“Papa? Are you coming into school with me?” Nicholas asked as he got down from the buggy.
“No, son." Heath replied. "You’re Uncle Nick and I are going to do some repairs on the roof. It’ll take us all day. But, I tell you what. At lunch time you and your brothers can come out and have your lunch with us. We’ll stop work then.”
Nicholas beamed. “Wait till I tell Johnny my Pa is fixing the roof.” With obvious pride, Nicholas joined his brother Matty inside the school whilst little James hung back to ask his father something.
“Can I stay with you, Papa and help fix the roof?” James asked, his voice full of five-year old hopefulness.
Heath regarded his son from his tall height, wondering if there was something wrong that he had missed. “I thought you liked school, James.” He replied somewhat guardedly.
“I do Papa.” Came back James’ ready reply, allaying Heath‘s concerns. “But I want to stay with you and Uncle Nick. I want to help you.”
“I see.” Heath reflected for a moment on the reason for his son’s words. James had been shadowing him all weekend, determined to be his little helper. Clearly, James was intent on helping today.
Heath bent down so as to address his son. Their two similar faces, though set forty years apart, clearly identified them as father and son. “Well now. Son, I sure have liked you helping me these last two days. In fact, I’m not sure what your Uncle Nick and I would have done without your help around the ranch. But, you know school is for learning. A man has to learn as well as work. That‘s real important in my book.”
“I like being learned, Papa,“ James said in a way that told Heath he meant it. And then unexpectedly, he said. “You can learn me how to fix a roof. I’ll need to learn that so I can be like you.”
Heath saw his brother come into view. Nick clearly amused at the father-son conversation and interested to see how Heath was going to handle that particular statement. Everyone knew James idolized his father and wanted to be just like him. But Heath was an experienced father and knew just what to say.
“Well now, son, I will show you one day. When you‘re older. Because you’re right. A man needs to know how to fix a roof to stop the rain from coming in. And I promise when you’re old enough and a roof needs fixing, you and I will do it together. But, for now I’d like you to continue your learning here at school. You’re reading and writing is just as important to me as your learning how to use a hammer and nails and a piece of wood.”
“I read nearly as well as Nicholas does now!” James declared, huge pride in his voice because he was a year younger.
Heath smiled. He had a smile that sometimes was just a hint of one, sometimes a wide grin. It would forever give him an appearance of youth whenever it was shared. His heart lurched with pride in his son’s own sense of achievement.
“I know you do. And I can’t tell you how much that pleases me, James. Reading and writing are the tools that really help a person. They allow that person to fight for important things and to search out knowledge. Tomorrow, you’ll know more than you do today, and the next day more than you do tomorrow. And that’s because you can read. So you see how important it is.”
Heath could see his five year old fixed on his every word. His little brow was furrowed in the effort. It was time to let him go into school. “ Now,“ he said, dropping a kiss to his son’s forehead, and receiving a hug back. “I reckon you need to join your brothers in school. Classes are about to start. I told your brother that you can join your Uncle Nick and me at lunch time. You can tell us all about your morning lessons then.”
James nodded, momentarily stopping to see if he could still stay with his father. Heath gave him a gentle, encouraging push forward. “Go on now. Before you’re late. I’ll be here when you come out.“
From afar, an attractive widow, who with her son was newly arrived in town, witnessed the scene. She had been befriended almost immediately by tittle-tattle, Mrs. Eudora Lindstrom, who was keen to know more about the woman’s background and include her in her circle.
So busy was Eudora in trying to find out about her new friend, that unintentionally, she made the mistake of giving only partial information on the story of Heath Barkley, about whom the widow inquired.
And so it happened, that the widow of four years, ready to move on from her grief and find herself a new husband, went away with the understanding that the strikingly handsome rancher was in fact a widower with three young children. In other words, perfect husband material.
Heath Barkley’s problems were just about to begin.
There weren’t many jobs Nick and Heath had not done as ranchers, and they had fixed plenty around the ranch including leaking or damaged roofs. They knew what they were doing and were soon making steady progress with the repairs. By mid-morning, Nick was ready for a break.
“Let’s break, Heath.” He instructed his industrious younger brother.
Heath’s health had improved greatly over the years, and Nick had always been fit and healthy, but neither of them were twenty anymore and at fifty-one, Nick was feeling most of those added years.
Heath, a few years younger, simply didn’t know when to stop. He was mindful that he had promised the roof would be fixed today and keen to keep that promise. Besides, he and Nick had a trip to Albuquerque in two days which would take them from home for a week.
“Heath!” Nick called out again. “Let’s break!” It was said with some impatience.
“Keep your pants on, Nick. I heard you the first time.” Heath replied, hammering the last of a nail in.
The blond, slightly graying cowboy lifted his hat, wiped his brow with his bandanna and then continued the motion down his chest, under his arms, back across his chest and then back up to his neck, catching the pools of sweat that channelled its way down his bronzed skin. “Boy Howdy! It’s hot. Going to get hotter too.”
Nick quickly agreed, taking his own bandana to wipe the sweat from his own brow. As he did so, Heath started to unbutton his shirt, un-tugging it from his pants and wafting it around his skin to manufacture a cool breeze. He then took it off and tied it around his waist by the shirt arms.
Nick did the same and together the brothers sat safely perched on the roof, looking down on the surrounding town whilst they shared a canteen of water and some biscuits Meg had packed for them.
“We should be done around three.” Nick opined, surveying the work that had been done.
“Hope so.” Heath answered. “I thought I’d take the kids to the ice-cream parlor after school.”
“Good idea. I’ll join you and let you buy.”
“Generous of you.” Heath answered with the hint of a smile. “But I thought Jenny wanted you to go look at that new imported and expensive rug she wants for the hall.”
Nick sighed, remembering the cost and extravagance. “Tell me, Heath. Why does a woman ask her husband’s opinion on buying something when she’s already made up her mind she‘s going to get it in the first place? The man is just redundant in the whole exercise.”
