Putting It Together
by Lily B.
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
Leaning against the doorframe, he stood back with his arms folded, watching his favorite evening scene. His heart filled with love, he eyed his wife, on her knees at the edge of the child's bed. Her hands folded in front of her on the bed, her long red hair hanging in a loose braid down her back.
"Amen." Maggie's eyes opened and she looked to her daughter.
"Amen." Caitlin returned with a smile to her Mother. She had just had her second birthday the month before and she was growing so fast, too fast for both her Mama and Papa.
"Okay Catie, bedtime." Nick told her.
"No Papa, story." Caitlin's favorite word these days was no and she used it all too frequently. Her pudgy arms extended up to her Papa and her bottom lip stuck out. "Puhlleeasse Papa?"
He had such a difficult time with saying no to her. In his eyes, she was a plump little redheaded angel, a tiny version of his beloved Maggie. Trying to play the stern parent, he folded his arms across his black vest and frowned down at her. But seeing her little pout face melted his heart into a puddle. The frown vanished and he lifted his little darling into his long arms.
"Bedtime Catie, come on now." Her Mother softly scolded.
Nick took Catie into his arms and laid her down in her bed. "You go to sleep sweetheart."
She pouted back at him and folded her chubby arms, "No. Can I come to bed with you and Mama?"
"No honey," Nick softly replied, "Not tonight, your Mama's back is bothering her."
"It always hurts! Please Papa?" Caitlin crossed her arms across her blanket and chest.
"Gee," Maggie whispered to him, "Doesn't that stance look familiar?!"
"Oh nothing, just she seems to grow more and more like you everyday!"
"That so wife?" He glared at her teasingly.
"Yes, that's so and you know it!" Maggie leaned against the bed to stand up and a sudden, sharp pain jabbed across her lower back.
Nick saw her grimace and moved behind her. He put his hands underneath her arms, "I've got ya honey." Carefully, he helped her up onto her feet again. He kept his hands on her for support if she needed it. Though he knew his stubborn wife wouldn't admit to it, these last two months had been particularly hard on her.
"Thank you." Maggie told him with a smile. They both said their goodnights to Caitlin. Nick closed the door only part way behind him.
A strong arm went about her waist; "I was thinking why don't we stay up here in our bedroom the rest of the night. Mother's in bed and Thomas is still studying in his room. How's that sound to ya?" He plopped a noisy kiss on her cheek.
"Sounds like a good idea to me Nick, thanks."
The door to their massive bedroom was opened and Nick motioned her inside with a large exaggerated bow. "You first my lovely lady."
"Why thank you kind sir," She giggled.
He led her over to the settee in front of the fireplace and she sat down with another grimace from the back pain. She could hardly wait for the day that the pain would go away. The warmth of the fire helped to take away the slight chill she felt; the cold March winds seemed to seep right through the house.
"Pretty bad tonight, isn't it?" Nick asked, concern sweeping over his face. It was hard on him seeing his normally vibrant and feisty wife so slowed down and in obvious pain nearly everyday now. He knew the pain would go away eventually, yet still it made his heart ache each time he saw the discomfort on her face. He would give or do anything to make it go away right then and there.
"What's bad?" She feigned ignorance with her handsome cowboy, but it didn't work, never did.
Nick knelt down in front of her, "You, wife, are a terrible liar. Your back's been bothering you a good bit today, hasn't it?"
Shaking her head she replied, "Oh, it's not that bad. Besides the warmth from the fire will do it a world of good." Maggie bit her bottom lip, a sure sign to Nick that she wasn't sharing the whole truth with him.
He rolled his eyes and sighed. "Uh-huh, right Maggie. Don't you think I know you a bit better than that, give me a little credit would ya!"
"Oh bother, alright, it's been giving me a bit of trouble today."
Nick took her hands and brought them to his lips, kissing each one softly. "The doctor told ya to take it easy and every time I saw you today you were up and doing something around here."
Though she truly did appreciate and understand his concern, at times she felt like she was suffocating from all of his tender care. They butted heads over it frequently. "Now Nick, it's not like I've been out racing Domino across the valley or anything of the sort. Honestly, you worry far too much. Besides, the doctor said to take it easy, not that I had to stop living all together!"
"Yeah but Maggie…"
"But Maggie nothing, you forget that I still have Thomas and a very precocious two and half year old to care for."
Nick stood up from the floor and put his fists on his wide belt. "Thomas is supposed to be helping you around here. I think I better have a talk with him."
"I know what you told him and he has been helping. But he's still a kid Nick and deserves to have some fun!"
"Yeah but, enough of the yeah buts! Why don't you go downstairs and make sure everything is closed up for the night." This time, it was her turn to roll her eyes.
He shook his head and pointed a long index finger at her. "Wife you make me crazy sometimes, you know that don't ya?" Nick huffed.
Maggie smiled sweetly up at her handsome husband. "And you wouldn't trade a minute of it, would you?"
"Nope, you're right about that." He leaned over and kissed her lips. "I wouldn't trade a single minute for anything in the world. Now don't you go running off anywhere, I'll be back up in a few minutes to help you get undressed, okay?"
"Alright Nick." She sighed and looked into the fireplace.
When he returned from making sure that the house was all closed up downstairs, he found Maggie struggling to get undressed. He chuckled, despite himself, at the sight.
"Oh, you find this funny do you?"
"Ummm…no…of course not…okay maybe just a little. I thought I told you to stay put and I would help you."
"Uh-huh, I just thought I'd get a head start." Maggie put her hands on her hips, "Well do you think that you could give me a hand?"
"Thought ya didn't need any help." Nick leaned against the dresser, waiting for her to admit it.
"Come on Nick, please?" She pleaded at him with her green eyes and he couldn't say no.
Grinning, he walked over to her and easily undid the delicate buttons of her dress and lifted it over her head. The laces on her undergarments were undone and slipped off while she leaned on him for support. Nick went back to the dresser and pulled out a nightgown for her, but before he brought it over to her, he stopped. He took a moment to allow his eyes to linger over his naked wife's body; he couldn't help but be in awe of her, especially right now. "You're so beautiful, you know that?"
Maggie rolled her eyes. "Please just give me the nightgown. I am far from beautiful right now."
"That's where you're wrong, wife." He moved closer to her and his hand went to her shoulder. He moved his hand slowly down her arm and then over to her swollen abdomen. "You're carrying our baby Maggie, can't think of anything more beautiful that that."
"And with any luck, they'll be out of there very soon. Doc says only another couple of weeks." She rubbed her belly. Her back was aching badly; she had some back trouble with Thomas and Caitlin, but not this bad.
Nick finally gave her the nightgown and helped her slide it over her head. He took her hand and led her to bed where he set up her array of pillows that supported her large belly and sore back.
When she lay down, she watched her husband get undressed and ready for bed. They had been married for a little over a year now and she still loved to watch him undress. Maggie took in the sight of her tall lean husband, bathed in the soft moonlight that streamed through their bedroom window. She watched him remove his boots first then the rest of his clothing, draping his black vest over the footboard of the bed.
"What are ya looking at." He grinned at her.
"My handsome cowboy."
Nick smiled a toothy grin at her, "Still like what you see?"
"What do you think?"
"I'd say you can barely keep your hands off of me!"
"Barely? I can't, period!"
Nick crawled into bed next to her and gave her a long passionate kiss. "Get some sleep wife."
He was the first to fall into a deep sleep, he usually was. She stroked his thick hair while he slept and after midnight, she began to wonder if she shouldn't wake him up. Maggie hated to interrupt his sleep and hoped she could wait until the sunrise at least. But at around three in the morning, she had no choice; she had to wake him.
"Huh? You what?" He said groggily, still in a fog he couldn't quite make out what she was saying. "Ya broke your water glass, that's okay I'll get it in the morning." He felt his thigh hit a damp spot on the bed and tried to roll away from it. Maggie vigorously shook him again.
"What?!" He demanded, his eyes still shut.
Maggie hit his arm, "I didn't break my water GLASS! My water BROKE!"
His hazel eyes opened and he saw Maggie, breathing rapidly through pursed lips, obviously in pain. "Oh! Your water broke? Maggie, you're in pain!" What was happening, finally registered. "The baby..you mean you're having the baby?"
"Yes Nick!" She said breathlessly.
"When?" His eyes were wide open now, staring at his wife, then her tummy, then his wife.
"Now Nick! I'm having the baby now!" She glared at him through the pain of the contraction. "Go get your Mother and Lucy, please!" She told him through gritted teeth.
