"The Day After Christmas"
Meg looked out of the window, her face a picture of worry. She felt her arm squeezed by Victoria in a comforting gesture. "They'll be fine, Meg," Victoria reassured.
Meg nodded, but inside her anguish remained and she continued to wait anxiously by the window twisting her wedding ring nervously whilst the older woman, no less worried but determined to remain stoic for her young daughter-in-law went and sat down by the fire. After a few moments of staring into the fire, willing her sons to return safely, Victoria Barkley turned her gaze back to her daughter-in-law and studied the profile of the young woman who waited anxiously for her husband to return home.
Meg was her niece, her sister's daughter and had been married to Heath for nearly two years. Whilst the sisters had speculated on a possible attachment forming between Heath and Meg, none had been more surprised than Victoria to see them elope within only a few weeks of meeting each other. It had been later that she had learned of the reasons for their elopement; less the romantic edge she had hoped for, but because Heath had discovered that Meg was pregnant with another man's child, twins it had turned out, and nobly had offered to marry her and give her and her child his name.
The marriage had proved a good union despite its inauspicious start and Heath and Meg had surprised themselves and the family by quickly falling in love. Meg had come to live at the ranch and had soon adapted to the role of a rancher's wife and step-mother to Heath's three children from his first marriage. In due course, the twins, Leah and Samuel had been born and now Meg was pregnant with hers' and Heath's first child. They were a family within a family and set to fill the house with children.
Victoria knew there was little she could do to lessen Meg's anxiety. Nick and Heath had gone out that morning before the weather had taken a turn for the worse. They were more than capable of looking after themselves, but what mother, or wife did not worry when their menfolk had not returned home and were long overdue.
Yesterday, had been Christmas, a joyous day, a feast of The Holy Family and celebrated as a family with Heath and his young family, Sean and Thomas, both eight years old, Cate, five, and twins, Samuel and Leah. Their uncles, Jarrod and Nick, enjoyed the day as much as the children did, playing up their roles and speculating not for the first time on settling down just like their baby brother had done.
Then, this morning Nick and Heath had set out to check on the herd as the weather seemed set to change and had now been missing for some hours. Jarrod and a few of the hands who were either single or who had not gone home to their families for Christmas, had gone off in search, promising to return with them both. But, since then the weather had worsened and a fog had descended on the valley limiting the search.
Thoughts crossed both women's minds that they could all be stuck out there in the cold and not able to find their way back to the ranch.
Victoria encouraged Meg, who was heavy with child now and set to give birth in a few days, to sit down. At first, Meg waved off Victoria's concerns, preferring to look out into the fog, watching for any glimmer of lantern light that would suggest the riders had made it home, but a sudden tiredness overtook her and she found herself accepting Victoria's assistance to a chair. Meg sat back wearied by worry and her pregnancy. Victoria regarded her with concern and suggested she help Meg upstairs to bed. Meg readily agreed and together they climbed the stairs.
Meg did not know how long she slept. She had not wanted to, not until she knew Heath was home, but her body demanded sleep for both mother and child. When she awoke, she found it was no longer day but night and she was no longer alone. Heath's arm was draped over her and his body lay next to hers. He was safe, he was home, she no longer had to worry, her beloved had returned home. With the difficulty of her advanced pregnancy she turned, negotiating herself and the baby so that she could look at her husband as he slept. He stirred momentarily as the action caused his arm to fall away from her and back to his own chest. After a few moments of watching him to make sure he was not hurt and to take in his features whilst he slept, she turned over and went back to sleep, able to do so happily this time, knowing he was safe.
A week later, on New Years Day, 1882, Heath Barkley junior was born.
"Sure is a fine boy, Heath." Nick congratulated, handing the boy back to his brother, who beamed a broad smile as he took the baby in his arms, kissed its forehead tenderly and cradled it close. Nick smiled to himself, thinking family was always special but to Heath, who had grown up without it, it had greater meaning and the boy never took it for granted. Heath didn't say much, not even to those he was closest to and he didn't always let you know his innermost thoughts, but his family had grown to read the subtlety of the man and understand his depth in other ways. Of course, it had damned near killed Nick to have a brother talk so little when he himself said so much, but over the years they balanced each other just fine and were as close as brothers could get. They just seemed to fit.
At nearly thirty-four Nick Barkley still resided at the Barkley mansion, though the rooms around him were fast becoming occupied by blond, blue-eyed little Barkleys. Meg and Heath were attentive and loving parents, but Nick kind of liked the moments he got to spend alone with his nephews and nieces, even though Samuel and Leah and now Heath jr were a might young to be talking yet. It didn't matter none, he'd just picked them up in his arms from their disturbed sleep or crying and either sat them on his knee or held them close. Then in mellow tones reserved only for the young he would talk about the day, the family and the ranch and before long, as they listened to the rich timbre of his voice, little blue eyes would begin to close and their owners would go back to sleep.
Of course, with Sean and Thomas conversations where less one-sided and Nick would often just marvel from across the dinner table at their endless chatter and childish observations of life. Nick liked to talk, but boy it seemed Heath's boys, unlike their father, were growing up to be talkers to even rival him. Now with Cate, well now, thereby hung a tale. It seemed that Nick and Cate took a look at each other from almost the moment she was born and decided each needed to be wary of the other. Battle of wills were the order of the day, any day and every day, and when their paths crossed it often amused the family that Nick could never see that the fact that he and Cate did not get on, was because their characters were so similar. When Cate said "No!" with her feet apart and hands on hips, it was a female Nick arguing back at him!
So at thirty-four, Nick stood regarding his brother cradling his newest son and decided he'd like a piece of that too; a wife, a family and a little boy, called Heath. Little Heath, he decided his son would be called so at to distinguish him from his uncle and cousin, but no matter what, one day he would have a son and name him after his brother and best friend. It was a promise.