“Are you sure you’ve not figured that one out yet, Nick?”
“Hmm? Well, maybe I have, but I still want to moan about it. I reckon a husband and wife shopping together is grounds for a divorce. Do us a favour, will you?
Heath nodded, waiting to hear what his brother wanted from him.
“Jenny will have Little Heath and the girls with her. The girls are fine, but Little Heath is a human dynamo looking for trouble when he gets into a store. Take him to the ice-cream parlour with you, will you? He‘ll be out of trouble there.”
“Sure thing, Nick. He can come with me and the boys. You want me to take him back to the ranch? You and the family can stay for dinner?”
The idea put Nick in better spirits. “Thanks, Heath. We’d like that. Mother, Jenny and Meg can talk rugs whilst you and I have a game of pool with your oldest boys.”
Heath laughed at Nick’s delineating of the Barkley men and women. Times were changing and Nick was always one step behind when a thing called ‘progress‘ knocked at the door.
Refreshed and rested, the brothers took up their tools again and resumed work, the conversation flowing between them as they continued with the repairs.
The roof repaired, Nick and Heath made use of the washing facilities at the school to clean up. They were thanked profusely for not only providing the materials to fix the roof, but for spending the day doing it themselves. Heath and Nick told the school they were only too glad to help, after which Nick took his leave to go meet his family and Heath waited patiently for his boys to emerge from their class.
It didn’t take long, the school hand bell sounded and soon all three of them were gathered around him, clamouring to tell him this and that. “Whoa now!” Heath managed to get in. “I thought we might go to the ice-cream parlour, this being such a hot day.”
The agreement was unanimous with each child quickly deciding what ice cream flavour they wanted, then changing their minds again, only to pick their original choice again. Such decisions were huge for three little boys, aged 5 to 7 years.
“Can Edward come?” Nicholas asked, mentioning the new friend they had met that morning and who Heath had met at lunchtime when the boys had come out of school. It was clear that the Barkley boys had taken Edward into their friendship.
“Edward told me his mother is taking him to get his hair cut,” Matty advised, putting pay to their idea.
Heath saw the disappointment of his boys that their new friend could not join them. “Never mind.” He told them. “Edward can come another day, if he gets permission from his mother.”
“Tomorrow?” Nicholas asked, calculating that they might be allowed to go to the ice-cream parlour twice in one week.
Heath was wise to that game.
“Not tomorrow. Maybe when I get back from my trip. Oh, I forgot to tell you. Uncle Nick is dropping Little Heath off at the ice-cream parlour too. Then we’re taking him back to the ranch with us and Uncle Nick, Aunt Jenny and the girls are staying for dinner.
That brightened the boys up considerably, especially Nicholas. Little Heath was his best friend and school days meant that he didn’t get to see him as often as he would have liked.
“He’ll get awful messy when he eats ice cream, Papa.” James advised, remembering the mess Little Heath had got into at the ice-cream parlour last time with the chocolate ice-cream.
“He’ll clean up.” Was Heath’s pragmatic response. He wasn’t going to get phased. He raised a family of fifteen, Little Heath was just like his own when all said and done.
Fifteen minutes later they were all sat in the ice-cream parlour and Heath’s boys were looking back at him from above their tall ice-cream sundaes. “I told you, Papa.” James reminded his father.
Heath’s face was a picture. His boys were active little creatures, but Little Heath never knew when to stop. He was restless from the off and using his uncle as human climbing frame. The little boy’s constant distraction meant that the ice cream intended for his mouth usually ended up somewhere on his clothes, and then by default onto Heath’s clothes as the little boy struggled again him to see what was happening on the next table.
Heath’s boy’s giggled to see their father struggle with their little cousin. It was like Little Heath had ants in his pants and couldn’t keep still. Just as their father brought him down from his shoulder to sit on his lap and try and interest in him in some more ice cream, Little Heath was off again looking around the room.
“Seems you have your hands full.” A female voice inquired.
“Edward! The three Barkley brothers cried out. Standing next to the lady was their new friend. “You want to join us for some ice-cream?”
Heath attempted to stand with Little Heath in his lap, but was quickly excused by the woman who could see the trouble he was in.
Edward tugged at his mother’s hand and gave her a pleading look. The woman hesitated and said they did not want to intrude.
Heath backed up the invitation made by his boys. “We’d be glad to have you and your son join us.” He said softly. The woman liked what she heard.
On his uncle’s lap, Little Heath wasn’t too sure and gave the lady and her son a wary look.
“Well, it’s very kind, but I don’t know.” The widow looked at her young son, “We really should be getting back, Edward.”
Her son pleaded again. “Please Mama.”
“Oh my! Well, perhaps just for a little bit.” Edward immediately left her side to join his friends.
“Heath Barkley,” Heath introduced himself and then his sons.
The widow quickly made a count of the sons. “And this young gentleman?” she queried, thinking there should only be three,
“My nephew, Little Heath.”
“Little Heath? How sweet!” The widow surveyed the chocolate ice cream all over the boy. “It certainly looks like he likes ice-cream.”
Heath smiled, little realizing the impact the small gesture made on the woman now sitting next to him. “Boy Howdy! He does. But, like his father he believes in sharing it around, as you can see,”
They both laughed and finally the lady introduced herself. “Julia Potter.”
“Ma’am.” Heath acknowledged.
There was an awkward silence, filled in by the children’s chatter. Little Heath no longer interested in his ice-cream and feeling sleepy, snuggled into his uncle and made himself comfy. Heath was grateful for the diversion, small talk not being his forte. He wished Meg was there. She would handle the situation much better than him.
“How are you enjoying living in Stockton, Mrs. Potter?” He eventually asked.
Julia Potter’s answer was delayed whilst the ice creams were served. Presently, she answered his question. “Very much. Townsfolk have been so nice and welcoming.”