"Right, right…okay..I have got this all under control. Don't you worry, wife!" Nick put a quick kiss on her cheek then threw the bed linens partially off of him and jumped from bed, failing to realize that his foot was still caught up in the covers and he landed squarely on his behind.
"Nick…are you alright?" She swore that if she wasn't having contractions, she'd be guffawing so much that she'd be rolling on the floor herself at the sight of her naked husband tangled up on the floor.
"Yep, yep just fine." He stood up, rubbing his hip and thigh and went to the bedroom door. "I'll um get Mother and then Lucy. While we're at it, think I'll see if Angus can't go get Sarah and Heath. Don't ya worry now it's all under control."
"Yes dear, I'm sure it is." Maggie nodded, "But honey don't you think you should put some clothes on first?" Her hand covered her mouth, trying to hide the fit of giggles that were just under the surface.
Nick gave her a quizzical look then glanced down at himself. "Oh yeah, probably." He hastily grabbed his robe and pulled it on, he knotted the sash as quickly as possible but the black robe was still half open. Throwing open the door, he bellowed so loudly that he could have woken the dead, "Mooottthhhherrrrrr!"
He'd woken his mother with his one loud yell and ran downstairs to wake Lucy, still asleep in her room. Next was poor Angus, being roused from bed by a harsh shaking and coming face to face with a wide-eyed, fast-talking Nick Barkley. Angus dressed quickly and Nick watched him head to the barn to get his horse and ride out.
Nick took in a sharp breath and wiped the beads of sweat forming on his brow. 'Baby's coming', he thought to himself, not knowing which he felt more of at that moment: scared to death or excited, they were very much mixed together. By the time he returned to their bedroom, his mother was already there beside his wife and Maggie was in the midst of another contraction.
His face contorted with hers, agonized by the obvious pain that she was in. "Something's not right?" He asked worriedly. 'Please God, let everything be okay'.
"No Nick, everything is just as it's supposed to be." His mother replied in a soothing voice.
He sat down on the bed and took Maggie's hand lovingly into his own and brought her fingers to his lips, kissing each one. He looked at the perspiration glazing her face and the pain in her eyes, "But Maggie, is it supposed to hurt this much?"
"Nick," Maggie answered when the contraction ended. "This is hardly anything yet. It's just the beginning."
A horrified expression washed over his face, he had no idea it was like this. "It's gonna hurt you more than this? Maggie are you sure everything's okay?!" Suddenly he found himself remembering the baby that Maggie had lost several years earlier and he was scared. In fact, he'd never been this scared before.
Victoria locked her arm in her son's and attempted to guide him from the room. "Why don't you go on downstairs and wait for Heath and Sarah to arrive. I'm sure that Heath will keep you company while you wait for the baby."
Gently, he pulled his arm away from his Mother and stroked his wife's fiery hair. No, he thought, I am not going to let her go through this without me. "I'm staying here. I'm not going anywhere."
Victoria eyeballed her son; this was not the place for a man and most definitely not the place for her son. "Nick…"
"Ohhh…here we go again!" She flinched with the pain and cried out slightly.
"Honey, hold my hand as tight as you can okay, just think about that. Think about holding my hand so tight and never letting go!"
"Another contraction, so soon?" Victoria checked the clock on the wall. "Heath and Sarah might not get here in time. I think this baby just might arrive in time for breakfast!" She went over to the bed and looked underneath the covers. "Well Nick, it looks like I might need you to stay after all. You can start by getting some cool damp cloths and keep them on her face and chest. Now when I tell her to push, hold her up slightly, encourage her to push and breathe, okay?"
"Anything else?" He asked.
She looked to her son, his brow furrowed with worry over his wife's obvious discomfort. "Nick, it's going to be hard for you to watch Maggie in a lot of pain, but you've got to stay strong for her."
"It's going to be okay Nick." Maggie looked up at him with her clear green eyes and smiled. "Just remember that when it's all over, we'll have our beautiful baby."
"Our baby." He said softly. "Do you know how much I love you wife?"
"You ready Maggie?" Victoria looked over to her daughter-in-law. "Now give me a big push at the next contraction."
They didn't have to wait long for the next one. Nick held her up while she pushed and the grip she had on his hand turned his fingers white. "You're doing great Maggie!" He told her proudly. "Just great." He felt the pain she was in and watched helplessly as every muscle in her body tightened and she groaned loudly while she pushed. His own muscles tightened with the contractions and he breathed in sync with his wife. With the first push finished, she laid her head down on Nick's bare thigh.
When her breathing returned to normal, she looked up at her anguished husband. "You're doing pretty great yourself Nick." But she was afraid he might pass out at any time. She'd heard of husbands that had done that when they had stayed for the birthing and judging by Nick's pale pallor, it was a distinct possibility for even her strong cowboy.
Nick let out a nervous chuckle and ran his fingers through her sweat soaked hair.
Lucy had dressed quickly and came up the stairs only to find Thomas and Caitlin standing outside the bedroom door. With the darkened hallway on her side, it was quite easy for her to sneak up on them. "And just what do you two think you are doing?" She feigned anger with them, but could barely contain her smile.
Thomas nearly fell over backwards and Caitlin turned around to look up at her nanny wide-eyed. "Wanna see the baby." Caitlin told her.
"Well you can see the baby later little one. Besides I don't think it's quite here yet." Lucy knelt down in front of her.
"Where is it?" Caitlin asked her.
"It's still in your Mama's tummy honey. But you'll probably hear the baby very soon."
Caitlin thought very hard about what Miss Lucy had just said to her, "How'd it crawl into her tummy?"
Thomas quickly threw his hand over his mouth, stifling the threatening laughter.
Lucy shot a glance at Thomas then looked back at Caitlin; she stumbled over her words. "Well it didn't quite crawl in there Caitlin honey, ummm…"
"Then how'd it get there?" She demanded to know.
"Well honey, I'm afraid that is a question that you are going to have to ask your Mama or Papa later. After the baby gets here."
Thomas muttered something but Lucy couldn't quite make it out. "I'm sorry, what did you say Thomas?"
"Her Uncle Nick. He's not her Papa, he's Uncle Nick."
"My Papa!" Caitlin huffed.
"No! Uncle Nick."
"Papa!" Caitlin stamped her foot.
"All right, you two, goodness! We can talk about this later. In the meantime, Thomas why don't you read a story to your sister. It's quite obvious that none of us are going to get any sleep the rest of the night. Angus has gone to get your Uncle Heath and Aunt Sarah, so they'll be here in just a little while. I'm going in the bedroom now and I'll be out as soon as I have some news for you, okay?"
"Yes Miss Lucy." Thomas replied. "C'mon Catie, let's go to my room and I'll read you a story." He took his little sister by the hand and led her down the hall to his bedroom, the room that had once belonged to his father – his real father.
Just a moment to catch her breath before the next contraction and the next push came. Nick wiped the cool cloth against her forehead and cheeks, she was flushed from the hard work. He lifted a glass to her lips and Maggie gratefully took a small sip and put her head back down upon his thigh. It certainly wasn't traditional for the husband to remain during the birth, but she was so glad he did. His unusually quiet strength gave her the extra incentive she needed at that moment. Another contraction began and Nick took her hand, allowing her to grip his as much as she wanted. She cried out this time when she pushed and a small piece of his heart broke.
"Come on wife, big push, you can do it!"
"That's it Maggie," Victoria cooed softly, "Big push now, the baby's coming!"
Lucy had just started to crack open the bedroom door, when she heard the front door open downstairs. She went to the top of the stairs and saw the man standing in the hall. She gave a quick pinch to her cheeks and bit her lips for color. With a fast check in the hall mirror, she went downstairs.
"Evening or good morning Joshua, not sure quite what to call it just yet."
"I think good morning qualifies. Done caught Angus on the way out, hear tell the newest Barkley is about to join us." Joshua took Lucy into her arms and kissed her cheek. He'd fallen for her the moment that he had first laid eyes on her. Lucy had come to work for the Barkleys several months earlier as a Nanny to the children. She was almost as tall as him, with skin the color of coffee, short cropped hair and the most wicked sense of humor. The day before, Nick and Heath had gone with Joshua to the jewelers and he had picked out a ring to give to Lucy and planned on asking her to be his wife by week's end. If he could only figure out the proper way to ask her; he wanted it to be just perfect.
"Angus has gone to get Heath and Sarah, but from the sounds of things, I'd say they might be just a bit late."
"So who's up there with Maggie?"
"Mrs. Barkley of course and Nick stayed with her."
