. “Not now, please. We have guests,” she scolded, flashing both Nick and Jarrod a defiant look that warned them both to behave. Once they laid down the arms she spoke calmly, “We will get to the bottom of this matter tomorrow. Right now this is a celebration in honor of Nick’s birthday, so let’s now ruin it for anyone. Let’s go back to the party.” Noticing the glum faces, she accented, “WITH happy faces, please.”
All three strained contrived smiles before joining their mother to the living room where the party was in full swing.
The next morning at the breakfast table, the clonking of forks against the plates was all that resonated within the four walls as the occupants distractedly played with their food while waiting for Heath to make his entrance. Despite their best efforts each to attempt to engage a conversation with the despondent man, during and after the party, all failed.
Nick was the first to crack. He angrily tossed his napkin aside and shoved back his chair. “I’m going to shake that boy out of his bed,” he hurled resolutely.
“Nick! Sit down!” Victoria ordered with a scorching glare. “He will come down when he’s ready.”
“We’re not going to let this fester, are we? Mother you said last night we would get to the bottom of this today.”
“And we will, but not this way. We have to discuss this calmly and your temper definitely is not compliant.” She waited for Nick to grudgingly resume his seat before continuing. “I’ve thought hard and long last night about what Audra said. I could not come to any explanation for Gloria’s behavior other than she probably…”
“Doesn’t want to date her step brother,” Heath unloaded curtly as he came into the room.
They staggered aback at the shocking revelation. All eyes numbly followed Heath as he ambled up to the buffet table to help himself with a healthy serving of eggs, bacon and sausages. They then turned to each other, perplexed as to the blond’s apparent aloofness to this bombshell. Mute with consternation they waited for him to casually take a seat at the table before turning on the faucet of questions to which Heath quickly put a cork by shutting his eyes.
When silence was restored, he opened his eyes and began solemnly, “I just came from her house. Her mother is forbidding Gloria to see me again. I can understand why.”
“Wait a minute, back up a bit.” Nick objected, his mind still reeling from the initial startling news. “What do you mean you’re her step brother?”
Heath took a gulp of coffee and enfolded the cup between his hands; his head slightly bowed to stare at the brown steaming liquid. He started to speak but the words caught in his throat. He took another sip and drew in a deep shuddering breath. “Her mother was married to Charlie Sawyer. She was pregnant with Gloria when he left on business.” It was obvious to the family that Heath was visibly shaken by what he’d learned. Not only the slight tremor in his voice betrayed his emotions, but the fingers distractedly caressing the rim of his cup were another hint that the man was bordering on despair. “She…she said that my mother stole her husband,” he sputtered bitterly. He slightly jerked at the touch of Nick’s compassionate hand on his shoulder. “My mama would never do that.”
“Of course she wouldn’t,” Victoria agreed vehemently as she in turn reached out to Heath with a hand on his arm.
“I…I just…I just don’t know what to believe.” He buried his chin in his chest to conceal the tears rushing to his eyes, swallowing hard the emotions threatening to choke him. “She’s wrong. She’s dead wrong about mama. God I hate her! I hate both of them!” he execrated with a flaming vehemence that Nick could feel through his hand. Heath strove to keep his volcanic temper from erupting, as he hated the thought of flaring up at the family he desperately needed to cling to; his lifeline against the torrent raging within him. “I need to go to Strawberry.”
“Why?” Nick asked.
“I need answers if I can get them. If my mama was a tease and stole Charlie Sawyer from Delia Halliday, then perhaps,” he turned to face Victoria with sorrowful eyes, “she did the same with Tom Barkley.”
“I don’t believe that and you don’t either,” Victoria slashed with a steely stare.
“But suppose it’s true?” he argued, his eyes shifting from one bewildered expression to the other. “What if she did lure men into her bed? And took advantage of Tom Barkley when he was weak?”
“Those are pretty harsh accusations, Heath,” Jarrod rebuked, striving to maintain his poise.
“You’re upset by what you heard and you’re obviously not thinking straight,” Victoria offered soothingly.
“You’re right. I’m upset and I won’t mend until I get to the truth.”
“Then I’m going with you.”
“Nick, I don’t need any wet-nursing. I’m a big boy.”
“Maybe you are, but two heads are better than one. If one starts spinning the wrong way, the other can screw it back on straight. We’ll leave first thing in the morning,” Nick stated matter-of-factly with a tone warning anyone to challenge his decision.
“No,” Heath objected. “We’ll leave this afternoon. The sooner we get to the bottom of this the better.”
Victoria locked eyes with Nick and smiled her gratitude. She suspected Heath would need an emotional clutch in his quest for the truth.
Skipping dessert to get an early start the two brothers grabbed the basic essentials for a camp out and thereafter headed out to the barn to choose fresh mounts for their journey into Strawberry.
They stop halfway on the road to water the horses and fill up their canteens. Lounging around on the ground waiting for their equine friends to quench their thirsts, the two brothers soaked up the atmosphere in restrained silence, neither one wanting to engage in a conversation that could create tension between them.
“Heath, did you stop and think that it might have been other way around?” Nick hazarded to slash the unsettling stillness. His question received a puzzled look. “What if it was that woman who ensnared Ole Charlie while he was married to your mother, have you ever thought of that?”
“You mean Gloria’s mother?”
“Yeah! He did stage his death. Maybe it was to be with that woman.”
“I thought about it, but if was the case, why would she resent my mother so? Why would she even bother to rehash the past knowing the only woman who could prove her wrong is dead?”
“Makes sense,” throwing a pebble into the river, Nick agreed, albeit reluctantly. The deathly silence once again crept about, prompting Nick to glance in Heath’s direction.
“It hurts, Nick,” the grieving man whimpered, his eyes bordering on tears. He felt Nick scooting closer to him to wrap a comforting arm around his shoulders. “I loved my mama. She was my heart and soul before I found you.” That heartfelt sentiment shot an arrow through Nick’s heart and he responded through a brotherly squeeze on Heath’s shoulder.
“Whatever you find, Heath, know that this won’t change the way we feel about you.”
Heath snorted out a light chuckle. “It will if we find out that my mother did entice your father into her bed. You won’t look at me the same way.”
“Don’t blame the children for the sins of the father, they say. In this case, the mother if indeed she did what Delia Halliday says, which I strongly doubt.”
Heath sniffed back the last of his tears and rose to his feet. “Come on. Day’s wasting. We’d better get a move on.”
“Heath, where do you intend to look for that proof?” Nick asked as he treaded on his brother’s path.
“Hannah for a start.”
“How could that woman slander your mother’s name when she worshiped her?”
“I have ways to wring the truth out of her,” Heath said confidently as he swung in the saddle. “Look, you want to help me or not? If so then you must be unbiased.”
“Alright, I will be. But I won’t stand by and let you jump to any wrong conclusion.”
“Thanks Nick,” Heath flashed a lopsided grin in gratitude.
“Arggggggggggg,” Nick grumbled embarrassingly. “Go on, let’s get going.”