“Where did you live before?”
“My husband was a doctor in the city hospital in in Denver. We lived there for five years and were all set to make our life there when my husband was taken ill. He died when Edward was three. We’ve been on our own since and I returned to live with my family. Then a few months ago my husband’s aunt left us this house in Stockton and Edward and I upped sticks to forge ourselves a new life.”
“I’m sorry to hear of your loss ma’am. Hard thing to raise a boy on your own. Edward must make you mighty proud.”
“Oh he does. He’s my pride and joy.”
The words struck Heath. They were words his own mother had spoken about him as a boy. Though she had been dead nearly thirty years, her loss suddenly seemed like yesterday.
“You and Edward must come out to the ranch and meet my…”
“Unc Heath,” Little Heath stirred from his temporary slumber and Heath adjusted him in his arms so the boy could sit up. The boy once more assumed centre of attention. His little sticky hands reached out to the woman sitting next to his uncle.
“No you don’t.” His uncle advised as Little Heath attempted to put messy fingers on Mrs. Potter’s dress.
Deciding it was time to take his family home to avoid any further trouble, Heath gathered up his sons and politely made his excuses. He didn’t know why he felt relieved once he was outside the door, but he did and couldn’t wait to get home. Women made him uncomfortable when they weren't Meg.
In a store a few blocks away Nick sat in a chair and read the Stockton Times as his wife viewed the rug they had come to buy.
“Father!” Announced his eldest daughter. “You better come. You need to see what Mother has bought now!”
Because the weather was so hot, the family dinner at the ranch was served outside. This afforded the children some freedom which they otherwise would not have been allowed inside. Even Max was allowed, though Meg stopped short of him being allowed to sit next to Nicholas, who being Nicholas had naturally asked.
The adults sat mostly at one end of the table whilst the cousins largely grouped in their own age groups at the middle and the other end. Little Heath remained firmly next to his mother, newly cleaned up by his Aunt Meg after Heath had returned with the chocolate covered boy.
Heath’s daughters pestered their father to be allowed to go the social dance in town and Heath frustrated them by saying he would think about it, earning him a kick under the table from Meg for playing the over protective father.
“We’re gong too,” she advised him.
“We are?” he teased, knowing how much his wife loved to dance. His wife caught his twinkling eyes staring at her. “Stop it,” she admonished, though inside she loved that he had eyes only for her.
“Will you two love-birds cut it out!” Nick cut in, helping himself to another two spoonful of potatoes and another steak.
“My husband, the romantic.” Jenny dryly observed as she saw him fill his plate and then his stomach. “Why don’t you look at me like that?”
“Hmmph!” Nick let out. “Woman! You’re lucky I’m talking to you at all!”
“Oh honestly! How long are you going to sulk.” His wife snapped back, though Meg and Heath caught the playful look in her eyes. “It will look perfectly well in the foyer.”
Nick suddenly turned to his wife. “How many ranch houses do you know that have a six foot medieval knight standing in their foyers for everyone to see!”
“Nick!” His still commanding mother objected as she listened to the loudness of his voice.
“Sorry Mother,” Nick apologized.
“Oh Nick. Really, they are quite fashionable in the great houses of Europe. “ Jenny announced, starting again the argument they’d had in the store.
“That’s because they belong there! They don’t belong here! How many knights in shining armour do you see roaming around the valley?”
Jenny teased her husband. “Do you not want to be my Sir Nicholas, Nick?”
“Sir Nicholas? Woman, I’m a rancher! No way will you get me to wear a suit of armour!"
“If you say so, dear.” Jenny acquiesced, before sharing a wink with Heath and Meg and her mother-in-law.
Somehow all three knew that Nick would be made to eat his words.
“Oh, I met someone in town, Meg,” Heath advised, remembering Julia Potter and her son. “She’s a widow with a young boy about Matty’s age, just arrived in town. She came by the ice-cream parlour. Might be nice to call on her.”
Meg nodded as she dabbed some food clean of James’ mouth. “Good idea. I’ll call on her next week whilst you’re away. Jenny, do you want to come with me? We could go on Thursday.”
Jenny confirmed she would and the talk moved to the trip Nick and Heath would be making the following week and the business they would be conducting. Whilst the brothers talked, the women engaged in their own conversation.
Away from the table the younger boys scampered with Max who loved being the centre of attention. He missed his friends whilst they were at school and was in danger of being over exuberant. Trouble was just a few feet away.
Little Heath not wanting to be left out wiggled out of his mother’s arms and lap and ran to join his cousins. Max saw him coming and bounded towards him, spread-eagling the boy in the process. Then he proceeded to lick Little Heath to death.
Far from breaking into tears, the little one loved every minute of it and when his father came to retrieve him from under the dog, he protested loudly when he was walked away for his own safety.
“Please, Uncle Nick.” His nephews complained. “Max didn’t mean it. He likes Little Heath. Honest!”
Nick looked at the dog. Max lay down meekly on the ground, his head to the earth, his paws covering his eyes. A wonderful performance of acting contrite as you have ever seen. None could fail to be impressed. Nick’s face took on a hound-dog look of it’s own.
“Please Uncle Nick!” The boys tried again.
“Please Papa.” Little Heath joined in.
Nick looked from his nephews to the dog and then to his son. He admitted defeat. Next thing he knew Max had jumped up into his arms, the shaggy-haired mutt looking for all the world as though he’d found a new friend and had no intention of getting down.
James watched his father packing for the morning.
“Are you going to be gone a long time?” James asked as he lay down on his parents bed with his chin resting in his hands. His sad little face indicated that he was not happy his father was going.
“Just a week. I’ll be back before you know it.” His father advised.
James released one hand to count the number of days, his little fingers marking out the time his father would be away.
“That’s a long time! Look!” He exclaimed, holding up five fingers.
“You missed two.” His father informed.
“OH NOOOO! That’s even more!”