"Nick's up there?" Joshua's eyes went wide. "Ya didn't happen to hear any loud thuds, did ya?"
Lucy laughed heartily and linked her arm in his, "You are just plain awful Mr. Watson, what am I gonna do with you?"
"Ya could try marrying me." Joshua dropped his head; this wasn't the time or place! What am was he thinking asking her right now when a baby was coming?
"I could try that, iffen ya want me to." Lucy looked him right in the eye.
"I want ya to Lucy, I love ya. I wanna be with you the rest of my days. And I want babies with ya, lots of babies."
"Lucy…Lucy Watson. Ya know I think that sounds pretty nice." She giggled.
"Is that a yes?"
"It's a yes, Joshua, I love ya too!"
Joshua threw his arms around her and brought her close for a long kiss. The front door swung open again and in walked Heath with his family in tow. Angus had a sleeping Andrew in his arms, while Heath held a crying Jarrod and Sarah held onto Vickie. David dragged in behind all of them; still rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"Here now." Lucy held out her arms and took Jarrod from Heath. "Thomas is in his room reading to Caitlin, why don't Joshua and I take all the children up there for awhile."
"Hey Lucy, where's that brother of mine?"
"Oh he's upstairs with Maggie and your mother."
"Nick's staying in there for the birth?"
Lucy rolled her eyes at him, "Yes he's staying in there for the birth and NO, I have not heard any loud thuds!"
"Angus," Heath added with a small grin, "How about some coffee? I think we're all gonna need quite a bit of it."
"Yessir Heath, be glad to. Could use some myself!" Angus retreated to the kitchen.
Heath wrapped himself in memories for a moment. How bad things were when his wife was having the twins, how he'd almost lost her then. Maggie and the loss of her baby and how long it had taken her to forgive Jarrod for not being there when she needed him. But there were also very sweet memories of childbirth. Sarah giving birth to David with help from Maggie and Jarrod; then Andrew who appeared with hardly warning at all. And Caitlin, she never had the chance to know her real Father, Jarrod, but Nick had sure taken to her right away and vice versa. Caitlin now how her Uncle Nick, her Papa, firmly wrapped around her little finger and everyone knew it, including Nick.
A shrill cry echoed down the grand staircase to where they all stood. All eyes went up the staircase and Heath let out a "Boy Howdy!" He squeezed his wife's shoulders and kissed her. "Seems that there's a new Barkley in the house. You two go on upstairs, Joshua, Angus and I will keep watch on the children."
"Are you sure!" Sarah asked and her husband answered with a nod. "Isn't it wonderful how this family is growing?" She took Lucy's hand and they started up the stairs together, "I can't wait to find out if it’s a boy or a girl!"
"Look Nick, the baby has taken to you already." Maggie told him while she watched her husband carefully run a washcloth across the infant.
"So tiny." He said in a whisper.
"Have you thought of a name?" Victoria asked, watching her newest grandchild, her heart filled with love and pride. Nick never ceased to amaze her, even now, he had stayed and provided so much help and comfort to his wife. She assisted Nick in wrapping the baby in its receiving blanket and watched him carefully carry the package over to Maggie and softly set it down in her arms. He moved onto the bed next to her and kissed her cheek.
A soft knock on the door and Victoria went to answer it. She ushered Sarah and Lucy inside. "I'm afraid you're both a little late. But we did have Nick here to help. Come on in and meet the newest member of the Barkley family."
They went to the bedside and looked down at the tiny infant with black hair and full cheeks.
"Oh!" Lucy exclaimed, "Just beautiful and a good sized one at that; practically a toddler! What's the child's name?"
Nick beamed with pride, "Ladies, this is Nicholas Jonathan Barkley, Jr. or as I like to say, NJ."
She looked up at her handsome husband, nestled closely to her, "As you like to say? And pray tell husband, when did we decide on NJ?"
"Uh-oh," Sarah murmured, "Better get ready to duck!"
"Well, just look at him, he looks like NJ!" Nick reached around Maggie and pushed back the blanket. His son's pudgy head extended and wrapped itself around Nick's finger. Just hiding underneath Nick's jubilant exterior were tears that threatened to spill over and show what was in his heart of hearts.
His son, their son born on a blustery March morning, just as the sun came over the horizon. Mother was right, NJ was born in time for breakfast and he hadn't missed a moment of it. Nick could barely believe that it was all real and not some wild dream. He'd been in love with Maggie for so long that it almost seemed surreal. But their love had not come without a price, Jarrod was gone forever, at times it was almost bittersweet. Had Jarrod still been alive, this day would never occur. Maggie would still be Jarrod's wife. What was it he used to call her, he thought. Ladylove. Oh yes, she was that and so much more. The term reminded him of his youth and of his playtime fights with his elder brother, pretending that they were Knights of the Round Table. Nick would invariably play the role of Sir Lancelot and most often Jarrod would be King Arthur. But once in a great while, Jarrod would play the villain, Mordrid, the evil knight to battle Sir Lancelot and he would allow his younger brother to win and gain the undying devotions of the Lady Guinevere. Sir Lancelot now had the love of his Guinevere, but at the price of the life of King Arthur.
Maggie looked up at him with her large green eyes and whatever sadness that had come over him, disappeared. There she was, the woman he'd loved for so long and she held their son in her arms. Nicholas Jonathan, with his dark hair and the eyes of his mother and pudgy little arms and legs. The infant was already beginning to fuss in her arms. Nick kissed his wife's red hair and smiled warmly back at her.
"Nick?" Maggie looked up at him.
"Where were you? You looked a thousand miles away husband."
"Oh, just thinking how lucky I am."
Sarah couldn't wait another moment, "May I?" She asked, holding out her arms. Maggie gladly handed her son over to her best friend and Sarah clasped the infant close to her chest. She cooed to the baby and ran her fingers lightly over his chubby arms. Bright green eyes stared up at her in wonderment.
"Now I know why your back was bothering you so badly! This isn't an infant, he's a full fledged toddler! I think he weighs more than Jarrod and Vickie did combined!" Sarah laughed, "Must be your boy Nick, look at the size of him! You know I bet this one will be eating you out of house and home in no time flat!" She looked back down at NJ and smiled warmly, "But he sure does look as nice as his father, dontcha NJ?" He was a handsome little fellow with his Father's face and his Mother's eyes. "He's going to break a lot of hearts when he gets older, the girls will be swarming around him!"
"Of course they will!" Nick puffed out his chest proudly, "After all he is a Barkley!"
"Oh Lord." Maggie said under her breath.
"What was that Mags?" Sarah giggled.
"Oh nothing, nothing at all."
After Lucy took a turn holding and admiring the baby; she left to get Thomas and Caitlin. Caitlin came running into the room first, anxious to jump on the big bed. She was stopped cold by her Grandmother who picked her up and set her down gently in the middle of the bed. Thomas ambled in behind his baby sister and stood at the foot of the bed, leaning on the railing.
Nick stretched out his long legs, one arm staying tightly
around Maggie. With his free arm he
motioned to Catie. "Come here
honey and meet your little brother."
She moved up the bed and sat down on her Papa's leg. Leaning way over, she tried to get a glimpse
of the tiny bundle in her Mama's arms.
"Oh Mama! He's so tiny! C'mere Thomas look at the baby!"
Thomas took small uneasy steps to the head of the bed, not entirely sure of what he was going to think or feel about a half brother. Curious green eyes stared up at him from the blanket and Thomas found a smile coming to himself. "Kinda cute, for a baby. He's got your eyes Mother. Boy he's got fat cheeks, just like a squirrel!" Thomas laughed, "So, um, what's his name?"
"Well," Maggie replied, "It's Nicholas Jonathan like your Uncle, but you can call him NJ."
"Oh, you approve then?" Nick grinned.
"I suppose it does make sense. After all, how are you two going to know which one I'm yelling at if you're both Nick!"
"NJ," Thomas said thoughtfully, "Not bad." He looked down at his half brother and smiled. "Hiya NJ! I'm your big brother, Thomas."
Caitlin poked Nick in the chest with her finger.
"Papa, how'd NJ get in Mama's tummy?"
Nick's mouth dropped open and his eyes grew wide. His wife turned to look at him, biting her lip with a fit of laughter threatening to come at any moment. It was obvious Maggie wasn't going to be any help at all! Nick thought then stuttered, then stammered.
Lucy finally interceded on his behalf. "Caitlin, you can ask about that later, sweetie pie. Your Mama and Papa are both pretty tired right now. 'Sides ya know I bet your Uncle Heath and Mr. Joshua would love to see the baby. How about ya go fetch 'em both for us?"