“Now James. You know sometimes I have to go away on business.”
Heath snapped his case shut and helped James up from where he was lying so they could go down stairs.
“Because your uncle and I want to buy some new horses.”
“We got horses.”
“We need more.”
“S’pose.” James said idly. He had now engaged in his favourite game with his father. He used it sometimes to delay bedtime.
James looked down at his bare feet.
“Why have I got toes?”
“So you don’t fall over”
Heath smiled at his son‘s response. He recognised the game too.
“Then why do I have fingers?”
“So you can pick up things.”
“So you can hold on to my hand.”
“I like that.”
“I do too.”
“Why do I have a nose?”
“To smell things.”
“It’s squashed at the end. SEE!”
“Ah, well. That’s because you have my nose. Look.” Heath bent down and pressed his nose to his son’s. See how they fit.”
James giggled because it tickled and because it was one more way he was like his father.
“Did my nose fall of your nose then?”
“In a way.” Heath said getting up and taking his son’s hand again.
The questions continued as they went down the landing and the grand staircase, the size of which seemed to dwarf the little five year old. Heath was happy to let them continue, knowing it was James’ way of dealing with his departure tomorrow.
Downstairs, James followed his father around in the study as Heath searched out the papers he would need for tomorrow’s trip. All the papers looked very important to James and his hands clasped the edge of the desk as his watchful doe eyes studied the way his father picked up a piece of paper, read it and then put it down or in a case to take with him. James could tell his father was an important man because of all the papers on his desk. His eyes swept up to the severe looking portrait above the fireplace. He’d always been a little scared of the man staring down from the picture. He was a big man with a beard.
He decided to be brave. “Papa? Who is that man?”
Heath was still concentrating on his papers. “What man?” he said absentmindedly.
James, aware that he was not getting his father’s attention went around the edge of the desk and tugged on his father’s pant leg.
“That man! Up there! He’s scares me.”
Heath looked around and followed James’ finger to the painting of his own father. Tom Barkley. The man who had sired him. A man he had never known, bar from the stories his family had told him over the years.
When he had first seen the austere portrait he had been eighteen. The man hadn’t scared him like he had James. Far from it. Heath had held him in contempt for abandoning his mother to bring up a baby alone.
Or so the story had seemed to an angry youth of eighteen. Learning the real story mellowed the boy he had been and he had long since been reconciled to the man in the portrait. That the same man now scared his son struck him deep and he sought to remove that fear for it was unfair to both.
“Well now, son.” He began. As he did so, he scooped James up into his arms. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. That there is my father and your grandfather.”
“My grandfather?” James was surprised. He had seen a picture of his grandfather who lived in New York and he didn’t think he looked like the man above the fireplace.
“Not Grandfather Stanhope. This man is your Grandfather Barkley. Unfortunately, he died a long time ago. But if he was alive now he would show us both how much he loved us. He may look kind of fierce and by all accounts he was a powerful man in these parts, but he loved his family above all. And you and I are part of his family. Remember that, son. You carry his name as I do and no one can take a man’s name away from him. It his father’s gift to his son.
“You know, you and I may not have known your grandfather, but others in this family did. Your grandmother, your Aunt Audra and your uncles; they all knew him well. Seems to me we might spend a bit of time with them and get to know more about Grandfather Barkley so that next time you see his portrait, you can throw him a smile and not be afraid of him anymore.”
James looked up at the portrait and from the comfort of his father’s arms he regarded the man who was his grandfather with less fear.
“I bet his beard tickled Grandma when he kissed her.”
“Well, that’s a question you will have to ask her.”
James turned to his father and snuggled in close. “I’m going to miss you when you go away, Papa.”
“I know. And I’m going to miss you.”
“All the time.”
James furrowed his brow. “I think Grandpa will look after us though.”
Heath’s eyes turned to his father’s portrait. The anger long since gone. Only a sense of regret of what might have been lingered.
“I think he will too. Now come on. Let’s round up your brothers. No telling what they’ve been up to whilst we’ve been in here.”
When James woke up the next morning his father and uncle had gone and he wasn’t feeling well. Accordingly, he was ordered to stay in bed by his mother whilst his brothers went to school. He didn’t like that. He wanted to go to school with Nicholas and Matty.
“My tummy feels better!” he protested to his mother.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” His mother advised.
“But it’s my tummy, Mama?”
“Yes, I know dear. But mothers know these things.”
“You do! Boy Howdy! Even Papa can‘t tell when my tummy is better.”
Meg smiled. Her little son hero-worshiped his father so much it was nice to know a mother could still find her way to that pedestal James put his father on. Mothers had their uses.
“Did Papa leave me anything before he left this morning, Mama?” James asked hopefully, his little face full of expectation.
“Yes dear. He looked in on you before he left and told me to give you this.” Meg kissed her son’s brow, judging its warmth at the same time.
James’ smile lit up the room and he got out from under the covers to sit on his mother’s lap for some more parental attention. Yes, mothers had their uses, Meg inwardly noted, wrapping her arms around her sick son and drawing him into her lap.
He looked so small in his nightshirt. His usually sunny face was replaced by a grey pallor and he had been sick that morning from the tummy upset. Her son might say he felt better, but Meg was not going to take any chances. She smiled a mother’s smile when she felt James wrap her arms even tighter around himself and snuggle into her. Yes, mothers had their uses.
‘I love you, Mama.” James gifted her as he entwined his fingers through hers.
“Oh, and I love you too, James.” His mother returned fully, hiding the tears forming in her eyes. “Now, try to get some sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Heath walked down the sidewalk, heading towards the bank. At some point he became aware that Nick was no longer with him. A quick look down the street and he discovered his brother standing outside a store window.
“Nick!” Heath called.
Nick ignored him.
Heath retraced his steps and joined his brother to find out what was keeping him.
In the window stood a life-size stuffed bear. Heath didn’t have to ask what Nick was thinking.
“Jenny won’t allow it.” He cautioned Nick.
“She won’t be able to say no. I’ll have it shipped home by train.”
“She’ll stick either you or it in the barn.”
“Well the knight in shining armour can join it!” Nick snorted, his contempt for his wife’s latest purchase undisguised.
“It’ll frighten the animals.” Heath continued.
“Hell! It frightens me!” Nick shot back. “But it’s just what I need to make her see sense.”
Now Nick and Heath both enjoyed hunting. But they ate what they killed. They didn’t stuff it. They respected the animal kingdom as much as they respected the human one.
“Nick! What do want with a great over-stuffed bear! Seems to me Jenny’s already got one of those.”
“Very funny.” Nick shot back.
“Come on. Let’s get to the bank. The bear’s going nowhere and we’ve got business to attend.”
“Right. But on the way back, little brother, you and I are going to inquire about purchasing a bear.” Nick informed him.
Heath’s heart sank.
A week later.....
Heath was dog-tired after his long trip home. It was gone midnight and the family had long since retired. He dropped his bags to the floor and placed his hat and gun belt on the centre table. Next he slipped his jacket off . The temptation was to leave it there, but he picked it up and draped it over a nearby chair instead. Then picking up his gun belt he draped it over his right shoulder and began undoing the buttons on his shirt tugging it out from his pants as one by one he climbed the stairs to the second floor.
Though tired he checked in on the children. The little ones were fast asleep. Nicholas had dropped a book to the floor. Heath went to pick it up, careful not to disturb him. Leaving the room he closed the door behind him and went to check on his middle sons. He caught Josh reading by a dimly lit oil-lamp. “Papa!” the boy greeted as soon as he saw him.
Heath placed a finger of censure to his lips, “Shush. You’ll wake your brothers,“
Josh overjoyed to see his father didn’t hear and ran to wrap his arms around his father’s waist in a hug. Heath quickly returned the warm embrace.
“We missed you, Papa.” Josh whispered.
Heath gave a tired but grateful smile. “I missed you all , too. Did you look after your Mama whilst I was away?”
Heath patted his son’s head. “C’mon now. It’s bedtime. Put your studying away. We’ll talk in the morning. Thought we might take a ride over to the north ridge and check out the pasture there.”
“Alright, father.” Josh smiled back.
“Goodnight, son. And remember, no more reading.“
Closing the door behind him, Heath paused outside to check his son had put the light out. Satisfied he made his way to the bathroom where he discarded his clothes quickly, filled a bath and sunk into it as much to ease his aching bones as to wash.. He did not know how long he lingered in the tub but afterwards he towelled himself dry, grabbed his robe, straightened up the bathroom and padded down to the bedroom he shared with Meg.
Inside the room he neared the bed to check on his dear wife. Though desperately tired he took a few moments just to look at her. It was the prospect of spending the night next to her warmth and familiar softness that had spurred him home.
Feeling the cold circle his bare legs and shoot up his robe he went to his set of drawers and pulled out a clean pair of long johns. Letting the robe fall to the floor he quickly put them on and climbed into the warm bed. A sense of relief spread over him as he realized that there would be no further trips away from his family for the next month. He had sorely missed them. Though asleep Meg seemed to sense the presence of her husband and spooned in front of him. Heath spooned right behind and the couple settled into the night and sleep.
When morning came Meg smiled when she found Heath next to her, knowing now why she had slept so well during the night. Their large bed felt right again. Without him, it felt empty and unfamiliar.
It was still early. She resisted opening the curtains and instead like a young bride chose to watch her husband as he slept, taking note of the familiar geography of his face - the skin creases from middle age and sun that softened in sleep and made him youthful again; the long blond eyelashes that framed covered blue eyes - eyes that held a special brilliance for her - eyebrows, too, that when raised spoke a language of their own. She took in the delicate length of his nose that towards the end flattened into a button tip which was as kissable as the perfectly shaped and parted lips through which her husband now gently snored.
She wondered what time he had got in. She hadn’t expected him home till tomorrow. She knew he had made the effort to get home and was comforted by the knowledge. She was glad he was home.
Soon she would have to share him with the family but just for now this was her time. The world could wait. Continuing to watch him she drifted off to sleep.
An hour later she rose to get the children up.
A large family meant noise and chatter and it seemed each child wanted to know when their Papa would be up.
“Your father’s tired,” she advised them as she fetched one of her youngest back to the table from where he had wandered. “He got in very late.” She continued, “Long after you went to bed.”
Glum, non-comprehending faces stared back at her from her youngest children. All they knew was that there father was home and they wanted to see him. A week had been a long time and they had tons to tell him. She was grateful her older children understood and helped to quell the children’s wish to go wake their father.
After breakfast her girls offered to take the boys up to get ready for school. Meg smiled gratefully though she could see from James she was not quite forgiven for not producing his father at breakfast.
Victoria gave her an understanding pat on her hand. “The day will soon pass. They will see him after school and knowing Heath he will be there in the school yard to meet them. I daresay they will even go to the swimming hole on the way home by way of compensation.”
“I’ve missed him.” Meg breathed out.
“That much is obvious.” Victoria smiled.
“Why don’t you spend the day together. I can look after things here. I have the help of the girls.”
“Maybe tomorrow. The children want time with him today. Besides, I need to discuss this pickle he has got himself into with the Widow Potter.”
Victoria chuckled thinking of what had transpired in the week her sons had been away. Why was it that men could be so blind, even her own sons. One thing she knew for sure. Both of them would think twice about their actions, innocent or otherwise, in future.
The next day......
Heath contemplated his wife's statement as they sat on the grass. She sure could take his breath away and for a moment she had done just that.
"I did what?" He said, spluttering out pieces of the chicken leg he had just taken a bite out of.