"Okay!" Caitlin said happily and scurried off of the bed and out of the bedroom.
Nick breathed a loud sigh of relief. "Thanks Lucy! I surely owe you one!"
"I know ya do, Mr. Nick!"
When his wife could barely keep her eyes open any longer and NJ had fallen fast asleep, the rest of the family left the bedroom to give the proud parents some much needed rest.
Nick cradled his newborn son in his arms, while Maggie rested her head upon his broad shoulder. Still in his robe, she slipped her hand between the opening and felt his strong heart beating. He sighed with contentment. Now that they were alone together, the emotions caught up with him and he allowed his eyes to well up with the overwhelming joy that he felt in his heart. His voice broke as he spoke softly to her, "Maggie, I love you so much! No man could be any happier than I am right now. Our baby, our son!" He kissed her forehead and she looked up to gently wipe away his tears with her fingertips.
"I love you Nick. With all my heart."
"You get some rest now honey, you sure deserve it! I'll watch over NJ." With one hand, he pulled the covers up around her.
"Okay husband." She whispered drowsily and it was only a few moments before she was fast asleep.
He was more in awe of Maggie now than he had ever been before. Everything she had gone through these last few months, the back pain, the sickness and being so slowed down. She hadn't complained of any of it, not even once. He had asked her about it, but she had glibly told him that it was a small price to pay for the outcome. Now he fully understood what she had meant. Jarrod had experienced this, Heath had as well, but now it was Nick's turn. He was a Father.
Nick had thought about what childbirth must be like, he'd wondered on it. But he knew now that he had no idea of what happened until today. He hadn't fully realized until now just how strong a woman his wife was. Oh, he'd always known that she had a strong spirit. It was one of the first things about her that he fell in love with. But her diminutive size had always belied her physical strength, until today. Looking at her with his heart filled to the brim with love, he believed his wife to be stronger than most anyone, even most men. There was more love in his heart for her than the first time they had met or even on the day they had married.
And in his arms, he held the most precious gift of all, his son. "Nicholas Jonathan Barkley, Jr." He mouthed softly. "You've got one heckuva Mama and I'm going to be the best father in all of California, you just wait and see." Nick took a seat in the rocker that Heath had made for the impending birth. His large fingers touched the small round cheeks and he ran his fingers through the tuft of dark hair that peeked out from the blanket. He felt his eyes fill with tears again and he leaned back, allowing himself to feel everything.
Over the next few weeks, Nick rarely left his wife's side. He helped with everything, from dressing to diapers. He would even sit up with his wife during the late night feedings. When the door to their room was closed, he'd often sing his son to sleep with the sweetest of lullabies. It was one of the rare times that Maggie would hear her husband sing and she dearly loved his smooth baritone voice. In fact, Nick would often put NJ and Maggie both to sleep with his lullabies.
They were all so grateful to have Lucy working there and Maggie and Sarah both counted her as a friend. She was incredible with the children and they had taken to her almost immediately. When Sarah came over with her children, there were a total of seven youngsters in the house now and four of them were under school age. The three eldest boys would often leave for school together; Thomas and Heath's eldest sons David and Andrew. They would meet at the ranch and usually Thomas drove them all in the carriage to school.
But Thomas was less than two years away from turning sixteen, a time when the boy would become a man and leave his home for college. He was firmly set upon the idea of following in his father's footsteps and becoming a lawyer, a decision that his mother had decidedly mixed feelings about. Thomas grew to look more and more like his father everyday, a young and lean Jarrod, in every way. Even his mannerisms were much like his father's and family members would occasionally find themselves wanting to call him Jarrod. Thomas would often return home from school and immediately retreat to his room or to the hayloft for reading. He loved his father's law books and though he had trouble with some of the reading, he had a feeling that in time it would all fall in place for him. He was, after all, his father's son.
After the children were fast asleep, Nick and Maggie retired to their bedroom and curled up next to one another. While Nick had one thing on his mind and began to kiss her neck, Maggie's mind was on something else all together.
"Nick, I'm worried about Thomas."
"Yeah?" He said still placing kisses on her neck.
"Its just that he seems so withdrawn lately. I feel like he's drifting away."
"Oh I wouldn't worry sweetheart, he's a teenager, they do that." Nick started to work on the tiny buttons of her nightgown.
"Nick, please I'm serious!" She pushed his hand away.
"So am I."
Maggie sat up in bed, "I'm worried Nick."
Nick sighed and sat up next to her. "Look Maggie, if memory serves, Jarrod went through a time just like this. Thomas will be fine it's just a phase."
"What if it's more than that? What if something is wrong?" Maggie put her hand over her husband's; "He doesn't seem to interested in talking to me right now."
"You want me to have a go at it and see what's wrong?"
"Alright I will. But I'm telling you Maggie, it's probably just a phase, it'll soon pass."
"I hope you're right Nick."
"Now," He said, "Where were we?"
"Umm, Nick are you going to do some ranch work tomorrow?"
"Thought I'd just stay here and help you out again."
"Oh but Nick, I wouldn't mind if you needed to get back doing some ranch work again. You must be getting bored being in the house all the time with just the women and children around."
"Bored? No way! Spend my day with you and NJ and Caitlin, how could that possibly bore me! You know I love to help you out!"
"Yes, but aren't you putting a lot on Heath's shoulders?"
Nick looked at her and frowned. "Are you trying to get rid of me wife?"
"Me! No of course not! I just thought that you might want to get out with the men tomorrow and do a little work around the ranch."
"We'll see. Now come here Maggie, I've had enough talk tonight." He grabbed her and pushed her back onto their bed. She started to say something but he quickly covered her mouth with a bruising kiss. At the end of the kiss, he had left his wife breathless. "Now, that's more like it." He grinned.
The next morning, Heath and Sarah brought the children over to the ranch. They arrived just as Angus was finishing setting out breakfast.
"Morning Mother." Heath kissed her cheek as he came into the dining room and sat down next to Sarah. "Morning Thomas, still doing your homework?" He asked his nephew sitting across the table from him with his head buried in a book.
Thomas looked up for a moment, without a smile. "Homework's done, just doing a bit of reading." He looked back down at his book, not really interested in conversing with anyone this morning.
Heath looked to his mother and she just rolled her eyes. "Well children, what would you like for breakfast this morning?" She asked. Once the children all had plates in front of them, Heath and Sarah made their own plates and sat back down. Vickie and Jarrod sat in their high chairs next to their Mother and played with their food.
The clock chimed just as Nick and Maggie came down the stairs with NJ and Caitlin. "Good morning." The couple said sleepily while sitting down at the table.
"Rough night?" Heath asked.
"NJ was up two or three times last night." Nick replied grumpily.
"Oh I reckon that's not too bad. Trying have two that wake up during the night at different times! For the first few months, Sarah and I had no sleep at all it seems."
All Nick could do was sigh and nod. He couldn't begin to imagine what twins would be like, one was hard enough on a man's sleep! "Hey," He said, pointing a fork at Thomas, aren't you all gonna be late for school?"
"David, Andrew, your Uncle Nick is right, best get going now. Thomas you still driving your cousins to school in the carriage."
"Yeah I guess so." He replied. "I'll go get it ready." He grabbed his schoolbooks and one strip of bacon on his way to the door. Heath's boys followed after him like two puppies.
"So what you got planned for today Heath?" Nick asked.
"Well most of the day is going to be spent on the cattle. Need to get them watered and think we'll move them to the west pasture, the north one is starting to get a mite barren." Heath took a sip of his coffee. "Oh and I ran into Giovanni yesterday, he wants you to come out to the vineyards."
"He say why?"
"Nope, but I think he might wanna try some new grapes out this year."
Nick stood up to get his second plateful. "I dunno if I can make it out there today."
While her husband's back was turned Maggie looked to Heath and clasped her hands together, begging Heath to take Nick. Heath kept his chuckle to himself.
"Nick seems like he really needed to talk to you today. 'Sides, Sarah and the children are staying for the day. Lucy's here and Mother and Maggie I might add."
"I dunno." He replied as he sat back down.
"Nick if Giovanni needs to see you, then you really should go." Victoria added in, hopeful that her son would get out for a while.
"Nick, your mother and Heath are right. It's not like Giovanni asks to see you everyday. It must be somewhat important if he's asked to speak with you."
"I s'pose, but.."
"Nick, you hired Lucy to be the nanny when you found out that we were having a baby, now why don't you go out and let us ladies take care of the children today."
"Are ya sure? I mean, I can stay if you really need me to."
"Nick, it'll be hard but somehow we can muddle through without you."
"That was sarcasm, wasn't it?!"
Several chuckles burst out around the table. "Oh perhaps just a little, husband."
"The women are right Nick, you're needed out on the ranch today. After all aren't you the one that always says this is a working ranch?"
"Alright, alright! I'll go! But if you need me, you just send out Ciego and I'll come back right away." He drank down the last of his coffee and kissed his wife and then kissed Catie and NJ. "I'll go get changed, be down in two shakes Heath."
Maggie watched him leave then exhaled. "Oh thank you Heath!"
"Getting in the way a bit?" He asked with a lopsided grin.
"Just a little." Maggie replied.
"Don't worry Mags, I'll see to it he's kept busy most of the day. He'll be back working regularly before ya know it. Its just a real happy time for him and I think he's afraid if he leaves he might miss something."
"I know Heath. Guess I'm just not used to having someone looking over my shoulder all the time."
A few minutes later, Nick came back downstairs, fastening on his gun belt. Maggie went to the front hall with NJ in her arms and Catie walking behind her.
"Ya sure its okay Maggie? I can stay ya know."
"Nick, really we'll be fine! You go on and go. Just don't be late for supper."
"I won't." He hugged Maggie and kissed her. Ruffling Caitlin's hair he put a noisy kiss on her cheek then gently kissed his son's forehead. "I love ya wife."
"I love you too, now go on and get going!"
He stood at the door for a moment, finding it difficult to leave. This last three weeks had been so incredibly important to him. Every moment, every second was special to him. NJ seemed to hit milestones all the time and that was one reason he didn't want to leave. Another reason was Jarrod and his memories of him. Jarrod had been on his mind a good deal lately, long distant memories and more recent ones haunted his thoughts and dreams.
Pappy and Maggie had Thomas just a month after their first anniversary. But he was always so busy and as Thomas grew, it had only become worse. All the time that Maggie had spent alone with Thomas weighed heavily on Nick's mind. No one doubted Jarrod's deep love for his wife and son, but for a time, it seemed that his career and political aspirations had become more important to him than his family. He knew that his brother's desire for politics wasn't born out of greed or the need for self-importance. Rather, it was Jarrod's innate sense to make a difference in the world, that had temporarily blinded him to the needs of his own family.
It had taken a tragedy to turn things around. Jarrod and Maggie had lost their first daughter, Leah. And they had all nearly lost Maggie, she had become so sick and feverish, that the doctor for a time had held little hope.
Nick was determined not to make the same mistake that his brother had. He would be there for the children and for Maggie whenever they needed him. And he needed them, he felt as though he drew his strength from them, there was so much love and joy in the house these days and it rejuvenated him whenever he was around it.
But perhaps, he thought, it was time for him to get out on the ranch and get some work done. Maybe he had been getting underfoot too much and he decided that he was going to find a balance. Nick knew exactly who to turn to on balancing things. Heath had everything down just right it appeared to him. The ranch, his wife and four children, he had everything down pat. He'd talk to his brother later and figure out just how to do it.
Heath left with Nick and when the door shut behind them, Victoria raised her hands. "Finally! I was beginning to think Nick would never leave the house again!"
Thomas pulled up in front of the school and his two cousins jumped down immediately from the carriage. They stood waiting for Thomas who still sat up in the carriage.
"C'mon Thomas, lets get inside!" David said.
"You go on ahead."
"Aren't you coming to school today?" Andrew asked.
"Nope, don't feel like it."
"You better go, if your Mama and Uncle Nick find out you skipped school you're gonna be in a lot of trouble!"
"They won't find out unless you tell them! You wouldn't tell on your cousin, would you?" He looked down at the boys, hoping they wouldn't.
"No, we won't tell. We didn't tell last time! But whatcha gonna do?"
"Not sure, but I think I'm going to go talk to my REAL father." Thomas replied.
David and Andrew both looked up at him then at one another. "Alright, we won't tell, but ya better pick us up at the end of school."
"I will, meet me behind the livery stable at the end of school. Okay?"
"Okay. Bye Thomas."
Thomas flicked the reins and headed out, grateful that it was still early and he had not been seen by anyone. He drove the carriage full speed in the general direction of the ranch; determined to get to his destination as quickly as possible.
The sun was beginning to warm the chilly April morning air and he pulled of his jacket, while he drove and laid it across the seat back. He knew exactly where it was that he was going, he knew it all so well.
This was not the first time he had skipped school, but the second. The last time had only been one month ago; right after NJ had been born. Getting caught, that was something that didn't concern him very much. The baby was the only important thing to his Mother these days. And lately, he'd begun to wonder if anyone realized that his Mother already had a son. Her real first-born son. But he wasn't Uncle Nick's son, he was the son of the Barkley that no seemed to want to talk about anymore. Perhaps they wanted to forget him as much as they appeared to want to forget his father.
The reins were yanked hard and the carriage stopped abruptly. Jumping down, he grabbed his lunch pail and walked down the small hillside. The smell of the surrounding majestic pines wafted through the air and he stopped to take in the scent. It was something he remembered his father doing whenever they came here. The pond looked so inviting to him and yet, he knew it was far too early in the year for a swim. The water would no doubt still be too cold for a swim. But he couldn't resist at least a little dip, so Thomas pulled off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants legs to his knees. He tenderly dipped a foot into the water and instantly shirked back from the icy cold.
"Definitely not going swimming." He told himself.
Thomas turned from the water's edge to stare at one particular tree that sat several feet back from the pond. With a heavy sigh, he moved to the tree and put his hand upon the trunk. If he didn't make a sound or move, it could all come back to him as if it were happening right in front of him at that very moment.
His father had taken off his shoes and socks, then his shirt and walked into the pond till he was waist deep. He could see him beckoning to him to come into the water. His mother encouraged him to follow his father while she set out a picnic lunch on a large blanket underneath the tree. He vividly remembered being scared and his father's warm voice telling him there was nothing to be afraid of. His father dove underneath the water and came up again, assuring him that he wouldn't let anything happen to his son. He had eventually waded into the water until he came to his father. How long they had spent out there, he couldn't recall. But he would never forget how patient he was while he taught him how to swim and how his mother had jumped up and down when he swam his first strokes by himself. When they finally came out of the water, she had called both of them fishes and he had hugged his mother while he was still soaking wet. And his father had kissed her, not just a little kiss, but a real one. A little smile came over his face as he remembered his original reaction of being grossed out by it. But now, it was a pleasant memory.
Thomas opened his eyes again, not realizing that tears had started streaming down his cheeks. "I miss you so much! Why'd you have to leave us?"
Nick and Heath rode together to the vineyards to see Giovanni. Nick felt a swell of pride as they rode through the vineyards; they had nearly tripled in their size and quadrupled in their output since bringing Giovanni here from Italy over five years ago.
As he rode with Heath, he found his thoughts involuntarily traveling back to Italy and to all that had happened. Had it not been for Giovanni sending off that letter and helping his brothers, he most likely would have died in that prison or died a very short time after he had married that witch. Nick shook his head, of all the idiotic things he had done in his life, by far that little tryst had taken the cake.
Giovanni showed them a new grape that he wanted to try out in the vineyards. He wanted to create a new wine, one that so far was only seen in France. The wine would be called a zinfandel and he was fairly confident that he could produce good results on this land. Nick and Heath talked it over with the young winemaker and after they had spent most of the day reviewing the vast amount of research that he had done on the subject, they agreed to try it out.
When they had left and were on their way back to the ranch. Nick stopped and motioned for Heath to stop as well. They both dismounted and Nick tied his reins to the gate into the vineyards.
"Was wondering if you had a minute."
"Reckon I do Nick, what's on your mind?"
He looked down, hesitating with his answer. "I uh was wondering, you think I been spending to much time at home, not enough out here?"
Heath thought for a moment, "Why you asking?"
"Seems like maybe Maggie's gotten tired of me being around all the time. I just don't wanna miss a second of anything. I don't wanna be gone and miss NJ's first steps or first words or even when Caitlin learns to read. Nothing, I don't wanna miss nothing! You been doing this a lot longer than I have. How do ya do it?"
"Not sure I know what you're asking Nick."
"Ya seem to have this whole family thing down pat. Everything done just right. How do you do it? How do you know?"
Heath chuckled a bit nervously, flattered that Nick thought he had it all down right; he almost hated to shatter the image. "I wish I could tell ya Nick. I wish there were some kind of book or something that gave all the answers. Truth is I don't know. Truth is sometimes I don't get it right."