Meg, as though dealing with one of the children, calmly retrieved a red checkered napkin and deftly brushed the stray pieces off his shirt. She found one had lodged itself in his chest hair through the gap in his open-necked shirt. She went to retrieve it, teasingly letting her fingers and the piece of chicken trail up his neck, chin and to his open mouth before claiming it for herself.
"I said," she repeated, giving him no time to object, "you gave Mrs. Potter the impression that you were unattached. She had you marked out as a widower with three young children."
Heath's face was a myriad of contrasting expressions which managed to protest innocence and guilt at the same time.
"I did no such thing." He barked. And then making the mistake that most men do he rushed into his defense, "Is that what she told you?"
Meg with the advantage of having sorted out of the problem with Mrs. Potter teased Heath mercilessly. "Not directly, but it was quite plain what she thought." She looked at her innocent but yet not so innocent husband, for he had charm and good looks he never knew the true power of, "My dear," She spelled out. "I think she considered you, how shall I say, potential husband material."
Heath choked again and Meg was quick to sympathise. "There, there, dear. You'll choke if you are not careful," she said, patting him on his boad back which reverberated under her touch with each cough. "And I'll not thank you for making me a widow before my time."
Heath gave her a skewed look with the quirk of his eyebrow as he recovered. "I'll do my best not to," he said, and then added. "I hope you told her I already held that position."
"What position is that, dear"
Meg could match Heath's poker face when necessary. "Oh I know that, dear." .
"Well, did you?"
"It came up."
"What do you mean 'it came up'?"
"She was asking questions of you."
"Oh, how typically vain of a man. After all these years, Heath Barkley, I thought you were different."
Heath finally realized he was being teased. He pulled Meg to him and pinned her down under him, causing her to laugh. His face and lips so close to hers he breathed out so that his breath played with her own, "Tell me. Is it safe for me to go into town."
Meg's eyes twinkled for there was more than just a question in her husband's eyes. They'd been apart a week and discussion usually played little part in their reuniting. "It's safe." She confirmed.
"Good." Heath breathed out, crushing his lips to hers. They enjoyed a long deep kiss and several more before settling back on the grass in each other's arms.
Meg was not finished with her teasing yet.
"She's coming to my sewing circle on Friday."
"She's doing what!"
"Oh Heath, really! If we ladies can be adult about this, I see no reason for you not to be. Sewing! That reminds me I must sew the tear in the seat of your pants from when you caught it on that barbed wire."
Heath looked ashen. "In the sewing circle?"
"Yes, why not."
"But I thought you were all working on that......" Heath struggled to remember what the ladies of the sewing circle were working on.
"Oh, I can do some mending at the same time. Besides, they're a perfectly good pair of pants, Heath Barkley. They just need a little fixing in places."
"Well, make sure it's you doing the fixing of those places and no one else."
"I do hear Mrs. Potter is an extremely good seamstress."
"Meg, you wouldn't" Heath was horrified.
Meg regarded her husband. It was so tempting to 'torture' him more, but then there were better things they could do with their time. This time it was her that pulled Heath's lips to her own.
"Meg?" Heath asked again, breaking away. His question was still unanswered.
"You worry too much," Meg reassured him, and then her lips demanded that his pay them more attention than to talking.
Heath finally got the message and complied with no further complaint. He felt her hands travel down to his butt cheeks.
"Just checking for any tears." She teased.
The Heath Barkleys and Victoria were beginning to gather for dinner from different parts of the mansion when there was a knock at the door. "I'll get it," Matty offered running to the door to open it. His father watched from a distance to see who it was.
"Uncle Nick!" Matty exclaimed.
From across the foyer and out of sight, Heath pulled a quizzical face for his own benefit and mouthed the question "Nick?" He was not expecting to see his brother for a couple of days, Nick having declared that he was going to devote his time to wife and family. Heath was hoping to do the same with his own. Now it looked like Nick was here to interrupt things. He crossed the foyer somewhat reluctantly. "Nick? What are you doing, here? Why don't you step in?"
Nick ruffled Matty's tousled hair, delaying his answer.
Heath pushed for an answer. "Nick?"
"I need a favour."
Heath recognised the signs.
"Upstairs. You know the room. Dinner is in ten minutes."
"I don't mean that kind of a favour."
Heath found himself joined by Matty who was listening carefully to the exchange, his head switching from father to uncle as they spoke.
Heath was hungry and wanting his dinner. "Nick, I don't feel like playing twenty questions. What favour, is it then, if Jenny has not kicked you out?"
Nick moved forward and put two hands on Matty's young ears. "Jenny does not kick me out." He said, defensively.
"She does.. and often. That room upstairs is used more often than a hotel."
"No need to make it sound that frequent."
"Don't believe me? Ask Meg. Ask Mother."
"What kind of an army are you building against me. I thought you and me were on the same side."
"Nick I swear. You got about 30 seconds to tell me what favour you need and then I'm going to go eat."
Matty's little voice piped up. "Can I have my ears back, yet, Uncle Nick?"
Nick looked down at the boy. "What? Oh yes" he said, removing his hands.
"Thank you, Uncle Nick."
Heath sighed. "Nick I know you and I brothers, but sometimes I just wonder...Matty."
"Yes, Papa." The boy said eagerly.
"Run to your Mama and tell her Uncle Nick will be joining us for dinner."
"Yes Papa." And with that the boy skipped away to do as he was bid.
Something caught Heath's attention. "Nick, what's that on the back of the wagon?"
"Something you and I are both familiar with."
"Jenny doesn't want it in the house."
"Put it in the barn then."
"The horses don't take to it either."
"I'll put it in yours."
"In the house?"
Heath didn't even have to answer, the look was enough.
"Where then? I paid good money for that."
"They saw you coming."
"Well, where do I put it, then?"
"That brother is not my problem. You are."
Victoria came down the stairs. "You staying, Nick?"
Nick stepped into the foyer and kissed his mother. "No. Heath offered but I got dinner waiting at home." He turned to Heath. "You won't change your mind?"