Nick straightened up, surprised by his answer. "But you and Sarah and the children always seem so happy and the kids too. I just thought…"
"We are happy Nick, I'm more in love with Sarah now then ever, but I don't have it all down pat. Some days, its all I can do to leave the house in the morning but I know I have to, there's too much work to be done out here. And if I stay home for too long, sometimes I get in the way and Sarah's 'bout ready to kick me out of the house."
"Yeah, I think that's what Maggie was trying to do and it worked."
"I tell ya Nick, I think they got a harder job back home then we got out here."
"I kinda got that feeling when I was home these past few weeks. I had no idea a baby was so hard."
"But its worth it isn't it?"
Nick smiled a toothy grin, "Yeah, it is worth it. NJ is so incredible!"
"So's Catie and Thomas. He's going to be off to college before we know what hit us."
"Reminds me so much of Jarrod when he was that age."
"So much it hurts?"
"Yeah, I guess it does sometimes."
"Ya can't let him know that Nick. "
"I don't." He suddenly felt rather defensive. "I would never let Thomas know that, I just wish he were interested in spending more time with me and with his mother. She said something about that last night. I'm sure it's just a phase he's going through."
"Maybe," Heath said thoughtfully. "But you might wanna keep an extra eye on him, make sure he doesn't feel forgotten with the new baby and all."
"Alright Heath, I'll do that."
"Sorry I couldn't be more help."
"No, you were a help, believe me you were."
"C'mon, we best get going home, don't wanna keep the wives waiting."
"Nope, we surely don't Heath!" They mounted their horses again and headed back for the ranch.
He had hoped that his brother had just the right formula for life but when Heath had revealed that it could be just as much a mystery to him as it was to himself, Nick set about trying to find just the right mix. He spent more time out on the ranch, rediscovering how much he loved the land and the work he did. The brothers minds and hearts were never far from home and they both made a concerted effort to make it home in plenty of time for supper every evening. They were family men now and neither of them would trade their lives for anything in the world. Though they would occasionally regale each other and the ranch hands with tales of 'remember when' or 'I'll never forget the time', they gladly had given up the wilder days in favor of a loving wife and family.
Nick had listened when his brother had told him that he thought the women had harder jobs then they did and as he watched how they seemed to manage a home and all the children, he had a great deal more respect for the work they did.
His little boy was changing every day. The passage of time seemed to be so much quicker than it had before he had a family. Caitlin too was growing so quickly, her vocabulary and dexterity seemed to increase each time he came home. And Thomas, now there was a boy that caused him confusion. No matter how hard he tried to draw Thomas into a conversation or gain his interest, the boy seemed uninterested. He remained hopeful, however, that this was indeed just a phase. Much like the one his older brother had gone through when he was a teenager. Thomas was so much like Jarrod and as he got older, his looks and mannerisms became more and more like Pappy's.
On an overcast afternoon, after Heath, Joshua and he had finished directing the cattle to a watering hole, Nick jumped down from Amigo and wiped the sweat from his brow. Heath and Joshua dismounted along with him and stretched their weary legs.
Nick had an idea, something that they hadn't done in a very long time, poker. Heath and Joshua both hesitated when Nick presented his idea of getting together for a weekly poker game, not sure about spending a regular evening at the saloon.
Heath thought for a moment, "What if we didn't have our game at the saloon?"
"Where then?" Nick asked."
"At the ranch, in the billiard room."
"At home?" He wasn't too sure about that idea.
"Yep, we're in the billiard room, our lovely wives in the next room with the children. How can they object to that, we're only a few steps away if we're needed. We can have our cigars and our whiskey and our families are just a few steps away."
"Ya know Heath, ya just might have something there. Seeing as how I'm gonna be a married man soon, I's got to think about staying on the home front more often." Joshua nodded in agreement. "There's just one problem."
"What's that?" Nick asked, not seeing any problems with Heath's idea.
"There's only three of us, need a fourth player for a proper game."
"Oh yeah, you're right. Well, umm, how about Tom Jenkins?"
"Nick! No way, we'll only get in one hand if Tom plays with us! You've seen how he studies his cards!"
"Yeah, reminds me of playing poker with Jarrod. You're right."
The three men pondered who would be a good fourth player.
"How about Will Peterson?" Heath asked.
"Yeah, but there's two problems with that idea. Wife and mother-in-law, they never let him outta the house." Nick chuckled, "Reminds me how lucky we are!" Nick furrowed his brow, then his eyes lit up. "I've got it, Carl Wheeler!"
"Sounds like a good one to me!" Heath and Joshua both agreed on the choice. "Matter of fact, his wife and boys could come over here while we play. Both the boys are school age, pretty well behaved and Carl always did like a good game."
At dinner that evening, the dining room was filled to capacity. Heath and Sarah were there with the children along with Joshua and Lucy.
Nick swallowed hard before he spoke, not entirely sure how Maggie or his mother would feel about a weekly poker game. "You know, Heath, Josh and I were talking today and we sort of got around to the subject of poker. You know, how much we all enjoy the game and all that."
The table suddenly became uncomfortably quiet.
"Well, we were thinking about starting up a weekly game."
"Oh you were?" Maggie said, smirking slightly, she'd already gotten all the details from Lucy and had thought it a wonderful idea. Every one she thought needed a break from work and family once in awhile. But she decided at the table, that she was going to have a bit of fun with her husband. "I see, so you want my permission to go to a saloon to play poker and be surrounded by young, scantily clad women?"
Nick squirmed in his seat, "What? No! I mean we thought we could have the game here, right in the billiard room. It would only be once a week."
"But Nick, there's only three of you. Now I might be mistaken, but I seem to recall that poker takes four players usually."
"Well yeah it does honey, I umm well Heath and I stopped over at the Wheeler place on the way home and Carl was interested in joining us."
"Really? And what about his wife, Melanie?"
"We ahh, well we told Melanie she could come over while we play and I figured you'd enjoy the extra company."
Maggie took a sip of her tea, eyeing her husband over her cup. "And extra children in the house."
"Only two of them, you'll hardly even know they're here." Nick kept looking over at Heath and Joshua, but neither of them made an effort to join in and it frustrated him to no end.
Victoria, at this point, was unable to resist the bit of fun her daughter-in-law was having and decided to join in. "Oh Maggie, did you know that a very long time ago, Nick and Melanie were an item? Of course, she was Melanie Deland back then."
"Really?!" Maggie feigned surprise, but the truth was that she was well aware of all her husband's past conquests and dalliances.
"That was a long time ago." Nick quickly interjected with a look towards his mother. "Before you even moved to Stockton, besides it wasn't anything serious, really it wasn't!"
"Oh I see." Maggie paused deliberately, allowing her husband to grow more uncomfortable with each passing moment. "Well, have fun!"
"You don't mind?"
Maggie burst out laughing, "Of course not Nick! Goodness, what kind of wife do you take me for?!"
His muscles relaxed and he breathed out through pursed lips. "Friday night then?"
"Friday's fine husband."
Nick looked across at Thomas, who had seemed uninterested in the conversation. "Ya know Thomas, in a couple of years, you can join in the game too."
"I'll be in college then." He said, without so much as a glance in his Uncle's direction.
Maggie turned to her eldest son, "Well maybe when you come home on weekends darling, I'd bet you have a good time."
"Mother, I won't be coming home on weekends."
She couldn't hide the surprise from her voice, "What do you mean? Of course, you will."
"I think I'm going to go to college back east Mother, Boston maybe."
"Boston? That's so far away; I always thought you'd go to college here in California. Like your father did."
Nick saw the hurt in her eyes and it made his heart ache for her. Thomas had never once mentioned wanting to go to college in the east. "So when did you decide you wanted to go east Thomas?" He was slightly irritated with him for springing it on all of them this way.
Thomas finally looked up at the faces staring at him. "I dunno. Just the more I read about Boston and New York, the more I want to go there for college. I haven't made a final decision yet, there's still time. I just think it might be a good choice."
"You know," Victoria jumped in, "Your father went to college here in California and we were all quite happy with the school. They have very high standards, but with your grades and hard work, I'm sure you'd have no trouble there."
"I don't know Grandmother, I'm still considering all my options. But I promise, I will think about Father's college."
"That's all I ask." She said with a warm smile to her eldest grandson.
Later that night, Nick knocked on Thomas's door. Thomas opened it and when he saw his Uncle standing there, he opened the door wide and went back to his desk.