Nick returned his hat to his head. "And I thought blood was thicker than water."
"It is, but last time I looked, it didn't extend to the bear."
Victoria looked puzzled.
"Don't worry, Mother. I'lll fill you in at dinner." informed Heath. "Night, Nick."
Nick found the door closed on him.
He stood facing the wagon and the bear it contained,
Suddenly, an idea occurred to him and the familiar wide grin returned to his face. "Why hadn't he thought of that before?"
In San Francisco a few days later, Jarrod was listening to his wife singing as she played the piano. The boys were at school and he had just finished a meeting with the man who would be the next governor of the state.
"Your wife was an opera singer, I believe?" Charles Lansing asked.
"Yes. Many years ago now, but she likes to teach singing when she can. One of her protégés is touring Europe now."
"Really? She, herself, still has a beautiful voice. You're a lucky man, Jarrod."
"That I know, Charles." Jarrod responded with the smile of a man who knew his life had been blessed with a wonderful wife and family.
The bell at the door rang and both watched Jarrod's butler answer the door.
"I think you must have got the wrong residence." They heard Simmons say.
"Package for Judge Barkley. Judge Jarrod Barkley. See, here's what it says." They heard the deliveryman state. Curiosity got the better of both of them and they approached to find out what the mysterious parcel was. The first thing that hit them was the size of the delivery." The sender, Jarrod soon determined, was Nick!
Heath could not stop chuckling.
He was sitting with James on his knee and was waiting for his wife to appear from behind the curtain where she was changing into a new dress.
"What's so funny, Papa," James asked as he chewed a piece of liquorice he had just got from the store. His teeth and tongue were black from the substance and an appointment with the tooth powder and brush would be needed as soon as he got home.
"Oh, just your Uncle Nick," his father responded.
"Why is he funny?"
"I guess because even when there isn't a solution, he somehow manages to find one."
"What's a solution?"
"An answer to a problem."
"Is Uncle Nick a problem, then?"
"What does invar...inv..mean?"
"I don't understand, Papa."
Heath stopped chuckling and pulled James and the liquorice in closer to him. "Well, you see. Your Uncle Nick thought it would be a good idea to buy a huge stuffed bear."
"As tall as me and then some."
"Wow! That's tall."
"But you see your Aunt Jenny did not want the bear. And neither did your mother and I when he tried to give it to us."
"What's he going to do with it then?"
"He's sent it to San Francisco... to your Uncle Jarrod for his birthday."
"Does Uncle Jarrod like bears?"
"He does now."
"Can we go see Uncle Jarrod and the bear?"
"Don't see why not."
"What's he going to call it?"
"Oh, I reckon he's got a few appropriate names lined up for it now."
A few moments later the curtain, from behind which Meg had been changing, parted and she emerged wearing a vintage-rose coloured gown. Heath's face instantly broke out into an appreciative smile when he saw how it complimented her. "I reckon that's the one."
Meg smiled, confident of Heath's taste. "Good, because I like it best too."
James was about to lunge at his mother with sticky hands. Seeing a catastrophe about to happen with the new dress, Heath grabbed his son back. "No you don't, young'un. The dress ain't paid for yet." He made light of the situation by putting James up on his shoulders, which of course James loved. The action ensured James was out of reach of anything in the shop, though failed to stop James from putting sticky fingers through his father's hair, which soon started to tangle and knot.
Meg swept away to change again and Heath settled the bill. Moments later the dress was being boxed in a candy striped box, ready for when Meg re-emerged.
"What have you been chuckling at," she enquired as they left the shop. "I could hear you all the way back there."
"Guess what Nick sent Jarrod for his birthday." Heath said conspiratorially.
"Cigars. A book? I don't know." She replied, giving up all too easily.
"Oh, only a seven foot black bear!"
Meg stopped in her tracks.
Heath stopped and turned to her, nodding his head.
"He'll not be able to refuse it!
"Reckon Nick thought of that before he sent it." Heath replied, chuckling again.
The chuckles continued until a little further down the sidwalk he ran into Mrs. Potter.
"Mr. Barkley. Mrs. Barkley." Mrs. Potter acknowledged with a radiant smile.
Now it was Meg's turn to chuckle as she saw her husband crimson fast with embarrassment. She knew she would have to save him again.
"Mrs. Potter, I believe you have met my husband...."
Despite Heath Barkley being the most faithful of husbands the moment he bumped into Mrs. Potter again, he began to feel and act guilty.
Meg had to watch that she didn't enjoy his discomfort too much. Her trained eye observed how he gripped James' legs too tight, earning him censure from the five-year old who was still perched on his father's shoulders. 'Poor thing', she thought as Heath mumbled out a tongue-tied greeting. He appeared to wear James like a protective suit of armour. James, of course, was unaware of his role.
Mrs. Potter answered Meg's original question. "Yes, of course, I remember Mr. Barkley." She spoke to him direct. "I understand you have been away on a business trip, Mr. Barkley?"
There was a long pause, the length of which grew embarrassing. Meg thumped him on the back to prompt the answer which refused to come under its own steam.
"Y... Yes." Heath spluttered out. "Alberquerque..." Again there was a long pause. Meg repeated her previous prompt.. "With my brother." Heath added as as afterthought. Meg rolled her eyes. Heath was building a wall of family around him as a defense against Mrs. Potter and any further questions.
Julia Potter smiled. She realized she was making him uncomfortable. She had been put diplomatically straight about his lack of availability the previous week. Meg Barkley had known just how to do that and she had admired the woman's style. Of course, the couple having fifteen children between them proved a persuasive argument, too. No, the handsome cowboy was no longer on her husband radar, but there was still opportunity to have some fun at his expense.
"I wonder Mrs. Barkley, if you and your husband and little James would care to take some tea with me across the street."
"Can we, Mama?" James shouted from on top of his father's shoulders..