Nick stood for a moment, just looking. It had once been Jarrod's room and later, it had been the room that Jarrod and Maggie had shared until their home was built. Nothing much had changed, all of Jarrod's old books were still there, Jarrod's old desk, it was as it had always been.
"Ya know Thomas, you really threw your mother for a loop at dinner tonight." Nick stood at the end of the bed, across the room from Jarrod's old desk and where Thomas was now sitting.
"Sorry." Thomas said.
"You know, your Mother really wants you to stay in California."
"And you? Do you want me to stay in California?"
He was taken aback by the question. "Of course I do kid!" He walked across the room till he stood next to the desk. "Thomas, of course I want you to stay around!"
"I'll think about it." He replied.
Nick brushed back his hair with his fingers, not sure what else to say. "Well good then, like your Grandmother said, the college here is real good."
The teenager sighed and rolled his eyes. "I'll think about it Uncle Nick. Anything else?"
"No, no that's it Thomas. You umm, don't stay up too late reading tonight okay?"
Nick went to the door and shut it behind him, at a loss on how to reach him.
Two evenings later, it was time for the first Friday night poker game. Nick opened the door to Carl and Melanie and their two boys. He ushered Carl into the billiard room and the women for a brief time followed in there after them, interested in seeing what all the fuss was about.
After less than a half hour of watching, Maggie stood up and turned to the women. “Any moment now the cigars are going to start coming out! Why don’t we go into the other room with the children.”
“Wonderful idea, Mags! I hate the way those things smell!” Sarah added. They gathered up the children and left the men to their whiskey, poker and smelly cigars.
“I certainly hope that Joshua loses tonight!” Lucy grinned at all of them, “Cause if that man wins he’s gonna be so full of himself for the next week!”
The women all nodded in agreement and shared a laugh.
“What is so important about poker anyways, you’d think that their lives depended on it!” Sarah added. “Come to think of it, you’re right Lucy, I hope Heath loses as well!” Sarah smiled, “Guess that leaves your husband, Mags!”
“Oh no! I don’t want Nick to win either! Can you imagine, he wins at poker and he’ll not only be puffed out from that but he’ll think he’s the finest player in all of California!”
Victoria was enjoying the scene before her, her two daughters in law and Lucy with the children. She enjoyed being in the company of these young women, their laughter, and their stories and of course, their children. But on occasion it would remind her of a young woman that was missing from the scene, her own daughter Audra.
She had not seen or heard from Audra since Jarrod’s funeral and she missed her terribly. Victoria had written several letters to her but had not heard one word back. She wondered if Audra had even received the letters or if her husband, Langely, kept them from her. The last she had heard, Audra and Langely were still living in Boston and Langely was still running the same business that had driven him from Stockton.
Eventually, the evening ended
and the house was quiet.
Everyone returned to their homes for the night. The three children were all in bed and Nick, Maggie and Victoria sat in the front parlor.
Nick looked towards his Mother, who appeared to be a million miles away. “Mother, you alright?”
“Oh yes Nick, I’m fine. It was a nice evening, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah it was fun, still can’t believe that Joshua cleaned me out though!”
“Poor Lucy!” Maggie sighed.
“Poor Lucy, what in blazes does Lucy have to do with the poker game?”
“Oh nothing we were just talking earlier about how you men seem to put a lot of importance in poker!”
“We don’t put that much on the game, it’s just for fun, Maggie.”
“Yes you do!” Maggie laughed, “You win a big poker game and you’re impossible for days, walking around with your chest all puffed out and so proud of yourself!”
“I don’t do that!” Nick’s eyes rolled and he looked to his Mother for assistance.
“Oh no, Nick! You’re not putting me in the middle of this one. Besides, it’s getting rather late and I think I’ll retire for the evening.” With that, Victoria rose from her chair and kissed the both of them. She mounted the stairs slowly, bothered by the arthritis that had settled in her ankles.
Once Victoria was in her room, she closed the door quietly and sat on her bed. Her eyes gazed upon the photograph on her nightstand. A family portrait, taken at the time of Thomas’s christening. The Barkley women were all seated, first Audra with Nick standing so tall behind her, then Sarah with Heath’s hand on her shoulder, herself and then Maggie holding the baby Thomas in his christening gown and Jarrod behind her standing so proud. To Victoria, it seemed like that portrait was done yesterday and at the same time, it was done a lifetime ago. Jarrod was gone and Audra was on the other side of the country now. And the children, there were many more of them now. Heath and Sarah’s four beautiful children, Victoria had been so thrilled when they named their first girl after her. Beautiful little red-haired Caitlin, whom her father never saw and now, Nicholas Junior, Nick and Maggie’s little boy and already a handful.
Victoria smiled to herself, “I think it’s time for a new portrait. I’ll have to talk to all of them about that."
Back downstairs, Nick got up and sat down next to Maggie on the loveseat. “Now wife, I think you should take that comment back about my being impossible!”
She shook her hand and folded her arms in front of her, “I’m not taking it back, it’s true.”
“You sure you don’t want to take that back?” He asked her, pulling her close to him.
“Positive!” Maggie looked at his furrowed brow and giggled.
“Well then I’m afraid you’ve left me no other choice!” He took hold of her waist and began tickling her.
She fell backwards against the sofa and tried to get him to stop, with little success. “Nick!” She cried out in her laughter, “Nick, stop it!”
Nick had a large smile on his face as he continued to tickle her, “Do you take it back?”
“Never!” Her face started to turn red from his attack. She broke free from his light grasp and started to sprint from the parlor towards the stairs.
“Oh no you don’t!” He caught up with her quickly and grabbed her at the foot of the stairs. “I’m not finished with you yet, wife!” Nick gathered his giggling wife into his arms and carried her up the stairs. Nick plopped her down unceremoniously on their bed. “Now do you relent?”
Maggie quickly put a finger to her lips, “Nick, you’ll wake the baby!”
“No I won’t!” He whispered back to her while he hurriedly removed his shirt. “NJ sleeps like a log, just like his father!” He climbed over Maggie and pinned her to the bed, grinning. “Take it back, I am not impossible!”
“Not all the time.” She replied, he started to mouth an objection but Maggie raised her head and met his lips with her own.
“wah..wah..WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” NJ’s sleep had been disturbed and he made sure that his parents were aware he was not happy.
Wide-eyed, Nick and Maggie both turned towards the crib and the source of the ear-piercing wailing. Nick shook his head and laid his head on Maggie’s shoulder.
When Heath had built the house just after he and Sarah married, they had both decided that their bedroom should face towards the rising sun. The one story house had a large wrap around porch and their bedroom faced east with large windows and a separate door to go out onto the porch. Many years ago, they had discovered how much they both loved that time of day. The dawn of a new day, a time to gather your thoughts and quietly relish the majesty of nature's beauty.
Over the years, they had developed a morning ritual, a routine. Heath would invariably rise first, slip on his pants and go to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. He would return with two cups in hand, just as Sarah was beginning to stir and open her sleepy eyes. He'd kiss her briefly and call her 'sleeping beauty'. She would get out of bed and slip on her robe, accepting the warm hug that awaited her. Sarah would then follow her husband out of the door and onto the porch. This was their time, a time free from the hustle and bustle, free from work and the children. It was just the two of them and they held this time very dear. They rarely spoke during their sunrise time, there was hardly any need for it.
Heath leaned up against the post and set his coffee down on the railing. He held out a hand to Sarah and she went to him, his arms circled around her like a warm security blanket and she leaned her head against the soft fur on his chest. The first glimmer of light started its slow dance across the horizon and Heath sighed with contentment. He took in the scent of her hair, a faint mixture of roses, soap and talc. He loved it. Turning her around, his fingers coiled in her curly chestnut hair and her dark eyes looked up at him.
"Looks like its going to be a beautiful day." She whispered.
"Mmm, surely does." He leaned his head down slightly and kissed her ever so tenderly. His arms held her tight, never wanting to let go, this was going to be another day that it would be so hard for him to leave.
Heath heard the sound the front door opening and he looked up. David, still in his nightshirt and barefeet, tiptoed around to where they stood.
"You're up awful early son."
Sarah turned around, "Good morning honey, how did you sleep?"
David frowned, "Not real good Mama. Can I talk to both of you?"
Heath took quick note of the fact that his usually jovial and outgoing son wasn't quite himself this morning. "Sure thing David, what's on your mind?" He asked.
David pulled himself up to sit upon the railing. "It's kinda about a secret."
"What kind of secret?" His mother asked.
"Have you..Have you ever thought you should tell a secret even though it might make someone mad if you did?"