Heath Barkley, betrayed by his young son, was like a fish trying to wriggle off a well-baited hook.
Mrs. Potter waited, noticing that Heath Barkley despite his discomfort with the idea, waited for his wife to answer.
"That would be lovely." Meg eventually answered. Heath's spirit sank. "But, I still have an appointment in town. Perhaps another day."
Reprieved, Heath had to stop himself from smiling.
"I understand," Mrs. Potter replied, understanding just what had transpired. Her friendship may grow with Meg Barkley, but with Heath Barkley it would progress no more than the awkward hello.
"I'll see you at the sewing circle?" Meg inquired, checking to see she had not been thought rude.
"Yes, of course. I'm looking forward to it."
Goodbyes were said and the period of awkwardness was over for Heath.
"Well, that wasn't too bad," he announced with ridiculous confidence.
"I noticed," Meg replied, the intonation in her voice saying everything.
Two weeks later...San Francisco
Heath was enjoying a cigar and a glass of brandy with Jarrod in his brother's large study. The house was asleep, save for the two brothers. Boots had been kicked off and the two brothers were relaxed in their chairs, legs outstretched as they nursed their drinks and savoured the quality of their smokes. Eight years apart in age, the difference had narrowed over the years as marriage, fatherhood and responsibility had settled on them both. Jarrod would always be the elder brother, but there was equality in their relationship borne out of friendship and respect.
The focus of their gaze was the seven-foot bear that stood in the corner of the room. Arms outstretched, legs apart, mouth slightly open the bear looked ready to pounce. It stood in the study because the children were frightened of it and Felicity, Jarrod's wfe, considered it clashed with the decor.
"You still got it, then?" Heath inquired with the trace of a smile.
"Damned if I can think of a way to get rid of it." Jarrod answered, exhaling a trail of smoke. "Of all the things for Nick to buy me for my birthday!"
"You do know it's just on loan, don't you?."
"Loan? What do you mean?"
"Oh, I reckon Nick just gave it to you for safe-keeping. He'll probably walk in here one day and announce he wants it back"
"When?" Jarrod asked, hopefully.
"Oh, when Jenny allows it back in the house."
Jarrod's hopes were dashed. "That soon, huh?"
"May not happen for a long time Jarrod, but mark my words, one day Nick will want it back. He's kind of partial to it."
Jarrod regarded their seven-foot silent companion.
"Come to think of it, I can see a similarity between them both. He studied the bear hard. After several minutes he declared, "It's the mouth. Dang me if the bear hasn't got Nick's damned grin!"
Just for a moment the two mellowed brothers thought their more ebullient one was in the room and they gave up a toast to a brother who embraced life full on and didn't stop to take prisoners.
A month later the whole family was assembled at the State Fair.
All attempts to calm the young'uns had been to be no avail. Nothing could contain their excitement. They wanted to see everything! The older ones were allowed to tour the fair in their own groups, brothers promising to take care of sisters and girlfriends, leaving Heath and Meg to concentrate on the young ones. Heath insisted that they meet up at certain times so he could coral his large family and check there were no strays.
"Papa, can I have a go at that?" Matty asked, staring up enviously at the ferris wheel. Heath who was generally fearless wondered if Matty would still be as eager when he was at the top. Nicholas wanted to go too but a more timid James preferred to stay with his mother. Heath coerced Nick into going with them whilst Jarrod, like the respectable judge that he was, offered to take his wife, sister-in-laws and Little Heath to the tent for some refreshment.
The four intrepid Barkleys, Nick, Heath, Matty and Nicholas bounded over to the ferris wheel where Heath paid for their tickets and they stepped into two cars, Heath sitting with an excited Matty and the two Nicholas' behind. As the wheel filled up they made progress up into the air. Matty took to it as though born to it. "Look!" he kept shouting as he spotted something on the ground. He even spotted his older brother, Sean. Behind them, things were less successful. It was hard to determine which Nicholas Barkley looked the more green. All the older Nicholas knew was that he managed to hold his in, whereas little Nicholas spewed his into his uncle's lap.
"Sorry, Uncle Nick" The little boy apologized, looking marginally less green.
His lap full, his nostrils hit by the smell, the threat of more to come pending, Nick turned to his nephew and said whilst gently rubbing the boy's back, "Not to worry. Do you feel better now?" Even as he said the words he could feel the dampness work through the front of his pants.
Little Nicholas looking very sorry for himself, nodded. "A bit. Can we get off now?"
Nick looked down from the top of the wheel, "Not right now, son. We got a ways to go yet." He suppressed his own stomach and prayed for the wheel to make the descent.
Later, Heath, Matty and a much improved Nicholas were waiting to be rejoined by the rest of the family.
"Where's Uncle Nick?" an innocent Little Nicholas asked.
"He's gone to buy himself some new clothes." Answered Heath.
"Cuz I was sick on them?"
"You couldn't help it," His father consoled.
"I didn't get any on me." Little Nicholas stated, not understanding how funny his comment was.
"You showed a good aim." Heath answered, picking him up and giving him some reassurance.
A moment later they were rejoined by Nick and the three of them began to chuckle.
"Don't laugh. It was all I could get." Nick protested, dressed as far removed from his usual style.
"You look fine." Heath relented, realizing it was his son who had created the current situation. "Just stand aways back. I want to protect my children's eyes from the glare."
"Little brothers always think they are so funny. You see me laughing?"
"I might if the clothes themselves weren't so dazzling."
Back down by his father's side, Little Nicholas felt it was the moment to step forward. "I'm real sorry Uncle Nick."
Nick easily melted. "That's alright, Nicholas. I needed a new set of clothes anyway."
Heath watched and waited.
"I did. Now let's go round up this family of ours. The Barkleys are going to enjoy this day. All twenty-six of us!"
And they did with no further mishaps. Though as soon as he got home, Nick made sure those damned clothes were sent to the local charity.