His question caused concern in both of his parents. Heath answered first, "There was a time, a long time ago, that I kept a secret for your Uncle Nick and to this day, I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing. But its up to you young man, you have to think about the secret itself and why you really think you should tell somebody." Heath stood in front of his son. "Maybe if you tell us a little more, without giving it away, maybe your Mama and I can help."
David thought it over, "I promised to keep a secret for someone. And if I do tell than he'll get in trouble. But I think I need to tell."
"Why honey?" His mother asked him, putting her hand on his head.
"Cause I guess I think he's real sad. And even though he'll get in trouble maybe he won't be so sad."
Heath nodded to his son, "If that's how you really feel deep down inside, then I think you should tell us and we'll try to help you and whoever you're keeping a secret for."
David left his parents dangling while he mulled it over. "Okay," He finally said. "I've kept a secret for Thomas."
"What about Thomas?"
"Ohhh, he's skipped school. Three times now! I promised I wouldn't tell."
"Honey," His mother said, "He's been taking you to school, how does he skip and you go?"
"He drops us off and picks us up by the Livery Stable."
"Oh. And do you know what Thomas does when he skips school?"
"Pa, he says he's gonna go talk to his real father. But his real father's dead, Uncle Jarrod's dead. So how does he go talk to him?"
"Oh Heath." Sarah said sadly.
Heath took a long drink of his coffee then put his cup down and picked up David, now slightly too big for being held but it didn't matter. "You've done a real good thing David. You did right by telling us. Now I won't lie to you, maybe Thomas will figure it out and be mad with you for awhile. But your Mama and I are both proud of you. Understand?"
"Yes Pa. I understand."
"Now you go on inside. Your Mama will be in shortly to make breakfast."
"Pancakes?" He asked.
"Sure sweetheart, I'll make you a whole load of pancakes!"
"Thanks Mama!" David called out, disappearing back inside the house.
Heath turned back to his wife. "I didn't know." Heath said softly.
"Neither did I Heath. Poor Thomas, he must be missing Jarrod something fierce. What do you think we should do?"
"Are you going to the ranch today?"
"Yes, I thought I would this afternoon. We're going to get sewing on quilts for the Charity Auction next month. I'll talk to Mags."
"Nick and I are riding fence today, it'd be a good time to talk to him about this."
"As long as he doesn't fly off the handle at the boy."
"He won't Sarah, he loves him just as much as if he were his own. Nick's just having trouble reaching him right now."
"Alright Heath. We best get started with our day."
"Yep, gotta meet Nick in an hour."
"Good luck with talking to him."
"You too sweetheart."
A light breeze blew across the valley and two friends, brothers, rode their horses along the fence line. They'd been at it for a few hours and soon they would give the horses a brief rest at the pond, just over the next hilltop.
Heath's early morning conversation with his son weighed heavily on his mind and he had been searching for the right words while they rode fence together. He listened to Nick regaling him with tales of the children and then launch into a one-sided discussion on how they could best Joshua at the next poker game. He listened to his brother, but all the while he was thinking how best to broach a difficult subject.
A memory came to mind, wasn't this pond ahead where Jarrod and Maggie had often picnicked with their son? Vaguely, somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembered Jarrod liking this spot. Yes, it was the place, he recalled. No better place for him to talk to his brother about Thomas, Heath reasoned.
They came up over the hill, finding no fence in need of repair thus far, they moved their horses to the pond for a drink and to stretch their legs.
"You know," Heath started as he stretched out his legs and arms, "Seems to me I recall Jarrod liking this spot. I can see why." He took a long look out over the pond and the tall trees that surrounded it. For some reason that was beyond him, he'd never really looked at the place before. It had just been a spot to get the horses water and take a short break from work. Now, as he looked around he could see why Jarrod had enjoyed this spot,, why it had been special. It was secluded, if you didn't know to go through the trees, you'd never find it. The light wind rustled the tree branches and they cast long shadows across the pond.
"Yeah, this was a favorite spot of his. But it took him a long time to come back to it. Beth was killed right over there." Nick pointed off in the distance to an opening in the tree line.
"He never said exactly where it was that it happened. Only to the sheriff."
"After he and Maggie got married, he started coming back here but never to that side, always the opposite side. We used to play here when we were younger, before he went off to college." Nick picked up a flat rock and skipped it across the water; he watched it dance across the pond surface. "Ha, seven! We used to see who could get it to skip the most times."
Heath picked up a stone as well and flicked it carefully into the water. One, two, three and it continued to skip across until it had reached nine times. "Beat that!" He grinned.
Nick searched for another perfect stone and skipped it on the water, but only managed to tie with his brother.
"Didn't Jarrod bring Maggie and Thomas here for picnics sometimes?"
"Yep." He watched Heath as he searched for another rock. "You got something on your mind Heath?" He knew his brother very well and knew when something was on his mind. He just hated the fact that sometime it was worse than pulling a tooth, trying to get information out of him.
"Reckon I do."
"Care to share?" Nick asked, folding his arms and turning his full attentions to Heath.
"Guess I've been thinking about Thomas and about Jarrod." He replied quietly.
"What about them?" He wasn't sure he liked this topic very much anymore, Nick shifted his weight uncomfortably and stared back at Heath.
"Reckon you'd understand how hard it must be on Thomas. You were older than he is when you lost Father. And we talked on it a few times, you having to be the head of this place before maybe you were really ready. How much you missed him; things like that."
"Yep, still do miss him sometimes."
Heath found an old log and sat himself down. "And if mother had remarried?"
"Back then, it would've been hard…Thomas." He looked to Heath and he nodded. With a loud exhale, he took a seat next to his brother. "You know I guess we all thought it would be easier for him, he'd have a man around he could talk to."
"I know..but we've all hurt over Jarrod's death in our own ways. Maybe we been too quiet about it lately."
"How do ya mean, talking about his dying, I don't see that's gonna help. " He looked to Heath, his hazel eyes speaking volumes of guilt that he had somehow done Thomas wrong.
"Not his death, his life. Look Nick, hardly a week goes by that we don't talk about things from the past. Days when I first came here, days when things were rough and even stories about Father. But not many stories about Jarrod."
"You know something I don't."
"Yep, I do. Thomas is hurting Nick. Hurting bad, you know, he's skipped school a few times now."
"Thomas?! Thomas Barkley skipped school, our Thomas? He's always been the smartest kid in that school, why would he go and do a thing like that?!" Nick's voice began to rise.
"Nick, take a breath wouldya!" He gave him a few seconds to try and calm down. "Look, David told me this morning about it. He's worried about his cousin. Said that Thomas told him he was going to go talk to his real father."
"His real father." Nick said the words in a whisper, feeling them sting him to his very soul. As much as he wanted to be, he never would be Thomas's father. He was Jarrod's boy through and through, in looks and everything else. The realization hit him like a rock, he'd been trying to replace Jarrod in Thomas's eyes. "I'm such a fool Heath."
"You're no fool Nick, what are ya talking about?"
"All this time, I've been trying to take Jarrod's place, to be Thomas's father. Well Thomas is a young man now, he grew up with Jarrod as his Father. It would be like, like if someone tried to take my Father's place right after he died. No one could do that! He was my father." Nick stood up and began pacing. "It's different with Catie, she never knew him. But she will. I can't replace Jarrod!"
"I do believe you're right about that Nick. We've all been way too quiet about him. Almost like we've been trying to make his memory disappear."
"We've been doing it all wrong. He needs to remember his father. Needs to keep him alive in his heart."
His eyes brightened, the sadness and guilt washed away. "I've got an idea."
"No listen! You know, when I was a boy Father would take Jarrod and I up to the cabin at Indian Springs. We’d go fishing, hunting and at night we'd sit around the campfire and father would tell us all kinds of stories. Sometimes ghost stories, but other times he'd tell us stories about when he was younger."
For once, Heath liked his brother's idea. "You think maybe you and Thomas should take a little trip?"
"Even better Heath. You come too, with David and Andrew. The five of us can spend a week or two up at the cabin, just the men!"
"And tell stories."
"Yep, lots of them." Nick grinned. "We'll go in about a week, but Thomas will have to promise not to skip anymore school."
"Seems fair Nick. But umm, you think you can be away from Maggie, Catie and NJ for that long?"
"I dunno. But I think Maggie will go for the idea. She's been more than a little worried about Thomas lately."
Both men headed back to their horses to complete their work for the day. As Heath mounted his horse, he turned to his brother with a warm smile. "You're a good Father Nick, you really are."
"Thanks little brother, back at ya!"